Women and Temperance: Essential for Establishing Prohibition

Women and temperance were closely linked. The temperance movement relied heavily on their enthusiastic support. And they were essential to the establishment of National Prohibition (1920-1933).


I.    Martha Washingtonians
II.   Daughters of Temperance
III.  Woman’s New York State Temperance Society
IV.   Civil War Disruption
V.    Women’s Crusade
VI.   Woman’s Christian Temperance Union
VII.  Mary Hunt and Scientific Temperance Instruction
VIII. Carry A. Nation
IX.    Scientific Temperance Federation
X.     Women of the Ku Klux Klan
XI.    Women’s National Committee for Law Enforcement
XII.   Resources

I.  Martha Washingtonians

One of the earliest temperance groups was the Martha Washingtonians. Officially, it was the Ladies’ Temperance Benevolent Society. Temperance activists formed it in 1841.

Women who joined the Society pledged alcohol abstention. They paid an initiation fee and monthly membership dues. In addition they collected used clothing for males and females. And often they also made clothes as a group.

The goal of the clothing was two-fold. First, it was to make abstaining alcoholics presentable for job interviews. Second, it was to provide clothing for women and children who suffered as a result of alcoholism.

Also, those who received help signed pledges to abstain from alcohol.

II. Daughters of Temperance

Women and temperance
Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony joined the Daughters Union as a young woman. It was linked to the Sons of Temperance. 

In 1852 the Sons of Temperance had a meeting. They invited the Daughters Unions to send delegates to it. Ms. Anthony represented her Union. But when she rose to speak, they stopped her. They said she was there to listen and learn. 

Susan B. Anthony left the meeting. And she was followed by several other women. Then they decided to have their own meeting. There they chose to form the Daughters of Temperance.

A conflict arose soon after. So some members left and formed the Original Daughters of Temperance. Later the Sons admitted women as full members. So the Daughters of Temperance and the Original Daughters disappeared.

III. Woman’s New York State Temperance Society

women and temperanceThe correct name of the group was the Woman’s New York State Temperance Society.  However, people often mis-spell it the Women’s New York State Temperance Society.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton called the founding meeting at Rochester in 1852. Over 500 women attended that meeting. They elected Stanton as president. They also elected Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Bloomer to leadership positions.

Amelia Bloomer said that the law should require women to divorce “drunkard” husbands. Morality requires they break the ties that “bind her to a loathsome mass of corruption.” Instead of seeing “her dragging out her days in misery, tied to his besotten and filthy carcass.”1

The Society sought to raise public support of temperance. To do so it used lectures, tracts, newspapers, and discussion groups.

IV. Civil War Disruption

The Civil War (1861-1865) severely disrupted the temperance movement. It’s hard today to realize how much that war impacted the country. It was highly destructive. In fact, over 600,000 people were killed. And that was out of a population of less than one-tenth the present size.

The War essentially leveled the South. Homes, buildings, ports, railroads, and other facilities were destroyed. Given the level of destruction, the temperance movement was a low priority.

V. The Women’s Temperance Crusade

Dio Lewis encouraged women to organize in order to close down saloons. This was in 1873 at speech at a church in Fredonia, New York. Over one hundred women left the church. They marched to saloons to sing and pray that they would close. They did this inside the saloon if possible. If not, they stood outside at the entrance.

women and temperance
Eliza Thompson

A few days later in Hillsboro, Ohio, Lewis gave another temperance speech. The same thing happened. This time Eliza Thompson led a group of 75 women to saloons.

As newspapers reported the events, the movement spread. Then tens of thousands of women marched on saloons. The crusade was a mass movement. But it lacked coordination. Women sometimes used prayer vigils, pickets, petitions, marches, and other tactics. They often used children.

The moment died within six months. But it wasn’t a failure. To the contrary, it led to the powerful Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

VI. Woman’s Christian Temperance Union  

women and temperance
Frances Willard

Women from the Women’s Temperance Crusade founded the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) the next year (1884). At first it was local. But the founders thought it should become nation-wide. Therefore, the next summer they formed the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. 

The WCTU grew rapidly. Within five years there were 1,118 local units (unions). In 1879 Frances Willard became president of the group. In that year it had 26,843 members. By 1892, that number had grown to 73,176 members. And there were in 2,580 unions. They were in 42 states and territories.

The WCTU formed the World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU) in 1883. The goal was to coordinate unions throughout the world. And the next year the WCTU sent a member on a trip around the world. She promoted the founding of unions in every country.

          WCTU Presidents 

By far, the best-known WCTU president was Frances Willard. Surprisingly, Willard was a racist.2 In fact, early on, the WCTU did not accept Catholic or African-American women. Nor women who had not been born in North America. However, African-American women were later accepted in separate unions.

women and alcoholIn addition to Willard, two other important presidents were Ella Boole and Ida B Wise-Smith.

Ella Boole was president from 1925 until the end of Prohibition. That was a most difficult time to be president of the WCTU. By 1925, the problems created by Prohibition were apparent to most people. She valiantly tried to counter the growing Repeal movement. In addition, she served as president of the World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union from 1931 to 1947. Ella Boole also opposed smoking, going to movies, playing cards, and gambling.

However, she inadvertently helped the Repeal movement. Visit Ella Boole to learn how she did this.

Ida B. Wise-Smith

Ida B Wise-Smith assumed the presidency the year Repeal took effect. This was another very challenging time to head the WCTU. Membership greatly dropped. However, she continued to lead unsuccessful attempts to return the country to Prohibition. She did so throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

WWI had helped the Prohibition movement. So Ida B. Wise-Smith hoped to exploit WWII as well. But military leaders thought that letting troops drink raised morale. Thus, it was good for the war effort.

Ida B. Wise-Smith said “I love God, my country, and little children. I hate the liquor traffic, and abhor all vice.4  

          The Non-partisan Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

Women formed the WCTU to be non-partisan and it is so today. The first president of the group strongly supported this approach. However, the second head was Frances Willard. She wanted the WCTU to support the Prohibition Party. Of course, that would make it partisan.

Judith Horton Foster

Many members, including Judith Horton Foster, opposed this change. She was one of the women who formed the WCTU. And she also helped write its constitution.

Foster made official protests at annual WCTU conventions four years in a row. Doing so wasn’t effective. So the Iowa Union and about 10,000 members left the WCTU. Then they formed the Non-partisan Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (NWCTU). After Willard died in 1898, the WCTU returned to its original non-partisanship.

VII. Mary Hunt and Scientific Temperance Instruction

Mary H. Hunt

In 1880, the WCTU formed its Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction in Schools and Colleges. Mary Hunt was the national head. 1886, Ms. Hunt convinced Congress to require the use of WCTU-approved texts in Washington, D.C. and all U.S. territories. Hunt was highly successful. By 1900, every state and territory had laws requiring all public schools to teach the “evils of alcohol.” 

WCTU endorsement was necessary to sell textbooks. And that really meant that Mary Hunt approved them. So she sent publishers guidelines for acceptable books. For example, books had to state that drinking any amount of alcohol was harmful. Specifically, it “produced inheritable disorders into the third generation.”5 For more examples, see Mary Hunt.

          Scientific Temperance Instruction

Scientific Temperance Instruction taught that alcohol is poison. Drinking any amount of alcohol caused both serious physical and mental problems. Of course, they needed to omit the fact that doctors routinely prescribed alcohol health and medicinal reasons.

Scientific Temperance Instruction was full of distortions, exaggerations, and widespread inaccuracies. Because of this, leading scientists and educators were critical of it. They included the presidents of Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, and Vassar.

In 1893, a group of leading scholars formed the Committee of Fifty. They did so to study the “liquor problem.” It sought to learn facts rather than promote any point of view. A subcommittee of that prestigious group evaluated Scientific Temperance Instruction.

That group exhaustively studied Scientific Temperance Instruction. It concluded that it  was “neither scientific, nor temperate, nor instructive.”6 However, state laws were in effect requiring Scientific Temperance Instruction. So by 1901-1902, teachers had taught 22 million students this anti-alcohol program.

VIII. Carry A. Nation

Carry A. Nation

Carry Nation is probably the best-known member of the WCTU. She attacked saloons with a hatchet. So she was highly controversial. And she remains controversial today.

Both Carrie Nation and Carry Nation are correct spellings. She took the name Carry A. Nation when she began attacking saloons. This was because she thought she would “carry a nation” to prohibition.

Carry Nation was a very complex person. People have described her as a religious fanatic, an exhibitionist, a crank, mentally ill, and much more. On the other hand, her friends described her as gentle, loving and caring.

There is little doubt that she was a very caring person. For example, throughout her life, she gave help to others. And she did so even when it caused her financial and/or marital problems. 

Carry Nation was both anti-Semitic and anti-male. She opposed tobacco, foreign foods, fraternal orders, and fine clothing. She was also strong-willed, domineering, and abrasive. She would grab cigarettes and cigars from smokers. And she would publicly ridicule people who were well-dressed.

An assassin killed President William McKinley in 1901. Carry Nation approved of the murder! She told a crowd that he secretly drank. Furthermore, that drinkers always got what they deserved.

It’s unclear whether Carry Nation helped or harmed the WCTU and temperance. For much more, visit Carry A. Nation.

IX. Scientific Temperance Federation

Mary Hunt died in 1906. She had created a large fortune in her control over the approval of temperance textbooks. Of course, every state had to buy them. But she had taken legal steps to conceal income from her supposedly voluntary work. 

As a result, this clouded ownership of her fortune. That led to the creation of the Scientific Temperance Federation. Thus, her fortune became the endowment for the Federation. 

Cora F. Stoddard

Cora F. Stoddard had been the personal secretary of Mary Hunt. Then she became head of the Scientific Temperance Federation. Because of Hunt’s money, it was able to engage in many activities to promote temperance and prohibition.

Historians best know the Federation for its “Education on Wheels” project. It took temperance education directly to people at their homes and farms.

Cora Stoddard headed the group until her death in 1936. At that time, an entire issue of the Scientific Temperance Journal was devoted to her.

X. Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK)

The all-male Ku Klux Klan (KKK) wanted to create an all-female counterpart. To do so, it brought together existing pro-KKK women’s groups. These included the Ladies of the Invisible Empire, the White American Protestants, and the Grand League of Protestant Women. 

Their headquarters was in Little Rock, Arkansas. Lulu Markwell had been head of the Arkansas WCTU for 20 years. She became the first national head of the WKKK. The WCTU and the WKKK often worked together for Prohibition. And they often shared officers. Also the KKK and the WCTU often worked together.

          WKKK Formed

The KKK formed the WKKK on June 10, 1923. However, by November of that year it had chapters in every state. It also had a membership of about 250,000. That was the power of combining existing groups.

Markwell was a very effective leader. She set up regional field offices, hired recruiters, and took recruiting trips. After she resigned, the head became Robbie Gil Comer, the secretary of the group.

The WKKK had local chapters, provinces (county units), realms (regional/state units), and the Invisible Empire (national unit). Officers covered each unit.

Indiana and seven other states were major region. The head was Daisy Douglas Barr. She also held leadership roles in the WCTU. But in 1924, some members charged that Barr had created a fortune from the dues. So two years later Daisy Barr was replaced by Lillian Sedwick. She was also a state official in the WCTU. 

However, the WKKK had yet more problems. 

          Under a Cloud

women and temperanceAs stated above, after Lulu Markell resigned, she was replaced by Robbie Gil Comer, the secretary. In 1925, Alice B. Cloud had been Vice Commander when Markwell resigned. Therefore she filed a lawsuit claiming that she should have replaced Markwell. And in another lawsuit, she claimed that Robbie Gill Comer had both squandered and embezzled a fortune. And the evidence supported Alice Cloud’s latter claim.  

By the early 1930s, membership had dropped and the WKKK faded into memory.

XI. Woman’s National Committee for Law Enforcement

A group of Protestant Prohibition groups formed the Woman’s National Committee for Law Enforcement. They did so in 1922 to promote vigorous enforcement of Prohibition laws. By 1932 it claimed 12 million members.

Note that people often spell it Women’s National Committee for Law Enforcement. That is true even in some of its own documents. 

          Lucy Peabody

Lucy Peabody

National head Lucy Peabody said opposing National Prohibition was rebellion. And she strongly believed that government should suppress all opposition. 

In addressing Congress in 1926, she said “We hold the Constitution of the United States inviolate.”7 And she called for the removal of anyone who didn’t strictly enforce Prohibition.  

Peabody also had a very paternal view of adults. She said “In a well-regulated home it is the policy of a mother to work… knowing that perfect obedience requires law and discipline. It is never the policy…to say the children are disobedient–therefore let us give in to them and let them do as they like.”8

More and more Americans saw Prohibition as highly unpopular. So they thought it would take a police state to enforce it. And some leaders, such as Wayne Wheeler, promoted just that. To them we must add Lucy Peabody.

Temperance and Prohibition supporters tended to advocate very harsh measures. For examples, some suggested that those who drink should exiled to concentration camps, tortured, or branded. Even executed, as well as their progeny to the fourth generation.9

XII. Resources: Women and Temperance

Web Pages

Popular Readings


1. Stanton, E. and Stanton, T. Elizabeth Cady Stanton: In Her Own Words. Bellevue: Big Byte.

 2. Cullen-DuPont, K. Woman’s New York State Temperance Society. In: Encyclopedia of Women’s History in America. NY: Facts On File.

3. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an African American journalist. She had a conflict with Francis Willard when the latter was president of the WCTU. It was because Willard made racist statements in an Atlanta newspaper. Note that Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a different person than Ida B. Wise-Smith.

4. Harwell, S. “Smith, Ida B. Wise” The Bio Dict of Iowa. U Iowa Press.

5. Kobler, J. Ardent Spirits. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Boston: Da Capo, p. 140.

6. Atwater, W. et al. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903, p. 44.

7. Everest, A. Rum Across the Border. Syracuse U Press, p. 129.

 8. Ibid.

 9. Aaron, P. and Musto, D. Temperance and Prohibition in America. In: Moore, M., and Gerstein, D. (Eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy. Wash: Nat Acad Press, p. 159.

At this point you know much more about women and temperance than most people!