TV documentary on Prohibition mirrors in part a bit of Rockford’s political history

A New York Daily News REVIEW of the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary series “Prohibition,” which debuts tonight on PBS, includes this passage:

Sunday night’s first episode deals entirely with the century leading up to the passage of the 18th Amendment, which enabled the 1919 legislation that criminalized the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages.

It traces the start of the temperance movement to 1826 sermons by the Rev. Lymon Beecher in Litchfield, Conn., and its early champions included substantial numbers of women. Pioneer feminist Susan B. Anthony began her public advocacy career in the temperance movement.

The temperance movement thus seeded women’s suffrage and feminism.

This link between temperance and the struggle for women’s rights pertained here in Rockford perhaps as much as in any other locale, as I noted in the book “Rockford — Big Town/Little City,” a local history I wrote 12 years ago:

Women always were the moving force in the local temperance movement, but because they were barred from voting, the cause was often frustrated. In 1881, Rockford women were permitted to cast ballots in an advisory referendum on alcohol prohibition, but the one-sided tally of votes was ignored by a Rockford City Council elected only by men.

Three decades later, in a series of binding referendums, with only men allowed to participate, prohibition was voted in and out and in again, each time by a narrow margin. Then, in 1914, a fourth such referendum was held, this time with women voting under the state’s newly expanded suffrage statute: Prohibition prevailed by more than 4,000 votes.

The great irony in this connection between prohibitionism and women’s suffrage — in Rockford and elsewhere — is the contradiction it represented with respect to certain puritanical impulses. Curbing the evils of demon rum was a puritanical goal, but so was keeping women in their place.

It’s a quirk of history that compromise on that latter score led to progress — so to speak — on the former score.


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