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MADD as Hell: From Carrie Nation to Drunk Driving

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Carrie Nation, with Hatchet, Bible, and Attitude

As I was preparing this post and already thinking about Carrie Nation, I learned from a student in a University of Michigan class I am teaching on addiction that the temperance advocate had come to Ann Arbor in 1902, where she was ridiculed by students at a rally only a few blocks from our classroom.   Then as now, Nation’s passionate activism—her “hatchetation,” as she called her campaign to close saloons—could easily be reduced to caricature.  Like other women involved in temperance efforts, Nation blamed the liquor traffic for destroying many men and causing hardship for their wives, children, and mothers;  Nation’s first husband, in fact, died from alcohol-related causes a few years after their marriage.  In 1899, Nation reported that she had experienced a vision calling her to demolish saloons.  Armed with stones, bricks, an iron bar, and eventually a hatchet, Nation smashed bottles, glasses, and mirrors in saloons across Kansas.  Jailed numerous times, Nation then embarked on a lecture tour, raising money which she used to pay her court costs and to establish a home for the wives, children, and mothers of alcoholic men.  Although her goals were shared by mainstream temperance organizations, her religious fervor and violent tactics caused most temperance advocates to keep their distance and brought derision from the media and the general public. (1)

"Home Protection": No Hatchets Necessary (LOC Prints & Photographs Division)

Nation’s methods may have been extreme, and today many dismiss her as a narrow-minded prude, but it is worth recalling that the issues for which she fought might appropriately be considered feminist—she and other temperance advocates linked the temperance cause to the legal and economic powerlessness of women in marriage and to the abuse we now call domestic violence.  For Nation, the solution to these interconnected problems might not be easy, but it was obvious: outlaw saloons and the liquor traffic. The temperance slogan “Home Protection” shows how neatly aligned—indeed, how mutually reinforcing—were ideas about gender and alcohol.

Although she died in 1911, Nation cast a long shadow, showing that despite important changes in both gender roles and American attitudes toward alcohol in the twentieth century, the intersection of these domains carried persistent and resonant echoes from the past.  More than three decades after Nation’s death, and more than ten years after the repeal of national Prohibition, descriptions in the media of Marty Mann, the polished and sophisticated public health advocate who founded the organization that is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, invoked Nation as a counterpoint.  One reporter wrote, for example, “No Carri [sic] Nation, Mrs. Mann, who is an ex-drinker herself, believes that a helping hand can do more to help alcoholics than all the axes in the country” (2).  Mann herself contrasted her campaign with Nation’s, emphasizing that her own organization was neither wet nor dry (a necessary insistence in the post-Repeal era).  Even when the comparison with Nation was used to highlight Mann’s difference, the fact that it was made at all demonstrates the cultural staying power of the gendered politics of temperance.

In the mid-1940s, then, reporters could assume that readers would know Nation’s name and understand the reference to an axe or hatchet.  This familiarity may have largely faded by the last quarter of the twentieth century, but a new group of grassroots activists could still build on the temperance legacy and its associations with motherhood.  Mothers against Drunk Drivers was founded in 1980 by Candy Lightner after her thirteen-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver while she was walking to a church carnival.   From its beginning as “a handful of mothers with a mission,” MADD has grown tremendously over the past three decades.  MADD has lobbied energetically to raise the drinking age to twenty-one and to lower the BAC (blood alcohol concentration) standard for impaired driving, as well as providing victim services and working to prevent youth drinking.

Mothers in Favor of the Straight and Narrow

Although the name of the organization has been changed from Mothers against Drunk Drivers to Mothers against Drunk Driving, much of the early success of the group came from personalizing the driver and the decision to get behind the wheel.  The figure of the “drunk driver” seems to be understood as male, with gender unremarked but representing an implicit comparison with the “Mothers” in the group’s title.  The MADD website lists biographies of the presidents of the organization, all of which offer narratives of loss—the death or severe injury of a child (in some cases, other family members) in a car crash caused by a drunk driver.  All presidents were women, until a man assumed the office in 2005.  He too has a tragic story: his young son was killed by a drunk driver in 1988.

It is no longer possible to call for comprehensive prohibition as the solution to alcohol-related problems, as Nation did, and MADD does not present itself as a temperance organization.  Instead, MADD has succeeded in changing laws that regulate drinking and driving and in reshaping cultural norms such that “designated driver” is now a common phrase.  Despite these differences with Nation in scope, strategy, and presentation style, MADD clearly resonates strongly with the temperance movement.  As reflected in the group’s very title, much of its moral authority comes from motherhood (the one male president is actually the exception that proves the rule, as the name of the group did not change).  MADD activists are trying to protect children, as mothers are supposed to do, and they are also, through their loss, victims themselves.  In this way, they very much echo the nineteenth-century temperance discourse which portrayed women and children as innocents who suffered the effects of men’s drinking.  The implications of this for women’s own drinking is a topic for another day.

(1) Much has been written about Nation, often dismissively.  She published an autobiography (The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation, written by herself (Topeka: F.M. Steves & Sons, 1905) and basic information can be found in Ernest H. Cherrington, Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem (Westerville, Ohio: American Issue Publishing Co., 1928), vol. IV, 1850-1852.  A relatively new biography focuses in particular on her religious life (Fran Grace, Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001).

(2) Dorothy Jones, “500,000 U.S. Women Victims of Alcoholism, Speaker Says,” Detroit News (November 25, 1946), in Oversize Package #2, Mann Papers, Syracuse University Archives; “Women Drinkers,” Erie (Pa.) Times, December 2 (no year), Oversize Package #2, Mann Papers, SUA.



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