The Wasp Ascendancy


The other day in a secondhand book shop, I happened across a rather seedy looking little green paperbound volume I had never known to exist. It is called Women and Repeal, and it recounts the saga—a very genuine saga it was too—of the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, quite largely by efforts of the mobilized womanhood of the WASP ascendancy. Their leader on this occasion was Mrs. Charles H. Sabin, later Mrs. Dwight Davis; and her Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform beat the tar out of the formerly all-powerful Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and its formidable boss, Mrs. Ella Boole, whose pince-nez had gleamed upon scenes of uninterrupted triumph since 1918.

I bought the dingy little book, which I suspect its heroine paid to have written, for several distinctly miscellaneous reasons. To begin with, the former Mrs. Sabin was a leading Washington personage after she became Mrs. Dwight Davis, and in Washington she became an enormously kind older friend of mine when I was assigned to the Capitol by The New York Herald Tribune in late 1935. Then, too, a great number of the ladies mentioned in the little green book were well known to me as my mother’s dear friends—although, to be sure, my mother was much too partisan a Republican politician to approve altogether of complete nonpartisanship, even in the fight against the Eighteenth Amendment, as advocated by the ladies battling for its repeal.

Furthermore, I am by way of being a very minor member of the ever-diminishing group of survivors of the WASP ascendancy; and the assault upon prohibition by the ladies led by Mrs. Sabin was the WASP ascendancy’s last organized success. The equation was simple. The belatedly unanimous, belatedly vocal, almost nationwide WASP ascendancy, organized by Mrs. Sabin in the name of repeal, and thus firmly added to the nation’s near-50 percent of Catholic, Greek, Ukrainian, and other groups known to the politicians nowadays by the silly label “ethnics,” abruptly produced a solid majority for repeal in most states of the union. So the politicians, instead of trembling before Mrs. Boole, her ferocious ladies, and her Baptist and Methodist allies of the Anti-Saloon League and suchlike, suddenly found themselves trembling and making obeisance to Mrs. Sabin, assorted archbishops and metropolitans, and city bosses of Irish and Italian stock. The WASP injection gave the extra weight that did the trick, in fact.

Nowadays people talk about WASPs without thinking very clearly about what they mean. In most cases, however, it is pretty clear that they really mean the WASP ascendancy. Otherwise the label is vastly too inclusive, for example applying equally to the defeated Mrs. Boole and her cohorts and Mrs. Sabin and hers. After all, White Anglo Saxon Protestants, if these qualities were the only tickets of admission, still constituted just about half the total population of the United States when I was a boy and young man.

The WASP ascendancy, however, was a much narrower group. I don’t know quite how…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.