Women’s Temperance Crusade: Origin of the WCTU

The Women’s Temperance Crusade was a remarkable phenomenon. Ironically, it was sparked by a man. His name was Diocletion Lewis. Known as Dr. Dio Lewis, he had practiced medicine but was unlicensed to do so. He had only studied homeopathy for a few months and briefly apprenticed under a homeopath. But the title gave him prestige. He became an apparently charismatic itinerate preacher.

The Women’s Temperance Crusade

Dr. Dio Lewis gave a temperance lecture at a church in Fredonia, New York. It was on December 15, 1873. Following the lecture, over a hundred women silently left the church. They promptly marched to a nearby saloon. There, one of the leaders firmly asked the owner to stop selling alcohol.

A few days later, on December 23, Dr. Dio gave another temperance lecture in Hillsboro, Ohio. The same phenomenon occurred. A leader of the movement was Eliza Thompson, who sometimes referred to herself as “Mother Thompson.'”

women's temperance crusade
Eliza Thompson

Surprisingly, over the next six months, tens of thousands of women repeated the same general action. They did so in hundreds of places in Ohio. It was the epicenter of the movement. But it also happened in hundreds more elsewhere. Newspaper reports of the movement helped spread what became known as the Women’s Temperance Crusade.

Their techniques varied by time and place. Typically, it involved hymn-singing and praying in saloons. If barred admittance, the women usually did the same at the entrance to the saloon. Often, they would form two lines in front of a saloon’s entrance. This formed a gauntlet through which customers would have to pass.

They sometimes also used prayer vigils, pickets, petitions, marches, and other tactics. They often used children in their activities for the emotional impact they made. When a saloon went out of business, church and school bells would usually peal loudly.

The crusade was a large mass movement. But its efforts were local and uncoordinated. The movement died within a year. But its influence did not. Out of it arose the immensely powerful Woman’s Christian Union (WCTU). What the brave participants of the Crusade began led to National Prohibition (1920-1933).

Resources on the Women’s Temperance Crusade

Blocker, J. “Give to the Winds Thy Fears”: The Women’s Temperance Crusade, 1873-1874.  Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.

Bordin, R. The Temperance Crusade as a Feminist Movement. Major Problems in American Women’s History ,1989, 215-24.

Dannenbaum, J. The origins of temperance activism and militancy among American women. J Soc Hist, 1981, 15(2), 235-252.

Fahey, D. The Women’s Temperance Crusade in Oxford, Ohio.
Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 2010.

Isetts, C. A Social Profile of the Women’s Temperance Crusade. In: Blocker, J. (ed.) Alcohol Reform and Society. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979