Monday, October 10, 2011

What Prohibition did for women and public speaking

If you watched the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition, based on Daniel Okrent's book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, you might have noticed the active role women played in what was called the temperance movement--and the major role they played in public speaking on the issue. That was all the more unusual because, at the time, women rarely had the opportunity to speak in public.

In fact, their inability to speak in public on issues related to temperance spurred some women--like Susan B. Anthony--to go on to fight for votes for women. Over time, temperance (like abolition of slavery and other social causes focused on families) became a safe topic for women to speak about in public, and women in many cases led the movement against drinking alcohol. They were fueled by the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which emphasized public speaking:
Women began speaking about temperance because they believed it would control alcohol, and improve conditions for women and children. The national Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed in 1874 with the goal of improving conditions for women. Their motto, “For God, and Home, and Native Land,” reflected their views about women’s roles in society. All members and officers were women-unusual for the time-and their goals were to educate women in rhetoric, public speaking, and other useful topics, as well as found training schools for women and youth.
The PBS special highlights a few of the women who figured in the temperance movement and Prohibition. No surprise, public speaking turns up as a part of their experience. The women featured include:
  • Eliza Jane Thompson, moved to protest and organize protests against drinking after listening to a stirring speech. 
  • Mary Hunt, put in charge of lobbying and public education on temperance by the women's movement.  She caused thousands of classes of schoolchildren to listen to classes on temperance and the evils of drinking.
  • Frances Willard, longtime president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, who "claimed she had spoken in more than 1000 American towns, including every single city with more than 10,000 citizens--and most of those with only 5,000."
  • Mabel Willebrandt, an assistant attorney general of the United States in charge of enforcing Prohibition under President Harding. She took to the campaign trail for Hoover, giving speeches attacking his opponent and helping him win the election--but when he didn't appoint her Attorney General, she resigned and went into private practice. She's described as being the most famous woman in the country who wasn't a movie star.
  • Lois Long, a reporter assigned to cover New York nightlife for the New Yorker, described as the epitome of the flapper.
  • Pauline Sabin, an heiress and wife of a successful businessman, and the first woman to serve on the Republican National Committee. She started her own women's temperance group after growing disillusioned with both the movement and the politicians.
  • Carry Nation, the emblem of temperance who understood the value of using media coverage to achieve her goals--and used an ax to make her point, smashing up saloons. Watch this clip from the documentary about Nation. Nation was hated, mocked and ridiculed for her willingness to attract attention in a violent way, but never missed the opportunity to spread her message.

Watch the full episode. See more Ken Burns.

Clip to Evernote
Use the Evernote clip button, above, to save this post in an Evernote notebook or start an Evernote account.(If it doesn't work for you, try using a 'modern' browser, like Chrome or Firefox.) Go here to subscribe to Step Up Your Speaking, my free email newsletter that looks at a different speaking topic in depth each month...then become a fan of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook and join the conversation with thousands of other women (and men) about public speaking skills and confidence.