Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is the oldest voluntary, non-sectarian women’s group in continuous existence in the world. In addition, it was among the first groups to keep a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. to promote its agenda.

The group’s name is the “Woman’s” rather than “Women’s” Christian Temperance Union. That’s because it’s the individual woman who takes the temperance pledge. Most people think it’s the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

          Overview

          1. Early Years
          2. Carry A. Nation
          3. WCTU Matures
          4. Membership
          5. Resources

Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

I. Early Years

Women were very active in public activities and political matters throughout the 19th century. This was especially the case when the issue was seen as a moral one. The first major issue women addressed was the abolition of slavery. The second was the attack on drinking.3 

The group reports this. “The WCTU was organized by women who were concerned about the destructive power of alcohol and the problems it was causing their families and society.”1 

It writes that “In many towns in Ohio and New York in the fall of 1873 women concerned about the destructive power of alcohol met in churches to pray and then marched to the saloons to ask the owners to close their establishments.”2  This was the Women’s Temperance Crusade.

They then founded the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. At first it was local. But organizers thought it should become nation-wide. So the next summer they established the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. 

Within the first five years, the WCTU established a network of over 1,000 local units or “unions.” It also began publishing a journal, Our Union. The group continues to publish that today.

Beliefs

The WCTU defines temperance as “moderation in all things healthful. Total abstinence from all things harmful.” 4 It considers any amount of alcohol to be harmful. For this reason it rejects the mainstream Christian belief. That is, that drinking alcohol in moderation is neither harmful nor sinful. 

The WCTU similarly rejects the medical consensus that moderate drinking is linked to good health and long life. Instead, it promotes total abstinence.

Cultural War

National Prohibition (1920-1933) was the result a cultural war. Protestants were already well-established in North America. They opposed the newer Catholic and Jewish immigrants. The latter typically drank alcohol as part of their cultures. 

Also, Protestants tended to live in rural areas and towns. On the other hand, the newer immigrants tended to settle in large cities. This caused another division. 5 

WCTU membership included women from nearly every sector of American life. But it was largely lower-middle and middle-class women. They tended to have strong ties to evangelical Protestant churches.

The WCTU had chapters throughout the US and Canada. And it also had a very large membership. But for years it did not accept Catholic, Jewish or African American women. Nor women who had not been born in North America. This also reflected the cultural conflict.

When the WCTU began accepting African American women, they were organized into separate chapter or unions. Black members tended to be teachers or other professionals.

“Americanization” of Immigrants

The WCTU was anxious to “Americanize” new immigrants. That is, to persuade them to abstain from alcohol. During first two decades of the twentieth century much of its budget was spent on its center on Ellis Island. The goal was to begin this “Americanization” process. The WCTU was especially concerned about the immigration of Irish and Germans. It believed they threatened the temperance and prohibition movements.

One WCTU leader expressed strong concern over “the enormous increase of immigrant population flooding us from the old world. Men and women who have brought to our shores and into our politics old world habits and ideas [favorable to alcohol].” So she peppered her writing with references to this “undesirable immigration” and “these immigrant hordes.” 6

Woman's Christian Temperance Union
KKK supported Prohibition

The temperance movement was largely anti-foreign, anti-Catholic, anti-German and anti-Semitic. 7 The WCTU also supported eugenics. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) actively promoted Prohibition and its strict enforcement. In fact, the WCTU and the KKK were partners. Many women belonged to both the WCTU and the KKK. They sometimes held leadership positions in both groups.

Activism Increased

The Ohio Historical Society observed this. “From the mid 1870s to the early 1890s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was the major organization within the United States seeking Prohibition.” 

The Society continued. “Its members utilized rather extreme tactics to convince Americans to abstain from alcohol. Members picketed bars and saloons. They prayed for the souls of the bar patrons. They also tried to block the entryways of establishments that sold liquor.” 8

 II. Carry A. Nation

Woman's Christian Temperance Union
Carry A. Nation

Yet these tactics were tame in comparison to those of perhaps the WCTU’s most famous member, Carry A. Nation. (Carrie is also correct.) She founded a chapter of the group in Kansas. Nation believed that God guided her. And she was imposing as a stout six foot tall woman. She would storm into drinking places dressed in a black dress and bonnet. Nation had a bible in one hand and a hatchet in the other. By the time she left, her aggressive vandalism would have caused considerable destruction.

A Description

Historian Lindsey Williams described one of her expeditions before she had begun using a hatchet.

Carry took the train to Wichita and spent the first day searching for an appropriate victim. She had not intended to make herself known just yet, but lost her composure in the Hotel Carey bar room.

A large, risqué painting of Cleopatra At Her Bath caught her eye. She marched up to the bartender and shook her quivering forefinger at him. “Young man,” she thundered, “what are you doing in this hellhole?”

“I’m sorry, madam,” replied the bartender, “but we do not serve ladies.”

“Serve me?” she screamed. “Do you think I’d drink your hellish poison?” Pointing to Cleopatra, she demanded, “Take down that filthy thing, and close this murder mill.”

With this she snatched a bottle from the bar and smashed it to the floor. Carry marched out of the bar room amidst incredulous stares of the many imbibers.

Returning to her room she withdrew a heavy wooden club and an iron bar from her suitcase and bound them into a formidable weapon.

In the morning she returned to the Hotel Carey, concealing her club and a supply of stones under the black cape that became her trademark. Without a word, she began her labors by demolishing Cleopatra At Her Bath. “Glory to God, peace on earth and goodwill to men,” she shouted as she flailed against mirrors, bottles, chairs, tables and sundry accessories. Whiskey flowed in rivers across the floor.

The hotel detective found Mrs. Nation beating furiously on the long, curving bar with a brass spittoon. “Madam,” he said sternly, “I must arrest you for defacing property.”

“Defacing?” she screamed. “I am destroying!” 9

Consequences

Police arrested Nation 30 times. Yet her resulting notoriety proved both useful and profitable. She became widely known for her “hatchetations.” As a result of her efforts the Kansas WCTU presented her with a gold medallion. It carried the inscription, “To the Bravest Woman in Kansas.” 10 

She lectured, published, sold miniature hatchets, etc. This generated income for the rest of her life.

III. WCTU Matures

The WCTU provided a way through which many women expressed their views on social and political issues. Indeed, it considered itself the voice of all American women. 

A Congressional hearing was in 1929. The president of the WCTU shouted “I represent the women of America!” But when Pauline Sabin heard that she thought, “Well, lady, here’s one woman you don’t represent.”11 Consequently she organized the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WNOPR).

Her organization challenged the assumption that virtually all women in the country supported National Prohibition.

Not a One-Issue Group
Woman's Christian Temperance Union
Frances Willard

The WCTU is most closely linked with the prohibition. But it has never been a one-issue group. Frances Willard was the second president of the WCTU. She said that “Our policy is ‘The Do-everything-policy, and do it all the time.'” 13 

Accordingly, it has addressed a number of other social reform issues.  

    • “Lust-free” marriage. 
    • Sanitation 
    • Abstinence from tobacco. 
    • Public health. 
    • Abortion 
    • Homosexuality (its term).
    • Labor rights. 
    • Premarital chastity. 
    • Eugenics 
    • Prostitution 
    • Gambling 
    • Pornography 
    • International peace. 
    • Dress reform. 
    • Illicit drugs. 
    • Suffrage 
    • Same-sex marriage. 
    • Women’s rights.  
    • “War on Christmas.” 
    • Display of Scripture in public places. 
    • Maintaining Blue laws. 

The group currently emphasizes abstinence from alcohol and drugs, pornography, same-sex marriage, premarital sex, and gay sex. On the other hand, it promotes keeping Christ in Christmas. Therefore, it opposes the use of “happy holidays.”

Remains Vocal

The WCTU remains vocal on issues about which it is cares. For example, the Amethyst Initiative is an effort to promote discussions about how best to reduce alcohol abuse. Also alcohol related problems among young people. That includes adults 18-20 years of age.

The WCTU responded to this call for public discussion about alcohol. In so doing, it presented the Amethyst Initiative with the first annual WCTU Millstone Award. It explained that “The Millstone Award was created to bring public awareness to a person, organization, or governmental body that creates or uses their position of influence to promote unhealthy (sic), illegal, or immoral behavior that we believe places children at risk.” 14

Beer Summit
woman's christian temperance union
“Beer Summit”

President Obama shared a beer with Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. and James Crowley at the White House. The press dubbed it “the beer summit.” But the president of the WCTU complained about the choice of beverage. She said that “There are so many other beverages he could have chosen that would have served just as well.” Instead, she suggested lemonade or iced tea. 15

Currently, the WCTU claims 5,000 members, a staff of four, and an annual budget of $250,000. Yet the Union Signal has a circulation of only 550. 16 The group describes itself as dedicated to educating young people. That is, about the harmful effects of alcohol, illegal drugs, and tobacco. It also works to build support for total abstinence from alcohol.

National Prohibition was ineffective. But it created great problems. It was a disaster. By a vote of three to one, voters called for Repeal.

Yet many people now support neo-prohibition ideas. They also strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue to remain.

Woman's Christian Temperance Union Today almost one of five U.S. adults favors prohibition. They favor outlawing the the consumption of alcohol by everyone. However, not even National Prohibition made drinking alcohol illegal!

IV. Membership 

Membership in the WCTU grew rapidly during the early decades and through National Prohibition (1920-1933). It reached 372,355 in 1931. Although Repeal occurred in 1933, membership stood at 257,548 in 1951. By 1989, it claimed 50,000 members, with chapters in 72 countries. It currently claims 5,000 members. But its magazine has a circulation of only 550.

Current Membership Requirements

The current membership requirements are these.

    • Children from birth up to age six may be enrolled as White Ribbon Recruits of the WCTU. Their parents or guardians must pledge to teach them total abstinence.
    • Those of elementary school age may join the Loyal Temperance Legion. They pay minimum yearly dues and sign the following pledge. “That I may give my best service to home and country, I promise, God helping me, not to buy, drink, sell, or give alcoholic liquors while I live. From other drugs and tobacco I’ll abstain, and never take God’s name in vain.”
    • Teenagers may join the Youth Temperance Council by paying yearly dues ($10.00). They sign the following  pledge. “I promise, by the help of God, never to use alcoholic beverages, other narcotics, or tobacco, and to encourage everyone else to do the same, fulfilling the command, ‘keep thyself pure.'”
    • Women join the WCTU by paying yearly dues as set by their respective state WCTU. They sign the following pledge. “I hereby solemnly promise, God helping me, to abstain from all distilled, fermented and malt liquors, including wine, beer and hard cider, and to employ all proper means to discourage the use of and traffic in the same.”
    • Men may become Honorary members of the WCTU. They sign the same pledge of total abstinence women do. Also they pay yearly dues as set by their state WCTU. But men don’t have voting rights.
Prominent Members
Woman's Christian Temperance Union
Mary H. Hunt

Prominent women who have been linked with the WCTU include Frances Willard (second president). Carry A. Nation, activist. Annie Turner Wittenmeyer (first president). Mary Hanchett Hunt (head of the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction).  Also Amelia Stone Quinton, Anna Adams Gordon, Ella Reeve Bloor, Hannah Clark Johnston Bailey, Hannah Witall Smith, and Martha McClellan Brown.

Learn more about these and other Women Leaders of Temperance and Prohibition.

The Non-Partisan WCTU

The WCTU was formed as non-partisan and is today. 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.

woman's christian temperance union
Judith Horton Foster

Many members strongly opposed this move. And one of the most powerful was Judith Horton Foster. She was one of the original organizers of the group.

Foster entered official protests at annual conventions. And she did so four years in a row. But it was futile. So the Iowa Union and about 10,000 members left. Under Foster’s leadership, they formed the Non-partisan Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (NWCTU).

Presidents of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

The presidents of the WCTU and their terms of office: 17

1874 – 1879 – Annie Turner Wittenmeyer

1879 – 1898 – Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard

1898 – 1914 – Lillian M. N. Stevens

1914 – 1925 – Anna Adams Gordon

1925 – 1933 – Ella Alexander Boole

1933 – 1944 – Ida Wise Smith

1944 – 1953 – Mamie White Colvin

1953 – 1959 – Agnes Dubbs Hays

1959 – 1974 – Ruth Tibbets Tooze

1974 – 1980 – Edith Kirkendall Stanley

Woman's Christian Temperance Union
Sarah Frances Ward

1980 – 1988 – Martha Greer Edgar

1988 – 1996 – Rachel Catherine Bubar Kelly

1996 – 2006 – Sarah Frances Ward

2006 – 2014 -Rita Kaye Wert

2014-2019 – Sarah Frances Ward

2019- present – Merry Lee Powell

The Pledge

Members pledge allegiance to the completely white temperance flag. The pledge is simple. “I pledge allegiance to the Temperance flag, emblem of total abstinence, self-control, pure thoughts, clean habits. The white flag that surrenders to nothing but purity and truth, and to none but God, whose temples we are.” 18

The WCTU’s logo is the white ribbon bow, which symbolizes purity. Its motto is “Agitate – Educate – Legislate.” 19 

President Frances Willard addressed fellow WCTU members as “beloved comrades of the white ribbon army.” 20

V. The WCTU by State

WCTU = Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. So if searching for an item, spell out the correct name.

AL

Hamilton, J. The Story of the Alabama WCTU, 1959.

AR

Knoll, J. A History of the WCTU of Arkansas, 1951.

AZ

 The Arizona Sunbeam.

CA

Hand Book of the California WCTU, 1912.

Spencer, D. A History of the WCTU, 1913.

A History of the WCTU of California, 1924.

CT

Connecticut Counselor, 1935.

DE

Weldin, A. Background and History of Delaware WCTU, 1969.

FL

The Florida White Ribbon News.

GA

Ansley, J. History of the Georgia WCTU, 1914.

HI

Ogawa, M. Trans-Pacific Activism of the WCTU, 1886-1906. Dip Hist, 31(1), 21-50.

ID

Sermon, S. “Beyond Simple Domesticity”: Organizing Boise Women, 1866-1920. M.A. thesis, Boise State U, 1996.

IL

WCTU of Illinois, 1943.

IN

Taylor, B. Indianapolis Central WCTU, 1958.

KS

Garner, N. For God and Home and Native Land. The Kansas WCTU, 1878-1938. Ph.D. diss, U KS, 1994.

KY

Woodring, P. A Glorious Past and a Promising Future. A Brief History of the Kentucky WCTU, 1880-1995, 1996.

LA

Reports of the WCTU of Louisiana.

ME

Annual Report of the WCTU of the State of Maine.

MA

Address of the WCTU to the Voters, 1877.

State Temperance Fair of the WCTU, 1876.

MI

Gilbert. E. The History of Lansing Central Union, WCTU, 1874-1949, 1949. (Online)

MT

Hoag, A. and Matthew W. Historical Sketch of the Montana WCTU, 1912.

Montana W.C.T.U. Voice.

MO

Butts-Runion, B. “Through the Years.” A History of the First Seventy-Five Years of the WCTU of Missouri (1882-1957), 1957.

NE

Heider, C. Suffrage, Self-Determination, and the Women’s (sic.) Christian Temperance Union in Nebraska, 1879-1882. Rhe Pub Aff, 2005, 8(1), 85-107.

NH

Silveira, III, J. The WCTU. An Army of Women Marching Towards Suffrage, 1874-1920. M.L.S. thesis, U NH, 2002.

Austin, J. Historical Sketch of the WCTU–: 1881-1896, 1897.

NJ

Strong, H. Golden Anniversary of the New Jersey WCTU, 1874-1924, 1924.

NM

O’Leary-Siemer, C. Roots of the New Mexico Women’s Movement. M.A. thesis, U NM, 1997.

NY

Graham, F. and Gardenier, G. Two Decades. A History of the First Twenty Years’ Work of the WCTU of the State of New York.

Graham, F. Four Decades. A History of Forty Years’ Work of the WCTU of the State of New York, 1914.

________. Sixty Years of Action. A History of Sixty Years’ Work of the WCTU of the State of New York, 1934.

Wahl, S. The Activities of the WCTU of New York in Relation to Alcoholic Beverage Legislation in New York, 1934-1960. Ph.D. diss, NYU, 1966.

NC

Sims, A. The sword of the spirit. The WCTU and moral reform in North Carolina, 1883-1993. NC Hist Rev, 1987, 64(4).

ND

Ellsworth, V, and Anderson, E. North Dakota’s WCTU, 1949.

OH

WCTU. Ohio History Central, 2005.

Whitaker, F. A History of the Ohio WCTU, 1874-1920. Ph.D. diss, OH State U, 1971.

OK

House, E. Oklahoma WCTU. Who’s Who in Oklahoma, 1958.

PA

Pennsylvania WCTU, 1937.

History of the Pennsylvania WCTU, 1937-1974.

SC

Mims, F. Recorded History of South Carolina WCTU from 1881-1901, 1950.

SD

WCTU of South Dakota, 1988.

Swartz, E. History of the WCTU of Dakota. Rapid City: Daily J, 1900.

TN

Beard, M. The W.C.T.U. in the Volunteer State, 1962.

TX

Jones, R. Up Rugged and Isolated Paths. Helen M. Stoddard as President of the Texas WCTU, 1891-1907. M.A. thesis, San Jose State U, 1995.

McArthur, J. WCTU. The Handbook of Texas. Texas State Hist Assn, 2010. (Online)

UT

Minutes of the Fifteenth Annual Convention of the WCTU of Utah.  Oct 20-21, 1905.

VT

Voters – Read, Think, Act. The Liquor Traffic Legal and Illegal. WCTU, 1905.

VA

Ironmonger, E, and Phillips, P. History of the WCTU of Virginia, 1958.

WA

McMillen, M. History of East Washington’s WCTU, 1883-1953, 1953.

WV

Yost, L. Hand Book for Local Unions of the West Virginia WCTU, 1909.

VI. Resources

Web
Readings

WCTU = Woman’s Christian Union.  If you wish to locate items, write out the complete name.

Footnotes

1. Welcome to the WCTU.

2. The History of the WCTU.

3. Mezvinsky, N. The White Ribbon Reform, 1874-1920. Ph.D. diss, U WI. 

4. Welcome to the WCTU.

5. Gusfield, J. Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement.

6. Hunt, M. An Epoch of the Nineteenth Century, 1897, p.63.

7. Hanson, D. Alcohol Education, p. 21.

8. WCTU and ASL. History Vault. Temperance and Prohibition, 1830-1933

9. Williams, L. Carry Nation left hatchet home on Punta Gorda visit. Sun Coast Media Group, Jan 15, 1995.

10. McMillen, M., and Trout, C. Cary A. Nation (1846-1911). State Hist Soc of MO.

11. Murdock, C. Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870-1940.

12. Omitted.

13. Willard, F. Address before the convention of the WCTU, 1893.

14. Amethyst Initiative Receives 2008 WCTU Millstone Award in Musings over a Barrel.

15. Tomsho, R. White House ‘Beer Summit’ Becomes Something of a Brouhaha. Wall Street J, July 30, 2009, p. 1.

16. National Woman’s Christian Union (WCTU) site.

17. National Presidents of the WCTU.

18. WCTU of Maryland.

19. Ibid.

20. Willard, F.,1893.