Don’t Let Women Vote If You Want to Keep Drinking
By David L. Bristow, Editor
If you let women vote, will they take away your beer? There was a time when many Nebraska men feared their wives and daughters would do just that.
Nebraska ratified the 19th Amendment in 1919, granting women the right to vote. The Amendment took effect in 1920 after it was ratified by the required three-fourths of the states.
By then American suffragists had been campaigning for women’s voting rights for more than 70 years. Nebraska Territory’s first legislative session in 1855 included a pro-suffrage speech by Amelia Bloomer. Many Nebraskans took up the cause over the decades.
Letting women vote was controversial for a lot of reasons. Even many women opposed it. Some feared it would upset traditional gender roles, or believed that women were unsuited for the rough-and-tumble of politics. Women were seen as a civilizing and moral influence on men. Would that status be lost if women became involved in the dirty dealing of partisan politics?
Photo: Before a women’s suffrage parade in Blair, July 11, 1914. History Nebraska RG1073-4
Top illustration: From The Woman Citizen, Feb. 8, 1919.
Meanwhile, many women were involved in both the suffrage and temperance movements. Temperance advocates argued that America’s high level of alcohol consumption subjected women to needless poverty and domestic violence. By the late 19th century, temperance groups favored prohibiting alcohol entirely.
Traditional-minded men feared that politically active women would drive them to drink—and then prevent them from drinking. Nebraska’s brewers, distillers, and saloon owners financially supported anti-suffrage efforts in order to stop Prohibition in Nebraska.
US entry into World War I in 1917 helped shift public opinion. German immigrants made up nearly a quarter of Nebraska’s population, and most were strong opponents of both suffrage and prohibition. German immigrants had founded big Nebraska breweries such as Metz, Krug, Storz, Fremont Brewing Co., and others. Wartime paranoia threw suspicion on all things German.
A 1917 limited-suffrage law allowed Nebraska women to vote in some local elections—or would have, if it hadn’t been tied up in court. Anti-suffragists used Nebraska’s referendum law to challenge it. They gathered enough petition signatures to suspend the law until a statewide referendum.
Suffragists suspected fraud. More than 18,000 of the 30,000 signatures had been gathered in Omaha. The river city had long been notorious as a “wide-open” town full of saloons, and it was ruled behind the scenes by crime boss Tom Dennison.
The Nebraska Woman Suffrage Association demanded to see the petitions and, sure enough, found whole pages of signatures signed in the same hand, or listing fake addresses, or signed with the names of dead men. It was never clear exactly who was behind the fraud, but suffragists were certain that “liquor interests” played a role.
But it was almost a moot point by the time the women won their court case in June 1919. The 19th Amendment was on its way to becoming part of the US Constitution. By then Nebraska’s statewide Prohibition law was already in effect and the 18th Amendment (federal Prohibition) had been ratified.
Prohibition came first, in other words. You couldn’t blame women voters for it. The 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, and Nebraskans voted to repeal statewide Prohibition the following year. By that time most people thought Prohibition had been a mistake—but they took for granted that women voters should have a say in the matter.
Photo: Wilber, Nebraska, May 1, 1918. History Nebraska RG813-0-40
This article first appeared in the October 2019 issue of NEBRASKAland magazine.
The exhibit Votes for Women: Nebraska’s Suffrage Story is at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln through May 31, 2021.
The book Votes for Women: The 19th Amendment in Nebraska was published by History Nebraska and is available for online purchase via University of Nebraska Press.