Alcohol prohibition in Colorado (1916–33) disrupted social and gender relations in ways that would shape the state long after the law was repealed. Not only did women help enact the law, but they also helped enforce the law and even broke it, taking advantage of a new outlaw industry. Women redefined their social place in Colorado through their participation in illegal alcohol creation and consumption and flouted the strong Victorian-era taboo that excluded women from public leisure spaces, especially those involving alcohol.
Victorianism and Alcohol Culture
Alcohol consumption was one of the most strictly gendered activities in the western United States in the decades prior to prohibition. Saloons were associated with masculinity and were often the haunts of single, poor laborers in the early years of Colorado’s mining history. Over the years, this activity led to saloons becoming associated with activities such as gambling, prostitution, and, of course, drinking. Many reformers believed that saloons enticed women into lives of poverty and abuse. Male voters at the time also agreed that drinking should be for men only.
These cultural objections to the mixing of women and alcohol led to a 1901 state law barring women from entering saloons. Under this law, not only were women prohibited from buying alcohol, but they were also not allowed to work in any place that sold alcohol. The law reflected a society that saw women as strictly domestic beings. To those who voted for it, the law was not seen as oppressive but rather a necessary enforcement of good morality.
Beyond this law, women were expected not to consume alcohol in public settings, and to partake in drink only within the confines of their own social spheres of other women, usually in their own homes. The only women allowed to enter saloons at this time were entertainers and prostitutes. Places where men consumed alcohol were often rough-and-tumble hotspots packed with billiards, cards, and brawls.
Colorado women gained the right to vote in 1893, twenty-seven years before national women’s suffrage was passed with the Nineteenth Amendment. One of the main issues concerning Progressive women voters was Colorado’s notorious saloon culture. Many members of this new voting population believed that alcohol consumption led to labor unrest and moral degeneracy, such as when families were left impoverished by drunken fathers. Several Colorado prohibition groups formed out of groups that promoted women’s suffrage.
Colorado prohibition was successful because of the coordinated efforts of these progressive political activist groups, including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU had chapters all across the United States and advocated prohibition on religious and moral grounds. The group often referred to the “demon drink” ruining lives and wrecking homes. Unlike the voting populace, which generally wanted alcohol to remain legal, the WCTU was extremely coordinated and persuasive. Because of the efforts of the WCTU and other women’s groups, approval of statewide alcohol prohibition, passed in 1916, four years before federal prohibition was enacted. Colorado House speaker Philip B. Stewart stated that “by honorable lobbying, the WCTU placed the prohibition enforcement law on the statute books.”
Black Market Opportunities
Contrary to the intent of reformers, prohibition created opportunities for people who had never been involved in the liquor trade before, especially women. As soon as alcohol became illegal, a black market in booze sprang up practically overnight. The demand for alcohol was high across the state, and women were able to fill in the gaps in production and labor. In the 1920s, women held every sort of illegal job pertaining to booze, from running kitchen stills to peddling booze, tallying sales records, and smuggling alcohol within and across borders. Some women got so deep into bootleg crime rings that they committed murder.
During prohibition, young mothers, daughters, and socialites stood before puzzled judges to defend themselves against bootlegging charges. In April 1924, a Denverite named Lucy Dentoni, as well as her small child, were taken to the matron’s quarters of the city jail, where she awaited charges of violating prohibition laws. State agents raided her home after Dentoni 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 Dentoni was a single mother who sought financial security in black-market wine within her community.
Dentoni’s story is typical of the newspapers published on female bootleggers. Most female bootleggers participated in small-scale, personally run operations that sold their wares locally. As long as a woman had access to a kitchen, she had the ability to make booze. So many women took advantage of this opportunity that they contributed significantly to the black market. On July 10, 1924, a young woman called F. Stone was arrested for operating a “pocket still” out of her small studio apartment at 4008 Tejon Street; it produced a pint an hour. Instances like this prove the industriousness of women in this era.
Many women also saw success peddling booze. Anna Butler, the owner of a boardinghouse in Denver during the 1920s, 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.
Public Spaces and Alcohol
Changes in technology during the 1920s also boosted women’s access to 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. The fact that speakeasies, for example, were illegal meant that the social norms around gender exclusion did not exist. Due to the taboo nature of drinking illegal booze in secret locations, people from all walks of life could exist more anonymously in these nuanced spaces without the fear of external cultural forces that demanded conformity. Youngsters with freshly bobbed haircuts in places such as Denver, Greeley, Boulder, and Colorado Springs spent evenings frequenting dance halls, sneaking in flasks of liquor on garter belts or under fur coats and drunkenly dancing the night away. Women from both rich and poor families were caught at dances handing out flasks to dancers. Under this unprecedented sort of illegality, Coloradans experienced the first social mixing of genders in spaces involving alcohol. Men and women of all ages now enjoyed a realm that was previously strictly for men.
Local newspapers described a “New Woman” flooding the state, portraying her as a cigarette-smoking, alcohol-drinking, college-educated woman interested in politics. Women had equal suffrage, the new consumer economy was booming, and moonshine seemed to flood the streets. With so many women now being caught with illegal booze, law enforcement was often flummoxed on how to deal with this new rash of female drinkers.
Women and the Law
Colorado law enforcement officials were deeply confused by the growing number of female criminals during prohibition. Especially in the early years of prohibition, women with prohibition-violation charges were let go with minimal punishment because they were deemed unable to have committed such crimes. For instance, Catherine Mucks was caught at a dance with a flask full of whiskey in Moffat County. At her court appearance, the judge let her go because her flask of booze had a cockroach in it (one she probably plopped in once she knew she was busted). The judge said that such a drink was not fit for human consumption and was therefore not intended for illegal recreational purposes.
Women also benefited from this sexist assumption to remain more anonymous than their male bootlegging counterparts. In 1921 a Grand Junction woman known as “PeeWee” eluded Colorado and federal law enforcement for charges of bribery and peddling booze within a large alcohol ring. When Mesa County sheriff Frank N. DuCray and other officials raided a bootleg operation in Palisade, all the male members of the ring were arrested, but PeeWee was never caught or even identified.
It was clear that women were just as capable as men when it came to concocting illegal schemes involving alcohol, yet they were still serving much milder sentences compared to men who perpetrated the same crimes. The light sentences given to women who broke the prohibition law reflected the idea that they were merely victims of their circumstances, rather than active and knowledgeable participants in the illegal market.
On the other side of prohibition, women also benefited from new employment opportunities in law enforcement. The idea was that female police officers could aid in rooting out the elusive feminine side of the bootlegging trade. Appointed in March 1920, Edith Barker became Denver’s first and only fully accredited woman police officer. Because of her, other states began adopting female detective programs and consulted with the Denver Police Department for advice. According to the June 10, 1928, edition of The Denver Post, “officers never made a raid without taking Mrs. Barker along to deal with the women, she was fearless in the work.” She was given formal revolver training, quickly becoming one of the best shots in the squad, and she was also trained in jiujitsu. The hiring of the first female police officers showed how law enforcement was trying to catch up with the ways women navigated their unique role in the illegal booze trade.
Shifting Cultural Taboos
One irony of prohibition in Colorado is that the law was passed by the efforts of newly enfranchised women, yet plenty of women also ignored it, creating a gendered criminal element never before seen in the state. Women’s active flouting of the law during prohibition shifted the strictly gender-segregated social spaces of Colorado into places of increased equality for socializing and leisure. When prohibition was federally repealed in 1933, newspapers published headlines declaring that Denver women were seen in public “Drinking Beer Openly and With Gusto.” Despite women’s widely publicized role in both the legal and illegal sides of prohibition, people still seemed to be shocked that women were daring to drink in public. Still, the culture around gendered, public alcohol had changed for good. Not only did prohibition fail to eliminate drinking, but it also helped to completely transform the women of Colorado into more independent and publicly acceptable figures. Today, there are dozens of women-owned breweries, wineries, and distilleries in Colorado, and women are vital members of the state’s police forces.