The Non-partisan WCTU: Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

Many people have heard of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). But few have heard of the Non-partisan WCTU (NWCTU).

The WCTU was formed in 1874. Within five years it had formed over 1,000 local units or “unions.” It continued to grow during National Prohibition (1920-1933). Its peak membership was 372,355 in 1931. Yet almost 20 years after Repeal, it had 257,548 members.

The WCTU still exists today and considers itself the oldest voluntary, non-sectarian women’s organization in continuous existence in the world.

The WCTU was formed as non-partisan and is so today. But it hasn’t always been non-partisan. The first president of the group was Annie Wittenmeyer, who strongly supported a non-partisan approach. But she was voted out of office in favor of Frances Willard. The latter wanted the WCTU to support the Prohibition Party. Of course, that would make it partisan.


non-partisan woman's christian temperance union
Judith Horton Foster

This met with strong resistance from many members, including Judith Horton Foster. She was one of the WCTU organizers and helped write its constitution. She was head of the Office of Legislation and Petitions from 1874 through 1888. Foster privately argued with Willard unsuccessfully against partisanship.

With the support of the Iowa WCTU, Foster entered official protests. She did so at the annual WCTU conventions four years in a row. But it was to no avail. So the Iowa Union, and about 10,000 members who wanted the WCTU to remain non-partisan, left the group. Under the leadership of Judith Horton Foster, they formed the Non-partisan Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (NWCTU).

Foster declined high office in the new group. But Annie Wittenmeyer served as its president in 1896-1898.

Frances Willard was a powerful and well-known leader. Indeed, by 1890, she was the second most well-known and influential woman in the world after Queen Victoria. Yet her alliance with the Prohibition Party was a failure. After her death in 1898, the WCTU returned to its original non-partisanship. That led to the decline of the Non-partisan WCTU.


Foster, J. The Truth in the Case, Concerning Partisanship and Non-partisanship in the W.C.T.U. Clinton, IA, 1889.