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Women's Christian Temperance Union


The nineteenth century was a time of drastic changes in the way many Americans viewed Alcohol. Early in the century, on average, U.S. citizens each consumed approximately 7 gallons of alcohol annually, the equivalent of about 2.5 ounces of pure alcohol daily. Concern that the United States would turn into a "nation of drunkards" led to the Temperance Movement of the early nineteenth century. This movement was loosely organized, consisting of the following diverse factions: (1) the neorepublicans, who were concerned with a host of problems that threatened the nation's security; (2) temperance societies, such as the Washingtonians, which served as the forerunners of modern-day self-help groups; and (3) physicians, who came to view habitual drunkenness as a disease. The goals of these groups varied; they ranged from helping habitual drunkards, to discouraging the use of alcoholic beverages, to advocating the prohibition of alcoholic beverages.

This first wave of temperance activists met with some successthirteen states passed prohibition laws by 1855, and average alcohol consumption rates dropped to less than 3 gallons per person annuallybut this was stopped by the growing national concern surrounding the approaching Civil War. Although the role of women was nearly nonexistent during this first temperance movement, the early movement set the stage for the post-Civil War temperance movement, in which women played a crucial part.

The years following the Civil War were a somewhat chaotic time. With the onset of the urban-industrial revolution and the concomitant changes witnessed in postbellum America, many people sought what Lender and Martin (1982, p. 92) term "a search for order." This search found a home in various social-reform movements. Broad-based reform movements attacked a number of issues thought to threaten American society, including education reform, women's rights, and intemperance.

Aaron and Musto (1981) refer to this period as the second great prohibition wave. Many local temperance societies survived the Civil War, as did the American Temperance Union. In 1869, the National Prohibition party was formed. This group supported the abolition of alcohol and recruited women into the anti-liquor fight. The National Prohibition party advocated complete and unrestricted suffrage for women, and their enlistment of women into the temperance movement marked the first public involvement of women in the temperance effort.

The post-Civil War Progressive movement also influenced the issue of temperance. The Progressives believed that alcohol was "the enemy of industrial efficiency, a threat to the working of democratic government, the abettor of poverty and disease" (Bordin, 1981, p. xvi). To the Progressives, temperance reform was a means for confronting genuine social problems. Business leaders increasingly came to view the use of alcohol as incongruous with the new technological society that America was becoming. Alcohol symbolized wastefulness, rampant pluralism, individualism, and potential social disorder.

At the same time, a growing number of physicians and temperance workers were coming to regard habitual drunkenness as a disease. At the core of the conception of this disease was its inherently progressive nature. Moderate drinking inevitably led to addiction, according to temperance workers, who proposed that as long as liquor was available to entice people to drink, and as long as moderate drinkers were around to act as models, then there would be drunkards. Increasingly, the blame for such addiction to alcohol was placed less on the individual and more on the society that permitted the sale of liquor and condoned drinking.

Some of the other factors that contributed to the milieu in which the women's temperance movement developed included better education for women, fewer children to care for, and the growing urbanization of America. As more household appliances became available and fewer women had to work around the clock at home or on the farm, they gained more leisure time. In addition, women came to be viewed as the protectors of the homewhile, increasingly, alcohol was seen as a threat to the security of the home. These factors, in combination with an increased middle class and better communications, set the stage for the first mass movement of women into U.S. politics.


Ironically, the direct origins of the movement in which women gained entry into the political arena can be traced back to a manDio Lewis. By the 1870s, Lewis, a trained homeopathic physician, had given up his practice of medicine to embark on a career as an educator and lecturer. In December 1873, Lewis's lecture circuit included the cities and small towns of Ohio and New York. In each of them, he agreed to deliver an additional lecture as well as his scheduled talk related to women's issuesthe topic of his extra speech was the duty of Christian women in temperance work. As an immediate result of his temperance lectures, women in each of these cities organized and marched on saloons and liquor distributors. Praying and singing hymns, the women were able to convince many proprietors of alcohol establishments to pledge themselves to stop selling liquor.

This grass-roots movement, which came to be known as the Women's Crusade, quickly moved through Ohio and into neighboring states. Typically, the women of a community would call a meeting eliciting support from other women. After praying over their cause, they would organize their efforts, which included asking local ministers to preach on the topic of temperance. They also sought pledges of support from local political leaders. Finally, they would take to the streets, marching on distributors of liquor as they attempted to persuade them to cease their sales of alcohol.


By November 1874, the Women's Crusade had grown to the point where a national convention was called. Sixteen states were represented at this convention, out of which the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) emerged. Annie Wittenmeyer was named the first president of the WCTU, and a platform of action was agreed upon including the principle of total abstinence for WCTU members. Other plans involved committing the organization to (1) strongly promote the introduction of temperance education in both Sunday schools and public schools; (2) continue to use the evangelical methods, mass meetings, and prayer services that had been successful during their crusades; (3) urge the newspapers to report on their activities; and (4) distribute literature informing people of their cause. Although these first program commitments were later expanded, the convention's first set of resolutions provided the direction the WCTU would initially follow.


Under the leadership of Annie Wittenmeyer, the primary commitment of the WCTU was to gospel temperance. Wittenmeyer contended that the WCTU program should stress personal reform of the drunkard and of the whole liquor industry by moral suasion. She supported conversion to Christianity, religious commitment, acknowledgment of sin, and willingness to abandon evil ways as methods to reform those who drank. She shied away from seeking out legislative mandates as the solution to intemperance, however, and intentionally distanced herself from the women's suffrage movement; she feared possible repercussions for women in the home, should they campaign for the right to vote.

Although Wittenmeyer was instrumental in the early success of the WCTU, Frances Willard is recognized as the most influential leader of the women's temperance movement. Willard was chosen to be secretary at the first convention. Her views were often more radical than those of Wittenmeyer, particularly regarding women's rights. In 1879, she was elected president of the WCTU and served in that role until her death in 1898. Twentieth-century observers of the women's temperance movement may be more familiar with the name of Carrie Nation, who was known for raiding saloons armed with axes and hatchets; however, militant individuals such as she constitute a small fringe element of the WCTU. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the true spirit of the WCTU was embodied in the person of Frances Willard.


While Wittenmeyer's primary commitment was to moral suasion, from the beginning of Willard's involvement in the WCTU, women's rights commanded her deeper loyalty. This commitment would be seen in the direction the WCTU would take after 1879 (and was even evident while Willard served as secretary, as she subtly pushed for commitment to broader political programs). In 1876, Willard had introduced the concept of "home protection" to the WCTU. Building on earlier arguments that made use of women's traditional roles within the home and the need to defend and protect those roles, Willard proposed extending women the right to vote on prohibition issues as a means of further protecting women. At the time of this proposal, the idea of granting women the right to vote based on their natural or political right to do so was not palatable to many people, women and men alike. By introducing the suffrage issue under the guise of home protection, Willard was able to introduce the right-to-vote issue within the WCTU with less opposition than if she had sought solely to address women's suffrage.

As president, Willard ran the WCTU as a "well-oiled reform machine." Emphasizing organization at the local level, Willard was able to establish the mass base necessary for effective action. By 1880 the WCTU easily outstripped other women's organizations in both size and importance. Bordin (1981) estimates that there were 1,200 local unions with 27,000 WCTU members by the time Willard became president.

Under the leadership of Willard, the WCTU continued many of the programs that were adopted while Wittenmeyer was president. A number of states passed compulsory temperance-education laws, in large part due to the influence of the WCTU. In addition, the omnipresent push for abstinence from alcoholic beverages continued to typify the movement's goalsas is evidenced by the brief alliance forged between the WCTU and the Prohibition party. The WCTU of the 1880s, however, also departed from its roots on a variety of issues. It evolved from a temperance praying society to an activist organization. Whereas Wittenmeyer sought for change through moral suasion, Willard saw the advantages of political solutions to both the problems caused by intemperance as well as the problems facing women. Willard supported federal constitutional prohibition as the most effective way to deal with alcohol abuse, and she endorsed the temperance ballot for women as the surest way to achieve prohibition.

By the mid-1880s, the WCTU had expanded to every U.S. state and territory, and its platform had undergone similar expansion. Willard adopted the slogan "Do Everything" to describe the focus of the WCTU under her guidance; initially, she had coined this phrase to depict the lengths to which she was willing to go to support the prohibition cause. By the late 1880s, however, she was committed to broader societal changes. Willard's strongest commitment remained to women's rights, and she argued as well for equal rights.

The membership of the WCTU in the early 1890s grew to an estimated 150,000 dues-paying members, with an additional 150,000 in affiliated groups. The WCTU had reached out to women of all social classes and minority groups. The growing influence of the WCTU was evident in the passage of several state prohibition laws in the 1880s, as well as in the growing support for a federal constitutional prohibition of liquor.

Although the number of women involved in the WCTU would continue to grow to approximately 1.5 million in the early twentieth century, as the nineteenth century drew to a close, the WCTU began losing its power and importance. Most notably, Willard became less visible in the years preceding her death. In her absence, conflicts arose among other leaders of the movement as to the organization's proper direction. In addition, as older leaders died or withdrew from active participation, fewer young women joined the WCTU to replace them.


As other organizations endorsing women's rights and/or prohibition were developed, membership in the WCTU slowly dwindled. Following Willard's death in 1898, the WCTU returned to a single-issue approach, focusing solely on prohibition. Although the ultimate goal of prohibition would eventually be achieved, it was not until the growth of the Anti-Saloon League (established 1896) that national prohibition would be realized. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was proposed and sent to the states December 18, 1917, and was ratified by three quarters of the states by January 16, 1919; it became effective January 16, 1920, establishing that the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors, for beverage purposes, was prohibited. During the 1920s, it was clear that enforcement of the alcohol-beverage industry was almost impossible and that Americans would not give up drinking easily. The Repeal of Prohibition began as a movement that culminated in the Twenty-first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; it was proposed and sent to the states February 20, 1933, and was ratified December 5, 1933.

Small groups of WCTU members can still be found in, for the most part, rural areas of the United States. The organization is based in Evanston, Illinois, and listed about 100,000 members in 1990.

(See also: Alcohol ; Disease Concept of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse ; Treatment, History of )


Aaron, P., & Musto, D. (1981). Temperance and prohibition in America: A historical overview. In M. H. Moore & D. R. Gerstein (Eds.), Alcohol and public policy. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Blocker, J. S. (1985). "Give to the winds thy fears": The women's temperance crusade, 1873-1874. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Bordin, R. (1986). Frances Willard: A biography. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Bordin, R. (1981). Woman and temperance: The quest for power and liberty, 1873-1900. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Estep, B. (1992). Losing its bite. Lexington Herald-Leader, January 19, 1, 11.

Lender, M. E., & Martin, J. K. (1982). Drinking in America: A history. New York: Free Press.

Levine, H. G. (1984). The alcohol problem in America: From temperance to alcoholism. British Journal of Addiction, 79, 109-119.

Mendelson, J. H., & Mello, N. K. (1985). Alcohol: Use and abuse in America. Boston: Little, Brown.

Gary Bennett

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