Nation was part of a larger movement, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874 by women concerned over the damage that alcohol caused both to their families and society at large. Because women at the time had far fewer rights than men did — they could not vote, easily divorce or control how many children they had, for instance — a wife with a husband who drank too much was vulnerable to having her life ruined.
And so, Nation and her fellow activists mobilized. The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement joined forces with other organizations — the Independent Order of Good Templars and the Kansas State Temperance Union — to push for state-wide prohibition. The state’s temperance movement gained steam, and in 1880, Kansas adopted a constitutional provision prohibiting the sale or manufacture of “intoxicating liquors,” the first state in the country to do so. The state’s legislature followed suit, passing a law that went into effect the following year making the manufacture of alcohol a misdemeanor.
But implementation and enforcement were inconsistent, with some bar owners simply ignoring the new laws. Frustrated with slow enforcement of the state’s new alcohol prohibition, Nation took matters into her own hands — literally, with a hatchet — and entered the Carey Hotel bar to smash things up. After her release from jail, she continued to travel around smashing up saloons and speaking out about temperance. She passed away in 1911, before nationwide prohibition was enacted in 1920.
Prohibition was enacted the same year that the suffrage movement won the right for women to vote in the 19th Amendment. And it wasn’t just timing that the suffragists shared with prohibitionists. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union also pushed for other social causes, including women’s suffrage, where civil disobedience played a role. Alice Paul and other suffragists brought their protest about the lack of women’s voting rights to the sidewalk in front of the White House, which got them harassed, arrested and ultimately incarcerated. In 1916, women’s rights activist and social justice crusader Emma Goldman, a mentor to birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, was arrested in New York City for distributing materials and lecturing about birth control, in violation of the 1873 federal Comstock Act.
This legacy of disobedience has remained central to women’s political activism. In the mid-1950s, Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks both refused to give up their bus seats to white passengers in violation of state segregation laws, and were subsequently arrested. Parks’s arrest famously kicked off the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott. And who can forget Bree Newsome, who in 2015 scaled a 30-foot flagpole in front of the South Carolina Statehouse to personally remove its Confederate flag. She was subsequently arrested and charged with defacing a monument.
Gloria Steineim once said, “Don’t think about making women fit the world — think about making the world fit women.” (Steinem has also been arrested for protesting for her beliefs). The lesson modern women and feminists (of all genders) can take from Carrie Nation is that in the fight for what you believe in, sometimes you have to smash things to propel change.