Woman's Christian Temperance Union

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The Woman's Christian Temperance Union was an American woman's group based in pietistic Protestantism that had the mission of purifying the nation, especially by reducing drunkenness and eliminating saloons. The members soon discovered they needed the vote to become politically effective, so they fought for women's suffrage.

The Women's Crusade of spring 1874 led to the organization of the national and state Woman's Christian Temperance Union - the first major women's organization to exclude men. It gave women a sense of solidarity, a public forum in which to train in politics, a broadened outlook, and interdenominational contacts. Members were married, well-educated, affluent, and of main-line Protestant, professional families.[1] the WTCU was a prominent support force for Prohibition in the late 19th century. It had hundreds of local affiliates across the U.S., Canada and Australia. The WCTU was a watershed in the self-perception of women which represented a real, if only partially conscious, commitment to the idea that women could legitimately function in the public realm. Linked backwards to the national issues of abolition and revivalism in the 1830s and continued by the public debate over liquor licensing in 1873-74, the temperance crusade, by working within the traditional bounds of home and morality, widened the accepted spheres of women's activity.[2]



In Vermont the WCTU grew to 2,375 members in 1888. It helped pass a law permitting tax-paying women to vote and hold office in school districts (few did), and a temperance education law. It split, as elsewhere, over the issues of woman suffrage and support of the Prohibition Party. It also declined because many of its dynamic leaders left the state, and because by the 1890s there were competing women's organizations.[3]


The Atlanta chapter of the WCTU was founded in 1880, followed in 1883 by the Georgia WCTU under the presidency of Jane Elizabeth Sibley. The organization at first enjoyed close relations with the Southern Methodist Church in Georgia but conflict later arose over the issue of women's rights, particularly since the WCTU had close connections with the Georgia Women's Suffrage Association, set up in 1889. Warren Akin Candler, president of Emory College, was a particularly vociferous Methodist opponent of WCTU support for female suffrage in the 1890s.[4]

After 1900 leadership in the prohibition movement swung away from the WCUA to the Anti-Saloon League, a pressure group run by men. The WCTU still exists today and is the oldest continuing non-sectarian woman's organization in the world.[5]


Annie Turner was the first president (1874–79) of the National WCTU, the outgrowth of the Women's Temperance Crusade, a pre-Civil War spontaneous movement throughout the United States. As a recently widowed, wealthy woman, Mrs. Wittenmyer became a leader in woman's war service. After the war she returned to church-oriented work and the promotion of the Crusade.


The most prominent leader was Frances E. Willard, who took over in 1879. Willard broadened the appeal of membership in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and justified the propriety of women's political involvement through a "feminism of fear," by advocating a new vision for women in society, one that promoted security above rights. Willard emphasized the importance of marital stability and the protection of the middle-class woman's accepted roles of wife and mother over the extension of political rights to women. Concentrating on organizing women at the local level, Willard was highly successful in building the WCTU's membership.[6]


Typical chapters in small cities consisted of white, middle-class, Protestant women, with very few if any Catholics, Hispanics or African Americans. Their social standing in the community influenced legislators to support prohibition. The chapter favored women suffrage so that women could vote for prohibition, educated the public as to the problems caused by alcohol abuse, and played a major role in the national adoption of the 18th Amendment in 1919-20.

Carrie Nation

In 1899 Carry Nation joined other WCTU members in closing illegal liquor joints, using nonviolent means. However, in 1900 in Wichita, Kansas, she began using violent methods, smashing saloons with hatchets. The membership of the Kansas State Temperance Union and WCTU were split over these actions. In Topeka she met with Governor William Eugene Stanley and organized women into an army of Home Defenders who violently attacked saloons. Male prohibitionists began to organize themselves apart from women. Her crusade attracted nationwide hostile publicity (most big city newspapers were "wet") and had little immediate effect upon saloon business but in 1901 the legislature did enact more stringent enforcement provisions.[7]



During 1886-1901, the Woman's Temperance Publishing Association (WTPA) in Chicago was the official publishing house of the national WCTU. By 1890, the WTPA employed more than 100 people and produced more than 125 million pages of literature annually. It engaged in a wide variety of publishing and bookselling activities in order to reach the public with the WCTU message. In the 1890s, the proportion of commercial printing of the WTPA's total annual production steadily increased and accounted for two-thirds of the output by 1898. However, the WTPA's profits were adversely affected by the economy of the 1890s, by rapid technological advances in printing machinery, and by conflicts within the WCTU and the WTPA board of directors. These factors led to the company's decisions in the early 1900s to lease the business to the William Johnston Printing Company and to withdraw as an affiliate of the WCTU.[8]


Mrs. Mary Hanchett Hunt, as chairman of the WCTU's scientific temperance committee, led a campaign for the textbook study of temperance in the public schools. In 1882 she succeeded in having the Vermont legislature pass a bill to make such instruction mandatory. Other states followed and by 1901 all states had such laws. In 1886 a Congressional bill for temperance instruction in the public schools was signed by President Grover Cleveland (a wet who opposed prohibition). Mrs. Hunt's campaign extended to textbook coverage of temperance, which aroused the opposition of the Committee of Fifty, of the Popular Science Monthly, and other periodicals. After Mrs. Hunt's death in 1906 the WCTU stopped endorsing textbooks, yet temperance instruction remained in vogue until after the repeal of Prohibition.[9]


In response to prostitution and venereal disease issues at the turn of the 20th century, the Ontario, Canada, branch of the WCTU took the lead in sex instruction for children. The group strongly encouraged mothers to provide sexual knowledge to their children at home, but the regimen advocated was virtually impossible for most households. The WCTU hired Arthur Beall to provide public lectures on sex to children, usually boys. His lectures mixed hygiene, conservative Christianity, and Canadian patriotism. In 1912 the Ontario Department of Education hired Beall to continue this work. The high percentage of Canada's troops stricken with venereal disease during World War I made venereal disease a military topic and encouraged the physician-led social hygiene movement, whose mother-blaming tactics the WCTU consistently opposed.[10]

Purity and motherhood

The WCTU based its broad reform campaigns on women's "natural" moral superiority and on the public virtue of motherhood. Such a conservative foundation, combined with the organization's commitment to a very wide range of social issues, permitted the active involvement of both conservatives and radicals. The World WCTU Convention of 1920 addressed world peace, suffrage, domestic violence, and prostitution, as well as alcoholism.

Purity crusades, including efforts to stamp out pornography and prostitution, were major activities. The Department for the Promotion of Purity in Literature and Art was established in 1883. Its strategy was to use "pure culture" to effect the moral transformation of youth. The WCTU worked for legal censorship, published magazines for children and young adults, distributed inexpensive reproductions of famous paintings, and promoted and produced pro-temperance films. In this way, middle-class Americans sought to create and support middlebrow culture.[11]

The WCTU archives are in the Frances E. Willard Memorial Library, Evanston, Illinois,


  • Bader, Robert Smith. Prohibition in Kansas (1986),
  • Blocker, Jack S. American Temperance Movements: Cycles of Reform (1989)
  • Blocker, Jack S. Retreat from Reform: The Prohibition Movement in the United States, 1890–1913 (1976)
  • Blocker, Jack S. ed. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia (2 vol 2003)
  • Bordin, Ruth. Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900 1981
  • Cherrington, Ernest, ed., Standard Encyclopaedia of the Alcohol Problem 6 volumes (1925-1930), comprehensive international coverage to late 1920s
  • Clark; Norman H. Deliver Us From Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition. 1976. supports prohibition
  • Dannenbaum, Jed. "The Origins of Temperance Activism and Militancy among American Women", Journal of Social History vol. 14 (1981): 235-36.
  • Dannenbaum, Jed. Drink and Disorder: Temperance Reform in Cincinnati from the Washingtonian Revival to the WCTU. (1984). 245 pp.
  • Gusfield, Joseph R. "Social Structure and Moral Reform: A Study of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union," American Journal of Sociology 61,No.3 (1955).
  • Pegram, Thomas R. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800–1933 (1998).
  • Sheehan, Nancy M. "The WCTU and education: Canadian-American illustrations." Journal of the Midwest History of Education Society, 1981, pp 115–133.
  • Timberlake, James H. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900-1920. 1963.
  • Tyrrell, Ian; Woman's World/Woman's Empire: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union in International Perspective, 1880-1930 U of North Carolina Press, 1991, the standard scholarly history


  1. see WCTU statement
  2. Bordin (1981)
  3. Deborah P. Clifford, "The Women's War Against Rum." Vermont History 1984 52(3): 141-160. 0042-4161
  4. Nancy A. Hardesty, "The Best Temperance Organization in the Land": Southern Methodists And The W.C.T.U. Methodist History 1990 28(3): 187-194. 0026-1238
  5. http://www.wctu.org/history.html
  6. Suzanne M. Marilley, "Frances Willard and the Feminism of Fear." Feminist Studies 1993 19(1): 123-146. 0046-3663
  7. Robert Smith Bader, "Mrs. Nation". Kansas History 1984-85 7(4): 246-262. 0149-9114
  8. Jane L. McKeever, "The Woman's Temperance Publishing Association." Library Quarterly 1985 55(4): 365-397. 0024-2519
  9. Norton Mezvinsky, "Scientific Temperance Instruction in the Schools." History of Education Quarterly 1961 1(1): 48-56. 0018-2680
  10. Christabelle Sethna, "Men, Sex, and Education: The Ontario Women's Temperance Union And Children's Sex Education, 1900-20." Ontario History 1996 88(3): 185-206. 0030-2953
  11. Alison M. Parker, "'Hearts Uplifted And Minds Refreshed': The Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Production of Pure Culture in the United States, 1880-1930." Journal of Women's History 1999 11(2): 135-158. 1042-7961