Money  /  Journal Article

Whiskey, Women, and Work

Prohibition—and its newly created underground economy—changed the way women lived, worked, and socialized.

Restaurateur Albertine During had a few reasons for serving liquor at her New Orleans establishment. It was illegal, sure, but as she told the judge, “I merely had it on hand for those patrons who still like a drink with their meals.” During’s 1930 trial, which saw her sentenced to ninety days in prison and fined $200, wasn’t unusual in Prohibition-era America. And though, as historian Tanya Marie Sanchez notes, “today the general public perceives Prohibition-era bootlegging as an overwhelmingly male activity dominated by gangsters” the reality was bootlegging women were as common.

In her research on the women bootleggers of New Orleans, Sanchez discovered some commonalities among them. Most were divorced, separated, or widowed, many were immigrants, and most were mothers. As Sanchez explains, “For working-class mothers, bootlegging was both a convenient and lucrative method of supplementing meager family income.” In short, women got involved in bootlegging for the same reason as men—money. In her research of bootleggers in Montana, historian Mary Murphy found much of the same pattern, and unsurprisingly, bootlegging, no matter where it was located, “allowed ethnic groups and women to capitalize on the underground economy.”

As Murphy explains, prior to Prohibition, saloons were spaces dominated by men, “Any woman who drank in a saloon was assumed to be a prostitute at worst, ‘loose’ at best.” Nice girls drank at home. Whether it was the thrill that comes with being an outlaw, a protest served over ice, or something else, this much was clear: “women began stepping up to the bar along with men, albeit in speakeasies and nightclubs rather than in the old corner saloons.” Not only were women in front of the bar, they were steadily showing up behind it, too, though the bars were, more often than not, run out of their homes. As Sanchez points out, most of the women who were picked up by the law “were arrested in their homes for manufacturing and selling home-brewed beer, wine, whiskey, or gin.”

One bootlegger, Marie Hoppe of New Orleans, was busted for home-brewing beer. There was a legal exception made for home brewing, provided it was strictly for personal consumption, but police seized 130 bottles from Hoppe’s house. When questioned about the large amount she had on hand, Hoppe told the judge “I have six good reasons for making beer. I have six small children.” And as for the personal use? She had an answer for that, too. “[S]he believed beer to be conducive to good health, being vital for a child’s muscle development,” so each child was given one glass a day while she had three.