The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol in the United States. This was commonly known as Prohibition. As soon as Prohibition started, so did bootlegging. Popular media of the time often portrayed bootleggers as mobsters or glamorous speakeasy matrons. While such people existed, most bootlegging happened on a much smaller scale.
For working-class families, particularly at the start of the Great Depression, selling alcohol provided a necessary second income. Women were active participants in this home-grown industry. While men were outside the home working, women could manage a liquor enterprise while completing their other at home responsibilities. Some women distilled liquor in their homes on a small scale; others sold liquor acquired through larger smuggling operations.
It is difficult to quantify how many women participated in small-scale bootlegging. However, the number of women arrested under Prohibition laws suggests it was a widespread practice. More women were charged with federal crimes than ever before. A federal women’s prison was built in West Virginia in response to the so-called crisis.
The growing number of people imprisoned for selling alcohol contributed to Prohibition’s repeal. By the early 1930s, many Americans believed that the Eighteenth Amendment did more harm than good. Congress passed the Twenty-First Amendment repealing Prohibition in February 1933, and it was ratified in December of that year.
This newspaper article from the New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune describes the case of Mary Toia, who was charged with the illegal sale of liquor for the third time. The Times-Picayune regularly published articles about women and men charged with bootlegging, suggesting that many New Orleans families needed the additional income illegal liquor sales provided.