National prohibition was officially repealed with the ratification of the 21st Amendment on 5 December 1933. Prohibition of the production and sale of alcoholic beverages had been the law of the land since the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, although Virginia instituted a state-wide prohibition in 1916. The temperance movement had created widespread demand for prohibition during its rise in the late 19th century. By the early 1930s, however, many Americans regarded prohibition as a failure and were instead calling for its repeal.
Although women and particularly organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were essential to the adoption of prohibition and to the temperance movement that preceded it, national suffrage was not granted to women until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920, over a year after the ratification of the 18th amendment. However, women were not a monolithic political block, either before or after gaining the right to vote. Although many women supported and remained supportive of prohibition, there were also a number of women who were vocally opposed to the 18th Amendment and worked hard to repeal it. Pauline Sabin founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) in 1929, and by 1933 the organization had an estimated 1.5 million members. Other organizations included the Women’s National Committee for Law Enforcement, the Women’s Committee for Repeal of the 18th Amendment, the Women’s Moderation Union, and the Molly Pitcher Club; women were also active in other national repeal organizations.
Although the aforementioned organizations mostly arose in New York, Virginia women were also involved in the fight. Virginia Chase Weddell of Richmond, Virginia, sent Virginia Governor John G. Pollard a copy of the resolutions adopted by the WONPR at their meeting in Washington in April 1932. She noted that for herself “and many of the women I know, the issue is not wet or dry, but how best to achieve temperance, which the Eighteenth Amendment and existing Prohibition laws are not promoting.”
Governor Pollard also received copies of a number of pamphlets produced by the WONPR, pointing to the failure of prohibition to promote temperance or lawfulness and encouraging the repeal of the 18th Amendment. Many women also spoke of their opposition to prohibition in terms of political freedom and states’ rights. At the same time, many women maintained their dedication to prohibition. Pollard also received an issue of a newspaper called The Woman Voter from May 1932, which described “the ‘wet’ womens meeting in Washington” and called those women “agitating to make liquor legal… a disgrace to womanhood,” further noting that the idea “that woman’s influence would bring an uplift to American politics” had not, in their view, panned out.
Although Pollard was personally a dry, United States Senator Harry F. Byrd convinced him to call a special session of the General Assembly to discuss repeal. That session, which also created a committee to draft a potential plan of liquor control, called for a special election to decide whether to continue state prohibition if national prohibition was repealed. In that election, held on 3 October 1933, Virginians voted 99,640 to 58,518 in favor of ending state prohibition, and on 25 October 1933, delegates at a special convention formally ratified the 21st Amendment. Virginia was the 29th state to do so; ratification was completed on 5 December 1933 by Utah.
In the wake of the repeal of national prohibition, Virginia created the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control on 7 March 1934, which would implement a system where all hard liquors would be sold by the state and lighter beverages would be dispensed by licensees of the state.
The Library of Virginia’s exhibit on Prohibition, “Teetotalers & Moonshiners: Prohibition in Virginia, Distilled,” will be closing on 5 December 2017. Come see it before last call!
-Claire Radcliffe, state records archivist