top of page

Remembering Mabel Walker Willebrandt
"The First Lady of Law"

By Randy Jaye

There is a long list of extraordinary women in American history. The names that instantly come to my mind include Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Helen Keller, Marilyn Monroe, Annie Oakley, Rosa Parks, Sally Ride, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. However, the woman that resides at the very top of my list, from an historical perspective, is Mabel Walker Willebrandt. She was Assistant U.S. Attorney General, prison reformer, and the highest ranking woman in the federal government during most of the turbulent Prohibition-era (1920-1933). 

Mabel Walker was born on May 23, 1889 in Woodsdale, Kansas. She was an only child. Her parents moved frequently while pursuing various teaching and printing jobs. She was home schooled until age 13. She then attended public school and graduated from high school.

After high school she became a teacher and married Arthur Willebrandt, the school’s principal, in 1910. Due to Arthur’s suffering from tuberculosis the couple moved to the dry climate of Arizona. She obtained a job as a teacher, supported Arthur while he recuperated, attended and graduated from the Tempe Normal School, now Arizona State University.

Mabel Walker Willebrant - Outside the White House in
Washington, D.C. ~ ca. 1928 (Public Domain)

In 1912, the couple moved to Los Angeles. She taught elementary school during the day, and attended the University of Southern California at night. Arthur attended law school during the day and was not employed. She earned a law degree in 1916, suffered a miscarriage, separated from Arthur later that year, and earned a Master of Laws degree in 1917. The Willebrandt’s divorce was finalized in 1924.


She became the City of Los Angeles’s first female public defender, and mostly handled cases involving prostitutes. During World War I, Willebrandt was head of Los Angeles’s Legal Advisory Board where she dealt with military draft cases.


In 1921, she was recommended by several people including law professor Frank Doherty, and Senator Hiram Johnson for the post of Assistant U.S. Attorney General. President Warren G. Harding decided to appoint her to that post. At 32 years old in 1921, she became the highest ranking woman in the federal government, and was only the second woman in U.S. history to hold the position of Assistant U.S. Attorney General.

Edith Mayer, Louis B. Mayer, Mrs. Mayer, Irene Mayer, and Mabel Walker

Willebrandt. Photograph dated February 3, 1927 (Public Domain)

The Prohibition-era began on January 17, 1920 under the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors. It was enforced by the Volstead Act, but from the very beginning it was difficult to enforce. 


Willebrandt was assigned head of the federal taxation division of the Justice Department, Bureau of Federal Prisons, and handled cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act. She was burdened with one of the heaviest responsibilities of any appointed official in the federal government during the Prohibition-era.


Willebrandt became a strong enforcer of the Volstead Act, and also became a teetotaler. She fired hundreds of corrupt and incompetent federal employees and replaced them with better trained and educated people in an all-out effort to enforce Prohibition.

She realized that in order to stop the numerous small bootleggers the large operations at the top of the smuggling rings had to be shuttered. One of her main targets became Florida’s notorious rum runner Bill McCoy (“The Real McCoy”), who was the pioneer of Rum Row. McCoy had become a national celebrity as he was making a mockery of the U.S. Coast Guard’s inept efforts to halt illicit alcohol smuggling along the Atlantic coast. 


Willebrandt considered Bill McCoy to be the federal government’s main target (the precursor to Public Enemy Number One). Armed with a new treaty with Great Britain that allowed the U.S. to board British ships in international waters if they were suspected of rum running into the United States she encouraged the Coast Guard to hunt him down. The U.S. Coast Guard arrested McCoy in international waters on November 23, 1923, aboard his British registered ship Tomoka. He served 9 months in jail, and actually met with Willebrandt while incarcerated. Upon his release he returned to Holly Hill, Florida and did not pursue the rum running business ever again.

Image: Mabel Walker Willebrandt - Cover of Time magazine - Monday, Aug. 26, 1929, Vol. XIV, No. 9

In 1927, Willebrandt successfully argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that taxes should be paid on illegal income. This decision allowed the IRS to build income tax evasion cases against mobsters, including Al Capone.


Since the number of women being arrested during Prohibition doubled Willebrandt petitioned Congress for the funds to build a new federal prison for women. The nation’s first federal prison for women opened in Alderson, West Virginia in 1929. 


In 1928, Willebrandt rigorously campaigned for the Republican presidential candidate, Herbert Hoover. After Hoover won the presidency it is speculated that he was hesitant to promote her to U.S. Attorney General because Prohibition was becoming very unpopular, and she was the pubic face of its enforcement. The Hoover administration also turned her down for a federal judgeship.

Mabel Walker Willebrandt with Amelia Earhart while promoting commercial air travel
ca. 1930 (Public Domain)

After being snubbed by the Hoover administration Willebrandt resigned from her office in May 1929. She returned to Los Angeles and opened a private law practice specializing in radio and aeronautical law. She also represented many Hollywood celebrities including Louis B. Mayer, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and the MGM Studios. She was also involved with the drafting of the Screen Directors Guild’s controversial loyalty oath against Communism during the Red Scare (1947-1957).


Willebrandt died from lung cancer on April 6, 1963. She never received the proper credit she deserved for her incredible achievements as Assistant U.S. Attorney General.


Today, she is an unsung heroine in U.S. history. Those who know her story often say “If Mabel had worn trousers, she could have been president.”

Mabel Walker Willebrandt, as the attorney to the stars - ca. 1930s (Public Domain)

bottom of page