Prohibition viewed through the lens of a few little-known historical figures.
While the subtitle suggests a book about two politically engaged Republican women who took opposing sides on the subject of the 18th Amendment, the narrative combines their separate stories with that of a trial of a Seattle policeman convicted of smuggling liquor into the United States from Canada. While the story of Roy Olmstead is intriguing, it probably deserves a book of its own. The more compelling and provocative tales told by Ambrose (The Pacific, 2010), who died before the book was published, and Schuttler, who finished it for publication, are those of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who became assistant attorney general under President Warren Harding, and Pauline Sabin, a New York socialite who became a fundraiser and campaigner as well as one of the first female delegates to a presidential convention. Although the authors’ arguments are sometimes clogged by biographical detail and characters and issues that are introduced and then dropped, the book raises fascinating questions about the role of women in early-20th-century politics—specifically about the complicated relationship between the 18th Amendment, which banned the sale of alcohol, and the 19th, which gave women the right to vote. By focusing on individuals affected by Prohibition—and how their views evolved over time—the authors reveal the complexity of the issues it raised. They also bring attention to the pressures that newly empowered women felt. Both of the women, whose paths only crossed occasionally, were constrained by their marital circumstances: Willebrandt, separated from her husband for decades, felt with good reason that divorce would ruin her chances at a career, and Sabin, divorced after an early marriage, needed a second marriage to establish her credibility. Both often felt like pawns in a system aiming to win women's votes without actually giving them any real political power.
Readers willing to dig through dense scholarly details will find a rewardingly intricate account of how one political issue shaped several lives.