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October 4, 2011


"Prohibiton" and the Carrie Nations

The Carrie Nations

Are you watching the new Ken Burns documentary "Prohibition"? So far I've seen the first episode, and it's really great. As with all his stuff, the images and film clips he's collected are truly amazing: he's gathered loads of video of ecstatic partiers in the 1920's cavorting in jazz clubs and guzzling bottles of gin and looking like they're having more fun than you've ever experienced in your life, which he intercuts with shots of stern crusaders hacking apart barrels of liquor with axes and gloating as all that devil's brew gushes into the streets. You can watch the full episodes online.

Even though it's titled "Prohibition", he looks at a broad history of alcohol in early America, when we were a nation of immigrants unified by our love of drinking. The Temperance movement was pretty much synonymous with feminism in the 19th century, and there are some great photos of hordes of women kneeling in prayer in their voluminous skirts outside of saloons and marching through city streets to protest the sale of liquor at a time when marching wasn't something women generally did.

But the best story of all was about the violent firebrand anti-alcohol hellraiser, Carrie Nation. She was such a compelling figure at the center of a bizarre episode in our country's history that Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer were inspired to name their busty, gutsy, all-girl rock band in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the Carrie Nations, after her. You can see some truly wonderful stills from the movie and revel in a moment in American cinema when a lurid piece of surrealist sexploitation trash would reference early feminist crusaders. Ah, the 70's.

Ken Burns, sadly, makes no mention of the Russ Meyer film in his documentary. The real-life Ms. Nation had a rough life plagued by alcoholic men, and lived in Kansas, where liquor sales were illegal but bars still flourished. In her 50's, she decided to take justice into her own hands, and with God's alleged support, started going from town to town, attacking saloons with rocks.

From her Wikipedia entry:

Announcing "Men, I have come to save you from a drunkard's fate," she began to destroy the saloon's stock with her cache of rocks. After she similarly destroyed two other saloons in Kiowa, a tornado hit eastern Kansas, which she took as divine approval of her actions.

After she led a raid in Wichita her husband joked that she should use a hatchet next time for maximum damage. Nation replied, "That is the most sensible thing you have said since I married you." Alone or accompanied by hymn-singing women she would march into a bar, and sing and pray while smashing bar fixtures and stock with a hatchet.

My favorite Carrie Nation quote from the doc: "I tell you ladies, you don't know how good it feels till you begin to smash, smash, smash!"

Sure, she was probably mentally ill, and claiming you're doing God's work by throwing rocks at bartenders is never OK, but I can't help but love her and her take-no-prisoners style.

Maybe the Occupy Wall Streeters could take some inspiration from Ms. Nation and start carrying hatchets and Bibles and using her slogan, "Good morning, destroyer of men's souls," to greet bankers heading to work.

categories: Culture, Movies, TV, Women
posted by amy at 11:44 AM | #

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Well, we do have Michelle Bachmann and Michelle Malkin, who are probably the best modern inheritors to Carrie Nation---censorious, religious, without doubt or quarter. A little more rhetorical than physical, but otherwise, pretty good match.

Posted by: That fuzzy Bastard at October 13, 2011 3:29 PM

Those two women certainly share Carrie Nation's unreasonable intolerance of things they personally disapprove of (though at least Nation was fighting against an illegal enterprise), but I don't see either of them taking to the streets for their causes. Or attacking anyone with hatchets. That would be absolutely terrifying, but at least it would get them handcuffed and hauled away.

Spouting hatred and cruelty in the guise of religion from the safety of a news studio is nowhere near as gutsy, or psychotic, as bursting into a bar with a bunch of rocks. From the safety of historical distance in a post-21st amendment world, Carrie Nation is way more more interesting.

I wonder if John Waters will ever name a band in one of his movies The Michele Bachmanns.

Posted by: amy at October 13, 2011 3:58 PM

Well, Malkin did take it to the streets with the TP'ers, but it's true that hardly anybody is really out with hatchets (after the 60s, it seemed genuinely threatening, rather than cute). But I do think of them as very much in the same tradition: The righteous Christian woman, uninterested in mealy-mouthed niceties in the pursuit of sin, and able to be audacious in a way men would be locked up for. It's essentially the British colonial woman, with her spiritual certainty and faith in her own abilities, combined with American pugnaciousness. Obviously, Malkin and Bachmann are more obviously Not On My Side, but then, I doubt Carrie Nation would be so likable were she not a century removed.

Posted by: That Fuzzy Bastard at October 13, 2011 5:17 PM

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