Skirting The Law: Women in Vice During U.S. Prohibition in South Texas, 1900-1933

Carolina Monsivais, University of Texas at El Paso


This dissertation explores both women’s participation in the vice industry north of the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas and the ways in which women were policed. The dissertation analyzes the interactions that occurred between law enforcement agents and the women they arrested, primarily ethnic Mexican women. This analysis illuminates law enforcement tactics that were honed during this era through the interactions that agents had with women who worked in vice industries. I also argue that women in this industry demonstrated knowledge, agency, and resistance. In addition, it created avenues of work for women, particularly in South Texas. However, studies examining this era have primarily focused on the men who smuggled or had violent interactions with law enforcement agents. This work writes women into the historiography on Prohibition by emphasizing women’s experiences and occupations, with a focus on the ways in which they impacted and benefited from the industry. The first three chapters of the dissertation examine the interactions that occurred between law enforcement and women working in the illicit alcohol industry. I outline the tactics that agents adopted when they arrested women in these cases. In addition to examining their tactics, I also considered the ways in which their notions of morality often played a role in how agents handled their cases. These chapters also center on the roles women chose in the industry, which included smuggling, selling, or harboring alcohol. By adopting these occupations, women were able to maintain their own households, which often included children and extended family members. In these cases, women worked on their own, with other women, or their male partners. Overall, in order to analyze these cases, I shift the focus toward women’s homes, which are spaces that are traditionally female and historically overlooked. The final two chapters focus on interactions between law enforcement and women who worked in other vice industries such as those related to sex work and narcotics. While some women were charged under laws that predated Prohibition, the same law enforcement agents who handled Prohibition cases also arrested women who either worked in the sex industry or behaved in a manner that agents deemed questionable and at times immoral. While laws intended to restrict the usage of narcotics slightly predate Prohibition, agents who honed their skills in alcohol related cases used that knowledge to arrest women on narcotics charges. The final chapter also illuminates how law enforcement agents handled cases that involved women who were charged under the Immigration Law of 1929. In these cases, agents enforced the law according to how they perceived women’s behavior. These cases provide a view into women’s lives, one that has long been omitted, and are therefore crucial to understanding the ways in which women demonstrated knowledge, agency, and resistance. Ultimately, this study contributes to a greater understanding of gender and ethnic relations on the U.S.-Mexico border. It challenges previous studies on Prohibition that have either overlooked women’s participation or have not fully focused on the long-term repercussions of the era.

Subject Area

Womens studies|Latin American history|American history

Recommended Citation

Monsivais, Carolina, "Skirting The Law: Women in Vice During U.S. Prohibition in South Texas, 1900-1933" (2019). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI27667325.