The following post appears courtesy of the library staff.
Women have always played a major part in the Department of Justice and have contributed to every aspect of the Department’s operations. March is Women’s History Month and this month we highlight women who have played important roles in Justice Department history. These women, and many others, provide wonderful examples of the exemplary service women have made, and continue to make, to the United States. Their service and dedication has helped secure the safety of our nation.
Mabel Walker Willebrandt (b. May 23, 1889 – d. April 6, 1963) served as Assistant Attorney General from 1921 – 1929
She was appointed by President Harding and was the second woman to serve in the role of Assistant Attorney General. She was the first to complete an extended term. Prior to accepting the position, Willebrandt served in Los Angeles as the first ever assistant police court defender and headed the Legal Advisory Board for draft cases.
Willebrandt, who was 32 years old when she began her tenure at Justice, headed the division which enforced violations of the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act. The task was not popular, and Willebrandt did not favor prohibition, but she aggressively upheld the Act throughout the “Roaring Twenties.”
Despite any personal reservations, Willebrandt achieved impressive results. First she advocated changes in federal tactics which included: transferring enforcement from the Treasury to the Department of Justice; prosecuting major suppliers of alcohol rather than speakeasy owners; allocating federal rather than state trial judges; improving training for all law enforcement personnel; and proscribing longer sentences.
Next, her office indicted two of the most lucrative dealers: the Big Four Savannah in 1923 (arguably the largest bootlegging ring in the U.S.) and George Remus, Cincinnati bootlegger. She initiated 48,734 prosecutions from June 1924 – June 1925, a record number that resulted in 39,072 convictions.
Arguing over 40 cases before the Supreme Court, more than most of her contemporaries, Willebrandt won the right to control liquor sales on both American and foreign vessels. She later authored a book, The Inside of Prohibition, which described how political interference, incompetent public officials, and public indifference hampered her work.
This post is the second in a series celebrating the women of the Department of Justice. Read the first post.