Constitutional Prohibition and the Destabilization of Gender Inequality

In the United States, the Prohibition Amendment is widely regarded as a constitutional mistake that was rightfully corrected by the repeal amendment thirteen years later, and the experience of the Prohibition period (1920-1933) is often taken to demonstrate the failures of using law, particularly constitutional law, to transform social norms. This paper challenges that conventional view. It demonstrates that the women’s movement for Prohibition sought constitutional changes which had the effect of reducing the sources of women’s subordination. While Prohibition did not last, many of the other reforms that were facilitated by the women’s Prohibition movement did – a higher age of consent (16 in almost every state by 1920), married women’s right to their own earnings, female reformatories and women’s prisons. The actual history of the Prohibition movement thus challenges prevailing American views about the relationship between constitutionalism and social transformation.