Before women’s rights activists campaigned for suffrage, they called for prohibition. In 1852, four years after the Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the New York State Women’s Temperance Society. They would not found the American Equal Rights Association until 1866.
Stanton and Anthony fought for statewide prohibition in New York alongside divorce and other Civil Reforms– like the amendment of the Married Woman’s Property Law, which allowed for property ownership, suits in court, shared child custody, and the rights to earnings and inheritance– before they ever explicitly fought for voting rights.
Beginning in 1866, they fought for Universal Suffrage with the American Equal Rights Association, but split from the organization in 1869 over its prioritization of suffrage for black men over women. From there, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. That same year, the National Prohibition Party was organized.
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) formed five years later in Cleveland. Its platform encouraged the prohibition of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs in the U.S., driven partially by a desire to protect wives and children from the physical, emotional, and economic consequences of living with men who were dependent on alcohol. Under the leadership of Frances Willard in 1879, the WCTU became one of the most influential women’s organizations in the country.
At the turn of the century, assumptions about women’s moral superiority increased society’s comfort with their presence in the public sphere. Accordingly, the WCTU expanded its platform to include progressive reforms such as labor legislation, prison reform, and public health. By 1890, the WCTU sponsored more than thirty-five areas of activity, most of which had little or nothing to do with temperance. It was especially effective because of its decentralized structure; local chapters had a great deal of flexibility to choose which issues their members would pursue.
Beginning in 1881, WCTU members argued that women’s suffrage, also known as the “Home Protection Vote,” would cure America’s moral ills. A decade later in 1891, Frances Willard argued that “an organized movement of women will best conserve the highest good of the family and the State.”
Beginning around the 1880s, Black women became active in the WCTU’s “Department for Work among Negros.” Most local branches were segregated, especially in the South. In 1883, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black poet and activist, became head of the Colored Section of the Philadelphia WCTU. Harper often worked closely with the National WCTU, because she saw the organization as the most effective way to expand women’s federal power and earn the vote. However, she also believed that Black reformers should be able to set their own priorities and implemented programs across the country meant to specifically benefit Black communities. Harper split with Frances Willard over issues like federal support for an anti-lynching law and the abolition of the convict lease system. The National Association of Colored Women (founded in 1896) grew out of this split.
Though controversial, the WCTU’s efforts were crucial to the passage of the 19th amendment. Membership decreased sharply following Prohibition, but the WCTU remains active today as the oldest continuous women’s organization in the world.
SCUA holds the Maryland Temperance Collection, which contains several WCTU materials. View the 1889 Annual Report from Union Bridge, Maryland, below.
Post by Rigby Philips
History, specializing in women’s history and the history of sexuality (2021)