Every Night Was Ladies’ Night During Prohibition

Every Night Was Ladies’ Night During Prohibition

When we think of Prohibition in America, we generally think of men.  Capone, O’Banion, the Chicago police, the saloon owners.  Where were the women?  Despite what their absence in the history books might imply, women were shaking Chicago to its core, too.  Fresh off winning the right to vote, women were empowered and experiencing for the first time that they could do anything.  And the story of the women during Prohibition proves exactly that.  In the 1920’s, women led the temperance movement, lived the flapper lifestyle, married gangsters, owned saloons, murdered abusive husbands, and became professionals.

It’s ironic that taking away America’s right to drink actually helped to give birth to women’s liberation.  Before Prohibition, women drinking in public was frowned upon and women that did drink in saloons were presumed to be prostitutes.  Encouraged by the money to be found during Prohibition, women began running speakeasies of their own, often called “home speaks” where their new side hustle to being a homemaker included making their own liquor and wine.  Somehow they managed to do it, largely, without joining gangs and murdering people like the men.

For years, the only women that judges ever saw in their courthouses were women accused of prostitution—maybe for having the audacity to have a drink in public!  During the 1920’s, though, women were frequently charged with bootlegging.  Never mind that they couldn’t sit on the jury, they could still be charged with the crime.  Whether it was the thrill of breaking the law or out of economic necessity, women found they were most at home literally cooking up alcohol in their own kitchens.  Presumably, it was at the very least more interesting than constantly preparing meals for their husbands.

Remember, of course, that most police officers and Prohibition agents were men.  In the 1920’s, few male police officers were keen on searching a woman that was alleged to be in the bootlegging business.  Some looked the other way to save face; others applied the law more equally and arrested women.  Judges and juries were often far more lenient on the women, and in fact, often refused to believe that a man wasn’t actually at fault for the home-operation.  That was the case for Lavinia Gilman, a sweet eighty year old woman that was, in fact, in charge of a huge operation.  The judge refused to convict her, preferring instead to believe it was ultimately her son that ran the operation.  Governors and at least once, even the President of the United States, issued pardons to women that had been convicted of bootlegging.

They were sneaky, though, and often the best of their craft.  The most proliferate bootlegger in Nevada was a woman named Stella Beloumant.  The entire state of Nevada!  Bertie Brown made the best moonshine in the country, and might have continued to do so undetected if she hadn’t died when her still exploded in 1933.  Edna Giard was a hometown Chicago-entrepreneur and often joined her husband to distribute Capone’s goods.

Ladies, raise a glass to these women the next time you’re out so that we can all have a drink without being accused of prostitution!

Written by Amy Williams

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