Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department and Princeton University dean, recently penned an opinion piece in The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” reinvigorating a national conversation about women’s roles in our society. While the details of Slaughter’s piece would have been foreign to female temperance activists living at the end of the nineteenth century, its general conceit would have been anything but alien. When temperance-minded women in Ohio began a “Crusade” against local saloonkeepers in the winter of 1873-1874, much of the ensuing debate focused not on the merits of temperance but on these women themselves—in America’s gendered society, could their radical activism, very much in the public eye, be reconciled with women’s accepted place in the private sphere? When these women transformed this upsurge of passion into a national movement, in the form of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and when this became the largest women’s organization in America, attention—and debate—only intensified. When the Prohibition Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920, and then when it was repealed in 1933, temperance became both the most successful and unsuccessful social movement in American history. Though today discussion of alcohol has largely faded from popular American discourse, the WCTU, which became the major temperance organization even though only women were accepted as voting members, continues to present an importance case study for anyone interested in social reform in America, and our society’s ever-changing expectations of and for women.
The text of the Eighteenth and Twenty-first Amendments can be found here.
Alcoholism was considered one of the most pressing social ills facing nineteenth century America, especially because of a growing urban, industrial, working-class population and culture. Saloons became centers of urban political life, and breeding grounds of “corruption, crime, and vote buying.” Reformist rhetoric often maligned drunken immigrants who squandered their money on liquor; alcoholism was understood largely as a cause, rather than an effect, of their poverty. Additionally, reformers hoped, abstaining from alcohol would allow immigrants to assimilate into middle-class, Protestant American culture.
Perhaps most objectionable was alcoholism’s steady encroachment upon the home, an ostensibly safe space. The figure of the abusive alcoholic husband and father, from whom women had little legal recourse, was widespread; divorce remained largely socially unacceptable, and from a woman’s perspective, economically unfeasible. Because alcoholism seemed to be “a problem from which women suffered disproportionately although they were not offenders,” they were natural temperance advocates. Women were able to frame their political involvement as part and parcel of their “domestic sphere.” Their uniquely feminine powers of “moral suasion” were put to use in their “maternal struggle” to protect their families. It was precisely because their cause was so honorable that they were able to expand their public roles—they were “conservative women us[ing] radical and militant means to obtain their ends.” As the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union gradually became the largest nineteenth-century women’s organization, its members irrevocably altered the perception of women’s place in American society.
The WCTU’s story begins with the 1873-1874 Ohio Crusade, which was an early example of effective nonviolent protest. Scholars have long understood the episode as “a feminine outpouring of frustration with men’s failure to dispose of the alcohol problem.” While this is undoubtedly true to a great degree, scholar Holly Berkley Fletcher contends that the Crusade aided male temperance activists (who had dominated the temperance movement before the Civil War), as well. The movement benefited from this injection of creativity and passion, and the men were quick to emphasize the women’s purity and virtue, in order to draw sympathy for their cause. Indeed, they often portrayed the Crusade in “fantastic and even supernatural terms,” capitalizing upon the perceived spiritual authority of these good Christian women—it was precisely because the women were “meek” that they could carry out God’s divine prescriptions. If the women ever encountered violence at the hands of irate saloonkeepers, their “passive resistance…only heightened their moral authority,” and their embodiment of the “weak victim” deflected any criticism about their foray into public protest. According to historian Ruth Bordin, many women appreciated the opportunity for “personal growth” that the Crusade had afforded them. In her book Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900, Bordin pointedly quips, “Somehow staying home and supervising or performing household tasks would be dull stuff after this heady brew.” For example, Bordin asserts a connection between the WCTU and calls for women’s expanded participation in evangelical churches in the 1890s.
In 1874, the transient Crusade was transformed into a veritable organization at the first national convention of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, held in Cleveland, Ohio. By establishing immediately that men could not become voting members or hold leadership positions in the group, the WCTU became even more of a women’s institution than concurrent suffrage organizations. Its initial members were rather homogeneous in their social makeup: they were middle-class and upper-middle-class, lived in urban areas (where they could congregate easily), and were well-educated; they had fewer children and more leisure time than women had had in previous generations. Most were Protestant, and the WCTU relied heavily on pre-existing church networks in order to expand. Some had previously advocated for suffrage or abolition, but many had no political experience. They were primarily concerned with “changing the habits of the lower classes,” offering temperance as a panacea for poverty and social disorder. Throughout the initial convention’s proceedings, leaders and members evoked the image of the Crusader in order to “prove” their apolitical nature—a strategy that would persist for many years.
In 1879, Frances Willard became the Union’s second president, replacing Annie Wittenmyer. To a great degree, Willard’s dynamic leadership determined the trajectory of the WCTU. She traversed America by train, embarking upon extended speaking engagements to personally draw women to her cause; her “femininity, good looks, and ladylike demeanor” were particularly helpful in converting social conservatives in the South. In addition, Willard was primarily responsible for broadening the range of issues that the WCTU tackled—both by assimilating her personal concerns within the organization’s, particularly women’s suffrage, and by implementing policies that allowed local WCTU branches to pursue their own projects. She creatively applied the doctrine of “home protection” to include suffrage, since it was only with political access that women could affect the maternal reforms necessary to “make the whole world home-like,” and, under her governance, the WCTU gradually named the vote as an explicit goal in its national publications. [ef]Bordin, Woman and Temperance, 58; Fletcher, Gender, 104, 107-108 [/ref] It was with Willard at the helm that the WCTU extended “woman’s mighty realm of philanthropy” and pursued a broad program of social reform, including prison, education, and labor reform. Her emphasis on “local autonomy”—local branches were never compelled to adopt any policies as their own, and were free to champion their particular causes—allowed her motto and organizing principle of “Do Everything” to succeed. For example, southern chapters rarely advocated for women’s suffrage, without penalty, while others championed narcotics, women’s dress, social purity, and international peace—“there was a reform for each member, no matter where they resided on the ideological spectrum.” Again, Willard turned to the image of the Crusader to rhetorically “harmonize” these disparate interests. Her tendency to defer authority to regional subsidiaries allowed the temperance movement to capitalize (more than the suffrage movement ever had) on grassroots involvement and enthusiasm. Thus, individual WCTU members became professional organizers, and were especially personally empowered. In fact, according to Bordin, Willard enabled the “most important long-range result of the WCTU’s politicization”—“that a large group of women who previously had little experience in the political arena learned the practice of politics…testifying before legislative committees, drafting and circulating petitions, writing legislation, and getting out the vote.”
The American South presents a particularly fascinating example of the WCTU’s far-reaching impact, on individual women and on their society. Whereas there had been a limited history of female activism in the North, southern women had rarely joined social causes. The paternalistic system that had upheld the uneven master-slave relationship had prescribed strict gender hierarchies, as well. Southern women frequently presented a conservative force within the movement, and ignored women’s suffrage almost entirely. That these women adopted public roles at all was nothing short of revolutionary, and the “WCTU had much to do with putting southern women into the mainstream of American life.” Additionally, Willard’s visit was interpreted as a “healing mission,” aimed at bridging lingering tensions after the Civil War. The Union provided an unprecedented opportunity for northern and southern women to work together, and they hoped to rid America of alcohol and “That sectionalism which is so dangerous to the welfare of our country” at the same time. This attitude, however, also provided the foundation for a damaging controversy. Because Willard had granted authority to local WCTU chapters, no member of the national leadership offered any criticism when southern branches, in the post-Reconstruction period, prevented black women from joining their ranks. In particular, Willard provoked scathing remarks from black anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, who wrote, “During all the years prior to the agitation begun against Lynch Law, in which years men, women and children were scourged, hanged, short and burned, the W.C.T.U. had no word, either of pity or protest; its great heart, which concerns itself about humanity the world over, was, toward, our case, pulseless as a stone.” Because the WCTU had expanded to address so many social issues, its perceived lack of a definitive stance on lynching was all the more glaring. Wells’ criticism reveals both the tremendous influence that the WCTU wielded, as well as the harmful consequences that sometimes arose from its otherwise effective organizational strategy.
Want to know more about Ida B. Wells? Watch this preview for a documentary about her life and anti-lynching activism.
Though the WCTU continued to grow after 1892, its rate of expansion slowed. The Panic of 1893 and the subsequent economic depression found the Union in desperate financial straits, and its publishing wing, in particular, suffered tremendously. Upper-class women had begun to affiliate more with the less activist General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Union’s sway (particularly after Willard’s death in 1898) had diminished. Accordingly, Gusfield explains, in 1900, as the social makeup of the WCTU changed, it began to move away from “a concern with the underprivileged” and toward legislative reforms that would further the temperance cause. Arguably, it was this re-emphasis on temperance that helped bring about the Prohibition Amendment in 1920. While Willard’s broad, largely non-partisan efforts had expanded her coalition, this narrow-minded focus perhaps proved more directly effective. Writing in 1955, when Prohibition had been repealed for over twenty years, Gusfield encountered an “organization in retreat,” which, faced with its own declining social and political stature, had adopted a “moral indignation toward upper-middle-class-life” and a new target—not the drunkard, but the social drinker.
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union remains a functioning organization today, with a website that presents its positions on alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, gambling, and pornography, and trumpets its status as the “oldest voluntary, non-sectarian women’s organization in continuous existence in the world” and the “more than 135 years” that it has “trained women to think on their feet, speak in public, and run an organization.” It seems reasonable that without the Union’s efforts, neither the Prohibition nor the women’s suffrage amendment would have been passed in the 1920’s. The WCTU provided innumerable women with the skills to organize and advocate effectively and inaugurated an era of women’s association, irrevocably altering accepted notions of women’s place in American society.
Interested in learning more about Prohibition? Check out this short film about the 2011 PBS mini-series Prohibition, including a Q&A with directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.