First Lady of Law: Mabel Walker Willebrandt

March is Women’s History Month. Visit the National Archives website for resources and virtual events related to women’s history. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

When everyone around you is breaking the law, what do you do? For Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the law was absolute and there was no distraction from her purpose. Many Americans believed Prohibition was a mistake and flagrantly disobeyed the Volstead Act, making a mockery of the justice system. To Willebrandt, however, the lax attitude on obeying and enforcing the Prohibition laws were not to be taken lightly. 

As the Assistant U.S. Attorney General, Willebrandt was the highest ranking woman in President Harding’s and Coolidge’s administrations. In her eight years in office, she prosecuted thousands of Prohibition cases and pursued the nation’s most infamous bootleggers. Before and after her federal career, she practiced law in California, becoming a famous public defender and private counsel to many notable celebrities in the film industry. 

Mabel Elizabeth Walker was born in Kansas on May 28, 1889. Growing up in a sod house on the Kansas prairie, she eventually became a teacher and married the school principal, Arthur Willebrandt. The couple briefly lived in Arizona, where Mabel received a teaching degree from Tempe Normal School. 

They moved to Los Angeles in 1912, and while supporting them both on a teacher’s salary, Mabel graduated from University of Southern California with a law degree in 1916 and became Los Angeles’s first female public defender. Willebrandt garnered a sterling reputation for her tenacity in the courtroom. A bulk of her cases centered on prostitution and would routinely bring in a prostitute’s male clients and have them prosecuted as well. 

Everything changed in 1920 following implementation of the Volstead Act. On recommendation from her legal mentor, circuit judges, and U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson, Willebrandt was appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney General. The appointment made her the highest ranking female official in the federal government, but it came with few allies or benefits. Many believed that the position came with no political gain or had any substantial impact on the federal justice system. Willebrandt, however, turned the position into a powerful office with a large staff and argued thousands of cases before federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Prohibition presented a unique challenge to Willebrandt and federal law enforcement. Violations range from small-time offenses to national bootlegging operations. Willebrandt did not personally support Prohibition, but her passion for the law was enough. She and her staff focused primarily on large-scale bootlegging operations and argued before the Supreme Court that illegal income was taxable. This meant that undeclared income made from illegal operations like bootlegging could be considered tax evasion and a felony. 

Outside of Prohibition enforcement, Willebrandt oversaw the development of the new Federal Bureau of Prisons. Incarceration in the U.S. was haphazard across different states, and many advocates argued that inmates suffered from inhumane conditions and treatment. One of her duties as Assistant Attorney General was to manage the federal prison system.

In 1929, Willebrandt hired Sanford Bates, a former commissioner for prisons in Massachusetts, to head the newly formed FBP. The agency’s goal was to institute new progressive methods for inmate rehabilitation and professionalize the prison service. New safety standards were adopted to protect inmates and guards from physical violence. 

Willebrandt was also instrumental in establishing the first all-female prison in the United States in 1927. Before, female convicts were either given some alternative punishment or were housed separately in all-male facilities. To prevent abuses and lead a more progressive prisoner rehabilitation effort for women, Willebrandt petitioned Congress to adopt this new measure and soon after opened the Federal Industrial Institute for Women (known today as the Federal Prison Camp) in Alderson, West Virginia. 

Willebrandt attached herself to Herbert Hoover’s Presidential campaign in 1928 with the hopes of securing the Attorney General cabinet post (which would have made her the first woman to hold such a position), but when she was passed over, Willebrandt left the Justice Department and returned to private practice. 

She eventually moved to Los Angeles and became a celebrated attorney in the film industry, representing personalities such as Clark Gable, Louis B. Mayer, and Jean Harlow. She continued to practice tax law and later became an expert in federal regulations in aviation. Throughout her professional career, Willebrandt worked tirelessly to improve people’s lives through the justice system and ensure fair and equal treatment for everyone. 

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