The 18th & 19th Amendments: Prohibition & Women’s Suffrage Explored

The 18th & 19th Amendments: Prohibition & Women’s Suffrage Explored

The tapestry of American history is intricately woven with threads of constitutional amendments, each representing a step towards the nation’s evolving identity and values. Of these, the 18th and 19th amendments stand out for their stark contrasts, yet they share a timeline that showcases the nation’s deep-seated desire for societal transformation in the early 20th century. While one sought to mold moral landscapes by curbing the consumption of alcohol, the other aimed to correct a historic injustice by granting women the right to vote. Both amendments, though enacted for distinct reasons, offer a glimpse into a period of American history characterized by societal introspection, activism, and the pursuit of progressive change.

To understand the significance of these two amendments, one must first recognize the broader sociopolitical climate of the time. The turn of the 20th century was a period of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and significant cultural shifts. This transformative era, termed the Progressive Era, saw a burgeoning middle class, greater emphasis on education, and a series of reform movements. In this environment, the advocacy for prohibition and women’s suffrage became more than just individual causes; they became emblematic of America’s larger quest to redefine its societal norms and values.

The 18th Amendment, ratified in 1919, was a culmination of decades of temperance movements that championed sobriety as a virtue and alcohol as a vice threatening the moral fiber of the nation. Conversely, the 19th Amendment, ratified a year later in 1920, was the triumphant result of tireless efforts by women’s rights activists who sought to rectify a long-standing denial of a fundamental democratic right to half the nation’s population. While both amendments were reflections of societal reform, their motivations, impacts, and legacies differ vastly. This essay delves into the historical contexts, provisions, consequences, and enduring legacies of the 18th and 19th amendments, offering a comparative lens to appreciate their significance in shaping modern America.

The 18th Amendment

Often recognized as a bold experiment in legislating morality, the 18th Amendment symbolizes America’s earnest, albeit controversial, attempt to address the perceived social ills associated with alcohol consumption. To appreciate its significance, a foray into its historical context is essential.

Background and Historical Context

Beginning in the early 19th century, the Temperance Movement emerged as a social campaign against the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Rooted in religious and moral beliefs, early temperance advocates believed that alcohol was responsible for a plethora of societal issues, including domestic violence, poverty, and general moral decay. Over the decades, this movement gained traction, evolving from advocating moderation to demanding total prohibition.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous groups, including the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League, became influential voices in the call for prohibition. Their combined efforts painted alcohol as “the devil’s drink” and capitalized on the broader Progressive Era’s reformist sentiment. The societal factors promoting Prohibition were multifaceted, ranging from concerns over public health and safety to the influence of xenophobia, where saloons were often linked to immigrants and perceived as centers of vice and political corruption.

Provisions of the 18th Amendment

Ratified on January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States.” This brief, yet powerful text set the stage for nationwide prohibition, but the specifics of enforcement were to be defined by subsequent legislation.

The Volstead Act, officially titled the National Prohibition Act, was enacted later in 1919 to provide for the enforcement of the 18th Amendment. It detailed the processes, exceptions (like the allowance for certain medicinal and religious uses of alcohol), and penalties associated with violations. With its passage, the U.S. embarked on what came to be known as the Prohibition era, a period where the production and sale of alcoholic beverages became illegal, albeit with numerous unintended consequences.

Impact and Consequences

The initial public response to Prohibition was mixed. While many lauded it as a moral victory and hoped for societal betterment, practical realities soon highlighted the challenges associated with enforcing such a sweeping legislation. The demand for alcohol did not vanish overnight, leading to a surge in illegal activities.

Speakeasies, underground bars and nightclubs that illegally served alcohol, proliferated in cities across the country. Organized crime saw a significant uptick, with figures like Al Capone establishing vast bootlegging operations. The government’s enforcement mechanisms, despite their best efforts, struggled to keep pace with the sheer scale of violations.

Moreover, the economic implications became increasingly apparent. Prior to Prohibition, the alcohol industry was a significant source of employment and federal revenue. Its sudden curtailment led to job losses and a drop in tax revenues. As the years wore on and the Great Depression loomed, public sentiment began to shift. The initial optimism surrounding Prohibition waned, and the voices calling for its repeal grew louder.

Repeal and Legacy

Recognizing the challenges and unintended consequences of Prohibition, coupled with the economic pressures of the 1930s, led to a growing consensus around the need for change. This culminated in the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933, which repealed the 18th Amendment, effectively ending the Prohibition era.

The legacy of Prohibition is multifaceted. While it is often viewed as a failed experiment in societal engineering, it also serves as a testament to the complexities of legislating morality. The lessons from this era offer insights into the limits of legal intervention in shaping personal choices and highlight the unpredictable consequences that can arise from well-intentioned reforms.

The 19th Amendment

In contrast to the 18th Amendment’s endeavor to redefine societal behavior, the 19th Amendment addressed a fundamental democratic right: the right to vote. Its passage marked a monumental shift in the American democratic landscape, as it granted women the right to participate in the electoral process. Delving into its historical background provides a glimpse into the long and arduous journey that led to this landmark legislation.

Background and Historical Context

The struggle for women’s suffrage in America began in earnest during the mid-19th century. Early women’s rights advocates like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were instrumental in bringing attention to the issue of female disenfranchisement. Their efforts, combined with those of countless other suffragists, laid the groundwork for a nationwide movement demanding gender equality in voting rights.

Throughout the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th century, the suffrage movement experienced various challenges and milestones. While some states, particularly in the West, began to grant women the right to vote in state elections, a federal amendment ensuring this right remained elusive. The opposition to women’s suffrage often drew from deeply entrenched societal beliefs about gender roles, with opponents arguing that women’s primary responsibilities lay in the domestic sphere, away from the political arena.

Provisions of the 19th Amendment

Ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment succinctly states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This transformative text effectively dismantled the legal barriers preventing women from participating in federal (and most state) elections, setting the stage for a profound shift in American political dynamics.

Impact and Consequences

The immediate aftermath of the 19th Amendment’s ratification was a surge in female voter registration and participation. In the 1920 presidential election, millions of women cast their ballots for the first time, forever altering the fabric of the American electorate.

Beyond the immediate implications on voting patterns, the amendment also catalyzed broader societal changes. With their newly acquired voting rights, women became more active in various political and social causes, leading to heightened attention to issues such as child labor, education, and public health. The amendment also played a role in challenging traditional gender roles and accelerating the broader feminist movement.

Nonetheless, it is essential to note that while the 19th Amendment was a significant step towards gender equality, it did not mark the end of the suffrage struggle. Women of color, particularly Black and Indigenous women, still faced numerous barriers to voting, rooted in racial discrimination and segregation, especially in the American South. It would take further activism and subsequent legislation, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to address these inequalities.

Legacy and Ongoing Relevance

The 19th Amendment’s enduring legacy is evident in the vibrant participation of women in all facets of American political life today. From local councils to the highest echelons of federal government, women’s voices have become integral to the nation’s democratic process. Moreover, the amendment stands as a testament to the power of grassroots activism and the capacity for constitutional processes to rectify historic injustices.

Its ongoing relevance extends beyond the realm of politics. The struggles and triumphs associated with the women’s suffrage movement continue to inspire modern movements advocating for gender equality, women’s rights, and broader social justice issues. As such, the 19th Amendment serves not just as a marker of past achievements but as a beacon guiding future endeavors towards a more equitable society.

Comparative Analysis: The 18th and 19th Amendments

On the surface, the 18th and 19th Amendments may appear markedly different, each addressing distinct facets of American society. However, a deeper exploration reveals shared themes and historical contexts that offer insights into the broader transformations of early 20th century America.

Shared Historical Context

Both amendments emerged during the Progressive Era, a period characterized by social activism and political reform aimed at addressing the challenges posed by industrialization, urbanization, and corruption. This era saw a profound faith in the potential of legislative solutions to societal problems, resulting in an array of reforms, including the 18th and 19th Amendments. The backdrop of the Progressive Era therefore serves as a unifying thread, binding these amendments in a shared quest for societal betterment.

Reformist Aspirations

While Prohibition and women’s suffrage catered to different societal issues, they both represented ambitious attempts to reshape the nation’s moral and democratic landscapes. The 18th Amendment, rooted in temperance movements, aspired to create a sober, moral society free from the perceived ills of alcohol. The 19th Amendment, grounded in decades of suffragist advocacy, aimed to rectify a historic injustice and expand the democratic process. Both epitomize the Progressive Era’s spirit of rectifying societal flaws through constitutional means.

Unintended Consequences and Complexities

Despite their noble intentions, both amendments presented complexities and unforeseen consequences. Prohibition, as enforced by the 18th Amendment, inadvertently spurred a rise in organized crime, illegal speakeasies, and other societal challenges. The 19th Amendment, while granting women the right to vote, did not automatically ensure equality for all women, with many women of color continuing to face systemic barriers to voting. These realities underscore the intricate nature of legislating sweeping societal changes and the need for continual evaluation and adaptation.

Legacies of Transformation and Reflection

The enduring legacies of these amendments are rooted in their capacities to spur reflection and transformation. The 18th Amendment, despite its eventual repeal, ignited a national conversation about the limits of legislating morality and personal choice. The 19th Amendment, on the other hand, forever altered the nation’s political landscape, ushering in a new era of female political participation and influencing subsequent gender equality movements.

Together, these amendments illustrate the dual nature of constitutional changes: they can both reflect and shape societal values. While they addressed distinct issues, their collective impact on the early 20th century American psyche and society is profound, highlighting the nation’s evolving relationship with its foundational document, the Constitution.


The 18th and 19th Amendments, each emblematic of the aspirations and challenges of their times, stand as pivotal landmarks in American history. Emerging from the crucible of the Progressive Era, they encapsulate the nation’s fervent desire for reform, societal betterment, and the rectification of historic injustices.

The 18th Amendment, with its bold endeavor to legislate sobriety, serves as a cautionary tale about the complexities of using constitutional measures to regulate personal behavior. Its eventual repeal does not diminish its significance but rather reinforces the dynamic nature of the American democratic process, one that continuously adapts to the evolving needs and values of its populace.

Conversely, the 19th Amendment represents a monumental stride towards realizing the democratic ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. By expanding the electorate to include women, it not only rectified a long-standing injustice but also enriched the nation’s democratic processes, ensuring that the voices of half its population could no longer be sidelined.

Together, these amendments offer invaluable lessons for future generations. They underscore the power and potential of grassroots movements, the responsibilities that come with constitutional change, and the continual journey towards a more perfect union. As America moves forward, reflecting on the histories of the 18th and 19th Amendments serves as a reminder of the nation’s capacity for self-improvement, resilience, and its unwavering pursuit of justice and equality.

Class Outline and Notes: 18th and 19th amendments

The passage of these two amendments shows how much a divided nation we were in the 1920’s. On one hand we craved the modern and on the other we were a religious, traditional nation.

18th amendment – Prohibition

The conservatism and the fast times of the 1920’s had to clash at some point. That point turned out to be alcohol. Many Americans saw alcohol as an evil, to others it was a part of life. The conflict over the use of alcohol, known as Prohibition, provided one of the more colorful periods in American history.

In December 1917 Congress adopted and submitted to the states the Eighteenth Amendment, known as the Prohibition amendment, which prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Ratified by the states in January 1919, it went into effect on January 20, 1920. Congress also passed the national Prohibition Enforcement Act, known as the Volstead Act, that defined an intoxicating beverage as any beverage containing more than one half of one percent (1 proof). The law also gave the Bureau of Internal Revenue enforcement authority.

The passage of the 18th Amendment was the product of many years of hard work on the part on women’s groups and religious fundamentalists. The church affiliated Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which regarded drinking as a sin, pressured Congress and the states to put the amendment across. Women’s groups blamed alcohol for husbands leaving their wives and families and for the abuse of women. As far as both groups were concerned alcohol was an evil that destroyed the American
By 1918 29 states already had adopted amendments to their state constitutions prohibiting alcohol.

Enforcement of the Prohibition amendment was difficult because drinking was a custom ingrained in the fabric of social life. The saloon had grown out of the frontier and had matched the pace of industrialization and urbanization each step of the way. It was almost impossible to do away with drinking, especially in the cities. Before long law enforcement officials they were battling individuals abusers as well as a new problem; organized crime. Gangsters such as Al Capone, king of the Chicago underworld, saw illegal alcohol importing and transportation as a way of making a lot of money.

Bootlegging became a thriving business and national law enforcement agencies were thrown into the full time business of keeping the nation dry. Illegal saloons known as speakeasies dotted the cities. Bootleg gangs engaged in a bloody war for control of the speakeasies, clubs and business
outlets. The outlets might be at the corner drug store, a gas station, or a private individual. Then, came the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in
1929. Gangsters armed with machine guns lined up their rivals and mowed them down.

The arguments over Prohibition reached such intensity that in 1928 President Hoover appointed the Wickersham Commission to investigate the problem. The commission responded that although Prohibition was not working it should be continued anyway. Humorist Franklin P. Adams commented with this poem:

Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it.
It’s left a tail of graft and slime,
It didn’t prohibit worth a dime,
It’s filled our land with ice and crime,
Nevertheless, we’re for it.

Continuing enforcement difficulties and the increase in organized crime were the major factors contributing to the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment by the adoption of the Twenty-first Amendment. The new amendment went into effect in December, 1933, and marked the end of the “noble experiment” to regulate the nations social customs.

19th amendment – Women’s Suffrage

As we have discussed the 1920’s were a period of great change in America. The success of women’s groups in getting prohibition passed was tied to the movement to gain the right to vote. The quest for the passage of this amendment, eventually passed as the 19th, was known as the suffrage movement.

I. Women’s Right to Vote – The 19th Amendment is passed

A. Early Efforts

1. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – Seneca Falls Conv.

2. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – National Women’s Suffrage Association

3. Lucy Stone – American Women’s Suffrage Association

4. Merger of two groups (1890) – National American Women’s
Suffrage Association (NAWSA)

B. Success at the State level

1. Wyoming territory admitted with the vote

2. Utah, Colorado and Idaho follow.

C. National Success

1. 1915 – NAWSA membership reaches 2 million under leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt.

2. 1918 – House passes amendment, fails senate.

3. 1919 – Women help elect new Senate, passes Senate.

4. 1920, August 26th – States ratify