The WCTU, Temperance, and Prohibition
The American Temperance MovementThe American temperance movement marks its beginning with the publication in 1784 of Dr. Benjamin Rush's pamphlet "An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind." In 1813, the Society for the Suppression of Intemperance, the first society for the promotion of temperance, was founded in Massachusetts. The movement initially did not promote abstinence, but emphasized moderation in consumption of alcohol, and mostly concerned itself with the consumption of distilled liquors, not beer and wine.
With the expansion of industrialization and the market economy, the rapid growth of cities and towns in the 1840's, and the increase in immigration, Americans increasingly feared the loss of the cohesive and restraining nature of their communities. The temperance movement grew as a response to this rapid change as many Americans sensed a need to reestablish order and self-discipline.
From the 1820's to the Civil War the American temperance movement flourished with many national organizations founded and various methods employed to encourage personal abstinence. The primary method involved "moral suasion" which emphasized personal change through religious conviction, but gradually the movement turned to legislative measures to establish control over the distribution and sale of alcohol. The movement was predominately middle class, Protestant, and based in small towns and cities throughout the northern regions of the country. With the advent of the Civil War, the nation turned its attention to the struggle over slavery. The temperance movement did not return to national consciousness until the 1870s with the growth of the women’s temperance movement.
The Women’s Temperance MovementIn the winter of 1873-74, the largest mass movement of women the country had ever seen occurred in small towns and cities throughout the Midwest. Beginning in Ohio, thousands of women took to the streets protesting the sale of beer and alcohol in the saloons of their towns in what became known as the Crusade. They were reacting to a climate of greatly increased consumption of alcohol and the pressure of economic forces outside their control. The brewery and distilling businesses had grown to be national industries, and they had begun using national methods and influence to continue this growth. Throughout the winter, regular prayer meetings and protests took place, and the women succeeded in persuading thousands of saloon owners to shut down their businesses.
The National Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in November 1874 to ensure that the gains of the Crusade would have lasting influence. The WCTU institutionalized, nationalized and expanded on the methods of the Crusade. Initially this new development in the temperance movement returned to the method of "moral suasion" and invoked the moral authority of women to create individual and local change. Women formed local unions, and employed prayer meetings, the signing of temperance pledges, visits to homes and saloons, and personal contact with drinkers.
In 1879, the Union elected its second president, Frances E. Willard. Willard broadened the WCTU's methods and its program for reform. The WCTU began working to reform labor laws, child welfare laws, and age of consent laws, and advocated for prison reform, temperance education in schools, and woman suffrage. They did all this while continuing to seek individual commitments to personal abstinence, and legislative mandates for local, state, and national prohibition. Willard called this wide program of reform her "Do Everything" policy and under her leadership the WCTU grew to be the largest organization of women in the 19th century.
The World's WCTUIdeas were circulating for an International Women’s Temperance Union as early as 1875, until in 1883 Willard formally called for the formation of the World WCTU and outlined the goals of the new organization under the slogan “For God and Home and Every Land.” Margaret Bright Lucas was appointed president in 1884, but the work of the WWCTU was limited due to its loose organizational structure and far flung workers. It was not until 1891 that the WWCTU was formally organized and held its first convention. Willard was appointed president at this time and, as in the U.S., the WWCTU began to grow dramatically under her leadership.
One of the largest and most influential of the World WCTUs was the British Woman’s Temperance Association (BWTA). In 1891 Isabel Somerset was elected President of the BWTA. Somerset later became a close friend and colleague of Frances Willard, and Willard spent a lot of time at Somerset’s homes in England in the early years of her presidency of the World WCTU. It was from England that Willard and Somerset began mapping the outlines and strategizing the growth of this new international organization.