Woman’s Christian Temperance Union — (1874-Present)

 

WCTU Prohibition placard
Photo: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Introduction: In the early nineteenth century, women began to participate increasingly in social reform movements. Assumptions about women’s moral authority and their responsibility for the family’s spiritual upbringing increased society’s comfort with women’s organizing and taking action in the public sphere. The WCTU was a religious organization whose primary purpose was to combat the influence of alcohol on families and society. It was influential in the temperance movement, and supported the 18th Amendment.

The Woman’s Christian Union (WCTU) was founded in Cleveland, Ohio in November of 1874. Mrs. Annie Wittenmyer was elected president; Miss Frances E. Willard, corresponding secretary; Mrs. Mary Johnson, recording secretary; and Mrs. Mary Ingham, treasurer. The WCTU grew out of the Woman’s Crusade, a direct action, anti-liquor effort conducted during the winter of 1873-1874. Initially, groups in Fredonia, New York and Hillsboro and Washington Court House, Ohio, after listening to the powerful temperance speaker Dr. Dio Lewis, were moved to a non-violent protest against the dangers of alcohol. Middle-class women took to the streets and held pray-ins outside local saloons, demanding that the sale of liquor be stopped. Within three months the women had driven liquor out of 250 communities, and for the first time experienced what could be accomplished by standing together (Gordon, 1924).

WCTU Prohibition placard (reverse)
Photo: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

In 1879, the formidable Frances Willard became president of the WCTU and turned to political organizing as well as moral persuasion to achieve total abstinence. Willard’s personal motto was “do everything.” The WCTU adopted this as a policy which came to mean that all reform was inter-connected and that social problems could not be separated. The use of alcohol and other drugs was a symptom of the larger problems in society. By 1894, under “home protection” the WCTU was endorsing women’s suffrage. By 1896, 25 of the 39 departments of the WCTU were dealing with non-temperance issues. However, temperance, especially in terms of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, was the force that bound the WCTU’s social reforms together. To promote its causes, the WCTU was among the first organizations to keep a professional lobbyist in Washington, D. C. (wctu.org history).

Eventually, the WCTU’s social reform causes included kindergartens, child labor, anti-prostitution, public health, sanitation, international peace, and suffrage.  The movement grew in numbers and strength, and by 1892 the WCTU had nearly 150,000 dues-paying members (Bordin, 1990). The WCTU was instrumental in organizing woman’s suffrage leaders and in helping more women become involved in American politics. Local chapters, known as “unions”, were largely autonomous though linked to state and national headquarters. Willard pushed for the “Home Protection” ballot, arguing that women, being the superior sex morally, needed the vote in order to act as “citizen-mothers” and protect their homes and cure society’s ills.

WCTU Americanization Center, 1633 Wash St., St. Louis, MO
Photo: Women Torch-Bearers (Public Domain)

In the early twentieth century, the WCTU joined with other voluntary organizations in holding “Americanization” activities and classes. Along with public libraries, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A., the National Council of Jewish Women, and many other groups, the WCTU sought to help foreign-born residents of the United States assimilate and achieve full citizenship. Americanization activities took many forms but typically included English language clases and an introduction to American culture.  Between 1900 and 1920 the WCTU also maintained a missionary center on Ellis Island, which helped to start the Americanization process.

Today the WCTU is the oldest voluntary, non-sectarian woman’s organization in continuous existence in the world. The group is active internationally, and continues to publish a quarterly journal titled The Union Signal, whose main focus is current research and information on drugs.

For More information:

Bordin, R. (1990). Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Dumenil, L. (2012). Oxford Encyclopedia of American Social History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gordon, E. P. (1924). Women Torch-Bearers; the Story of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Evanston, IL: National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Publishing House.

Ness, I. (2004). Encyclopedia of American Social Movements. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Ohio Historical Central: www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=1009

Women’s Christian Temperance Union: www.wctu.org/

 

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

 

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