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A Hooch 'n Hellraisers blog post: Entrepreneurial women thriving in Prohibition America

This blog post originally ran in The Old Shelter.

Imagine you are a woman living in the 1920s. You’re the sole breadwinner- perhaps your husband came back from the Great War injured and unable to work… or perhaps he didn’t come home at all and you were left alone, raising a passel of kids. Worried about a roof over your head and food on the table.

What would you do?

Or maybe you are one of those enterprising women who wanted something different in life, defying social conventions and family expectations. Carving out a little piece of the American dream for yourself- for fun and profit.

What could you do?

In either case, and for hundreds of women during the 1920s, they recognized an economic opportunity when America embarked on its great social experiment- making liquor illegal. True to form, when anything is banned, human nature takes over and demands more of it. Prohibition did much to help women make a very good living.

I write historical fiction set during Prohibition. The central characters in my novels are all women with more than a passing acquaintance with the dangerous criminal world of illegal hooch- making it, selling, drinking, or cleaning up the aftermath. Jennie Justo runs a speakeasy in Wisconsin, Maggie Barnes is a widow in Philadelphia trying to raise her son in a city that has become a bootleggers’ playground, Edith Duffy builds a rum running empire out of a nightclub just outside Miami, Delores Bailey is a cranky moonshiner in the backwoods of Montana, and Lucie Santoro is a spinster schoolteacher originally from New York City who enjoys a wee tipple in the evening, putting her career and reputation on the line with every sip.

One of the most strictly gendered activities in the United States in the decades prior to Prohibition was the consumption of alcohol, specifically alcohol, purchased in bars, clubs, and saloons.

Prior to Prohibition, in many states in America, women were barred from entering drinking establishments. Nor could they work in any place that sold alcohol, or that was even next door to establishments that sold alcohol of any kind. Women were seen as strictly domestic-bound beings and the restrictive laws a necessary enforcement of good morality. These laws also meant that the only women culturally “allowed” to enter drinking establishments were entertainers and prostitutes.

Prohibition changed all that. The fact that speakeasies, for example, were illegal meant that for the first time in American history, women could walk in and order a drink. The times encouraged social taboos to be broken with alcohol no longer a man’s-only fare. Thanks to Prohibition, it wasn’t only women of bad reputations who were able to enjoy strong drinks and dancing with boys.

And ironically, even though mothers and grandmothers had been busy trying to protect youth by organizing to pass statewide Prohibition prior to the 1920s, their own daughters were the ones who rejected that law in every regard—contributing to a level of female-led crime never before seen in America and providing a ripe environment for story tellers like myself.
Woman had an advantage over men when it came to moonshining- rum running- bootlegging.

For starters, they were much harder to detect and arrest than men simply because it was illegal to search a woman in those days. Women took full advantage of this and actually hid moonshine on their persons; some even taunted law enforcement to search them. Also in their favor was the fact that juries of the day were loath to convict a woman of the crime of bootlegging. They simply refused to believe that a woman could do such a thing.
Many times, male bootleggers would hire women to ride along with them on their moonshine deliveries because they knew the police were less likely to stop them with a woman in the car. The word on the street was that no decent federal agent would hold up a car that had women in it.

The enterprising women who thrived in making or peddling hooch during Prohibition were a very diverse group- from the widow who brewed in her kitchen so she could purchase Easter outfits for her five children, to the eighty-year-old grandmother who was caught running a three-hundred-gallon still.

Because many bootlegging operations were family affairs, children often participated as well. Helen McGonagle Moriarity recalled her role in her mother’s liquor trade, which was cleverly paired with her existing laundry business. Moriarity’s mother, Mary Ann, washed for miners living in a boardinghouse. As a teenager, Helen delivered booze hidden among the clean clothes for “fifty cents a pint and two dollars a gallon.”

There was the young mother and her small child who were taken to the matron’s quarters of the city jail, where she awaited charges of violating prohibition laws. State Prohibition agents had raided her home after she sold one of them a bit of wine the night before, and several gallons were confiscated. Nobody else was ever arrested for the illicit wine, pointing to the possibility that she was a single mother who sought financial security in black-market wine within her community.

And the young mother’s story is typical. Most female bootleggers participated in small-scale, personally run operations and sold their wares locally. Making the family’s homemade wine and beer was a skill that had been passed from mother to daughter over generations. As long as a woman had access to a kitchen, she had the ability to make booze. Many women took advantage of the Prohibition black market to operate small-scale enterprises out of their homes known locally as pocket-stills or beer-flats.

Women also saw success peddling booze. One enterprising woman who owned a boardinghouse in was caught selling alcohol to her patrons. Her record book showed that for the previous few weeks, her salary had averaged $150 per day. In 1924, the average (white male) yearly income in the country was around $1,300, so a woman making that much in two weeks through illegal alcohol production points to a lucrative black market.

There are also numerous examples of women-led business empires built on manufacturing and smuggling illegal alcohol on a larger scale. These early female entrepreneurs were limited by access to start-up capital, however, their brains and risk-taking natures encouraged them to flourish. In my Rum Runners series, the fictional heroine teams up with two very real historical women who were the queens of offshore smuggling in Florida during the 1920s.

Changes in technology during the 1920s boosted women’s access to many new economic and social opportunities, including those around alcohol. The automobile redefined rituals of dating and courting, allowing many young and/or rural people to see each other outside the careful eyes of chauffeurs or parents. They also provided women with mobility and a means to transport their illegal hooch.

New fashions in the 1920s lent themselves to clever ways to smuggle alcohol. Women with freshly bobbed haircuts could spend their evenings dancing the Charleston in dance halls and speakeasies, sneaking in flasks of liquor on garter belts, under oversized fur coats, or in avant-garde styles of skirts and blouses.

The thirteen years of Prohibition gave American women the opportunity to redefine their social place in the world through their participation in illegal alcohol manufacturing, transportation, commerce, and consumption.

Barely four years into Prohibition, journalist Jack O’Donnell described women bootleggers. They “come from all stations and ranks of life—from the slums of New York’s lower East Side, exclusive homes in California, the pine-clad hills of Tennessee, the wind-swept plains of Texas, the sacred precincts of exclusive Washington.”

Continuing, “Some are bold, brainy and beautiful, some hard-boiled and homely, some white, some black, some brown. All are thorns in the sides of Prohibition Enforcement officials.”
Oh, how right he was.

Other blog posts in the Hooch ‘n Hellraisers series:

Coming soon….

  • Hoochie-Coochie Hooch Haulers


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