Saturday, November 5, 2011

[TSS] Interlude: Mabel Willebrandt, First Lady of the Law

I watched the first two episodes of Prohibition on PBS some weeks ago.  The series is a fascinating look at the Prohibition era in the United States and all the effects it has had on us.  For example, did you know Americans generally don't include wine in pasta sauce recipes?  This is because of many changes that occurred in cooking during the Prohibition era, including a tweaking of many recipes that called for alcohol as an ingredient.

In watching this series, I learned about Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the Assistant Attorney General from 1921 to 1929 and was known as "the First Lady of the Law."  The PBS documentary describes her as "an incredibly serious, determined, totally honest person who was told she had to enforce the law.  So she was going to enforce the law."  In her role, Willebrandt took on cases related to taxes and prisons, but most famously, she was a strong enforcer of the Volstead Act, more commonly known as the Prohibition Act.

Mabel Walker was born in Kansas in 1889.  She started school at age 13 and quickly went up the ranks, graduating from Arizona State University in 1911.  Before going to Arizona State, she was expelled from a Protestant college for "questioning the doctrine of the Virgin birth."  She married A. F. Willebrandt in 1910 and worked as a principal to support both of them through law school and took care of his mother, but she divorced him in 1920 when she decided he wasn't doing enough work himself.  She received her law degree from the University of Southern California in 1916.  After school, she became a public prosecutor, and took on many cases defending prostitutes and working to make sure that the men who hired them were forced to come to court and be prosecuted, too.

At age 32, she was appointed Assistant Attorney General by President Warren G. Harding at the urging of California Republicans.  It sounds like a very great honor, but it wasn't, really- the job had very few political advantages, so they thought they might as well give it to a woman.

Willebrandt had not been at all active in the Temperance movement.  She even liked having drinks.  But when she got the job, she became a teetotaler and went about her job with a great deal of effort because she believed herself to be "an instrument of God."  And she had a lot of work to do.  Willebrandt didn't think the Volstead Act was strong enough for her to take action against and bring lawbreakers to justice.  She had no confidence in her boss, whom she considered to be supremely unqualified.  She thought the Prohibition agents that worked for her were useless, as many of them were preachers and other men that had not been trained at all in how to be FBI agents.  But she kept going, petitioning for a fleet of ships to patrol the waters against smugglers and worked with the Treasury Department to put the big-time bootleggers behind bars, most notably the Big Four of Savannah.

Willebrandt was also a strong supporter of prison reform and was successful in establishing a separate prison for women in West Virginia.  She campaigned strongly for Herbert Hoover in the 1928 election year (earning the nickname "Prohibition Portia") but was disappointed when he thanked her for her efforts by booting her out of her job.  She returned to private practice and worked to get commercial air travel approved in the US.  She even met Amelia Earheart.

Willebrandt died in 1963, which is a shame as she missed much of the women's and civil rights movements.  I think she would have been a strong and vocal supporter of both.


  1. I did watch the Prohibition documentary and was equally fascinated with her. Here is my Sunday Salon. Have a great day.

  2. The Prohibition documentary sounds very interesting! I'd never heard of Mabel Walker Willebrand before but she certainly sounds like a fascinating and intelligent woman who did a lot and hasn't received much credit for it.

  3. I agree that people with an important voice in historical events sometimes receive little or no recognition. Thanks for sharing.


  4. That was a really interesting post, I admit that I have never heard about her, but reading about powerful women is always inspiring. Thank you for stopping by my blog :)

  5. Willebrandt sounds like she had a very staunch set of morals and ethics, and I can see why she should be lauded and appreciated. Like many women with power and influence, her story is fascinating, but I think, under-told. This was a great post and I learned a lot from reading it. Can I just tell you how exciting I am finding this whole series? I always relish coming over here to read and learn. Good job with this one!

  6. To outlaw it totally was just so very very silly

  7. I love the sound of that documentary! And again, thank you for bringing a fascinating little corner of history to my attention.

  8. Anonymous11/07/2011

    Okay, totally off topic (as usual), but does anyone think that Heather from Age 30...looks like Mabel??

  9. I first heard of Mabel from the Ken Burns doc. Found her story very interesting and decided to write a song about her...


I read every comment posted on this blog, even if it sometimes takes me a while to respond. Thank you for taking the time and effort to comment here! Unless you are spamming me, in which case, thanks for nothing.