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 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. It’s the oldest voluntary, non-sectarian women’s organization in continuous existence in the world.

The WCTU was formed as non-partisan. It is so today. But it hasn’t always been non-partisan. The first president of the group was Annie Wittenmeyer. She 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.

Opposition

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

This met with strong resistance from many members. That included Judith Horton Foster. She was one of the WCTU organizers. She helped write its constitution.

She was head of the Office of Legislation and Petitions. That was from 1874 through 1888. Foster privately argued with Willard unsuccessfully against partisanship.

Non-partisan WCTU

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 left the group. It did so, along with and about 10,000 members. They wanted the WCTU to remain non-partisan. Under Foster’s leadership, 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. By 1890, she was the second most well-known woman in the world. She was second only 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., 1889.