A Brief History of the WCTU
gallonThe logo of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is a white ribbon, symbolizing purity.
We often like to think of the Puritans as being… well, puritanical. And, yes, they did have their moments. But one thing they did not poo-poo was alcohol. Surprise! They approved of drink, according to Bruce Bustard (senior curator of “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History” exhibit at the National Archives). He explains: "One of the things we understand now is that the initial ship that came over from England to Massachusetts Bay actually carried more beer than water." (O’Brien)
Historically, Americans liked to imbibe. Quite a bit, as it turns out. Drinking was part of their everyday life. Here’s an example. If you have the occasion to visit Williamsburg, please take note of the number of taverns that existed there during the 1700s: Josiah Chowning’s Tavern, the Raleigh Tavern, Shield’s Tavern, the King’s Arms Tavern, Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, Wetherburn’s Tavern. There may be a few more that I have neglected to mention. But compare the six with R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse, the one non-alcohol beverage spot in the town. (Once again, at least as far as I know.)
The prevalence of taverns in Williamsburg was not uncommon in early America. The average American in 1790 drank an average of 5.8 gallons of pure alcohol per year. In 1830, the number of gallons consumed hit an all-time high of 7.1 gallons per person per year. (O’Brien)
Then along came the nineteenth century. It was a time of reform efforts: anti-slavery/abolition, women’s rights, the first health food movements, the Sunday school movement, and the development of public schools, to mention a few. So, it’s no surprise that a reaction to alcohol consumption would also arise.
Part of the problem with drink lay in the realization that an alcoholic husband could lead to family poverty: a consistently drunken man could lose his job or drink away his pay. Other men might become violent when drunk, abusing their wives and children. The harsh reality was that “there was no social safety net to support or protect [a man’s] family.” (O’Brien) Women and children therefore were vulnerable.
And that is why temperance became a woman’s concern.
Temperance’s more formal incarnation as a movement began during the winter of 1873-1874 during the “Woman’s Crusade,” a series of non-violent, anti-alcohol protests. “Normally quiet housewives dropped to their knees in pray-ins in local saloons and demanded that the sale of liquor be stopped.” (“Early History)
The protests had a profound impact: 250 communities ceased selling spirits and women “for the first time felt what could be accomplished by standing together.” Inspired, a group of women met at Chautauqua (NY) to discuss founding an organization dedicated to temperance. They decided to hold a conference in Cleveland (OH) later in November, and so the WCTU was born. (“Early History”)
The WCTU’s platform was built upon the idea that total abstinence from alcohol (and later tobacco and drugs) would protect home life. The white ribbon was a symbol of purity. Their slogan was “For God and Home and Native Land” (“Every Land” replaced “Native Land” later) and its “watchwords were ‘Agitate – Educate – Legislate.’” (“Early History”)
The WCTU sums up its rise this way:
The crusade against alcohol was a protest by women, in part, of their lack of civil rights. Women could not vote. In most states women could not have control of their property or custody of their children in case of divorce. There were no legal protections for women and children, prosecutions for rape were rare, and the state-regulated "age of consent" was as low as seven.
Most local political meetings were held in saloons from which women were excluded. At the end of the 19th century Americans spent over a billion dollars on alcoholic beverages each year, compared with $900 million on meat, and less than $200 million on public education.
When Frances Willard took over the presidency from Annie Wittenmyer in 1879, the organization added politics to the typically female work of “moral suasion.” The WCTU saw that alcohol and other addictive substances were connected to and symptoms of larger social problems. By 1896 the majority of its departments were focusing on non-temperance, but closely related, issues. As a result, the WCTU realized it needed to make its voice heard in Washington, DC, and became one of the first organizations with a professional lobbyist. (“Early History”)
The WCTU’s efforts resulted in the passage of the 18th Amendment, which made Prohibition law on 16 January 1919. However, the law proved to be both unpopular and a rather spectacular social failure. Black-market alcohol, mob crime, and violence became widespread. When the Great Depression struck, there was a clear need for more jobs (which could be created if breweries and distilleries reopened) and a need for more taxes (the government needed money to fund its programs and, of course, was unable to tax black-market hooch). The 18h Amendment was repealed on 16 February 1933 with the passage of the 21st Amendment. (O’Brien)
Despite the failure of the national prohibition of making, selling, and consuming alcohol, the WCTU is still very much alive. It is the “oldest voluntary, non-sectarian woman’s organization in continuous existence in the world.” Over the past 145 years, it has taught women to “think on their feet, speak in public, and run an organization.” (WCTU) Not bad work.
The list below, provided on the WCTU’s website, outlines what it has “proposed, supported, and helped establish” and “opposed and worked against.” (WCTU)
Proposed, Supported, and Helped Establish:
Opposed and Worked Against:
See you next Monday!
O’Brien, Jane. “The Time When Americans Drank All Day Long. BBC News, Washington. 9 March 2015
Early History.” National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder