The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

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The Womans Christian Temperance Union


Forging a National Movement . In 1874 women concerned with the adverse effects of alcohol consumption on American family life formed the Womans ChristianTemperance Union (WCTU), an organization devoted to limiting Americans consumption of alcohol and the influence of the liquor business in city, state, and national politics. With its roots in Protestant reform, the WCTU grew throughout the 1870s and 1880s. By the end of the century the WCTU had become the single largest organization of women in the nation and its leader, Frances Willard, one of the most influential women in the United States. In 1892 the WCTU membership of 150,000 far outstripped that of other activist groups, including the National-American Woman Suffrage Association, with 13,000 dues-paying members, and the General Federation of Womens Clubs, with some 20,000 members.

Alcohol Consumption . Since the early days of the republic, alcohol had played an important role in the American diet, including that of children. Parents regularly quieted crying babies with sweetened liquor. Alcohol was a main ingredient in many medicines; it was part of military rations; and it was often the only beverage available at work sites. Many factors contributed to the popularity of beer, wine, and liquor. Clean water was hard to find in urban areas, and fresh milk was expensive and frequently tainted with tuberculosis and other diseases. In contrast alcohol was cheap and plentiful. Furthermore, many Americans believed that alcohol was beneficial, supplying the necessary energy for hard physical labor and the internal warmth that enabled men to work in cold conditions.

The Liquor Business . By 1900 the liquor industry employed one out of 116 Americans. The nation spent more than $1 billion on alcoholic beverages, as compared to $900 million on meat, $150 million on contributions to churches, and less than $200 million on public education. In Chicago, where the WCTU established its national office, the number of saloons in 1899 equaled the

number of grocery stores, meat markets, and dry-goods stores combined. A survey in 1895 reported that on an average day the number of saloon customers was equal to one-half of the Chicago population.

Saloons. Saloons figured centrally into the lives of city dwellers. For the price of a drink a poor workingman could also get a free lunch. Bars served as public meeting areas and places for men to relax away from their work and from their families. Of the 1,002 political meetings held in New York City in 1886, 800 of them were held in saloons. Critics worried that the liquor industry corrupted the political process through buying votes, bribing officials, and fostering crime. In many cities the liquor business controlled a disproportionate number of public offices, especially on the local level. For example one-third of the aldermen of Detroit and Milwaukee in the 1890s were saloon keepers, as were half the Democratic precinct workers in Chicago at the turn of the century.

The Drunkard Husband. Alcohol use and abuse created both personal and social problems, many of which affected the lives of women and children. During the 1870s and 1880s most Americans viewed alcohol as a male prerogative and the saloon as a male institution where only fallen women went. The husband who I drank had a reputation for beating his wife and children, spending his familys meager income on drink, and driving his wife and children into destitution. Statistically this reputation was well founded. If women worked outside the home, they were expected to turn over their wages to their husbands, and wives had no legal claims on their husbands earnings. When the WCTU was formed in 1874, no woman in the United States possessed full suffrage. In thirty-seven states women possessed no legal rights to their children, and all their possessions became their husbands property when they married. Given womens restricted legal rights and social customs that discouraged divorce, the drunken husband came to be seen by temperance workers as a womans true oppressor.

The WCTU. Because alcohol was an accepted part of family and social lives of Catholic and Jewish immigrants, the WCTU attracted mainly Protestant women from old American families during the 1870s and 1880s. For many it was their first organizational experience outside church. For others it was an extension of their missionary work. Members demonstrated in front of saloons, pressuring them to close and trying to convince their patrons to sign abstinence pledges. A few demonstrations resulted in the destruction of saloon property. Although they themselves could not vote, WCTU members nationwide worked to convince voters in local elections to turn their communities from wet to dry. Under the leadership of the dynamic Frances Willard, who assumed the presidency in 1879, the WCTU abandoned its claim that alcohol was the cause of poverty and misery and instead emphasized that poverty and social injustice were the causes of many social ailments, including alcohol abuse.

Home Protection. As the WCTU grew, it came to embody womens changing relationships to the public world of work and politics. It drew women out of the home and into the public life. Under the banner of Home Protection, the WCTU expanded political discourse by offering a new concept of the home as the entire community, leading many women to call for equal suffrage so that women could strengthen their efforts to protect families. As the first organization controlled exclusively by women, the WCTU gave women new experiences in leadership roles. Although women had long been active members of abolitionist and church movements, they had never had leadership or institutional control. From its begin-nings the WCTU excluded men from voting. Women ran the organization on local, state, and national levels. The WCTU cut across regional, racial, and ethnic boundaries, with seamstresses, artisans, teachers and clerks, housewives, and career women working side by side.

Do Everything. As the movement grew, its focus expanded to include issues that were not directly related to alcohol. Willards do everything program encouraged local branches to address issues that members defined as pressing. Politically diverse women found places in the WCTU as the organization turned to prison reform and labor reform, supporting the eight-hour workday and child-protection laws. In Chicago the local branch sponsored two day nurseries, two Sunday schools, an industrial school, a mission that sheltered four thousand homeless or destitute women a year, a free medical dispensary, a lodging house for homeless men, and a low-cost restaurant. By defining the community as an extension of womens maternal responsibilities, the WCTU enabled thousands of women to become active outside the home without threatening the men in their traditional roles.

The WCTU in the 1890s. Despite its considerable successes, the WCTU became less influential in the 1890s than it had been during the 1880s. Willard died in 1898, and she became less involved in running the WCTU during the final years of her life. As her influence waned, the organization turned away from her do everything philosophy and became a single-issue movement. The economic crisis of 1893 left the organization strapped for funds for the first time, placing severe restrictions on the activities of its national and state organizations, its publishing house, and its paid leaders. The WCTU also faced competition from other major womens organizations, particularly the General Federation of Womens Clubs, which concentrated on education, self-improvement, and sociability rather than an activist program. Unlike the WCTU, the Womens Clubs comprised white middle-class women, rendering them more attractive to women of means than the racially and ethnically mixed WCTU. The National-American Woman Suffrage Association grew rapidly in the 1890s, drawing away many younger women from the WCTU. Jane Addamss settlement-house movement, with its emphasis on helping poor and immigrant populations directly, also pulled many activist women away from temperance. By the turn of the century many young women concluded that temperance was old-fashioned and out of date. While the WCTU continued into the twentieth century, it never again reached the heights of popularity and influence it held in the 1870s and 1880s.


Ruth Bordin, Women and Temperance (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990).

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The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

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