The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Creation of a Politicized Female Reform Culture, 1880-1884.

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The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Creation of a Politicized Female Reform Culture

In 1879, a group of evangelical churchwomen, all members of the Illinois Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), presented to their state legislature a massive petition asking that Illinois women be granted the right to vote. The architect of this ambitious petition campaign, which resulted in 180,000 signatures of support, was Frances Willard, then president of the Illinois WCTU. In using her position as a prominent WCTU leader to agitate for enfranchisement of women, Willard went against the express commands of the National WCTU and its president, Annie Wittenmeyer, who had made clear only one year earlier that the WCTU would not involve itself in any way with the suffrage movement. Willard’s efforts to build support for suffrage within the WCTU were only a part of a larger pattern of change. During the 1880s, WCTU members constructed a highly politicized women’s reform culture that supported both women’s enfranchisement and political partisanship. This essay looks at the first four years of this culture through some of the people and events that were most crucial to its growth.

Founded in 1874, the late nineteenth century WCTU quickly became one of the most powerful reform organizations in the United States. By the mid-1880s, the WCTU boasted a membership near 100,000 and chapters in every state and territory, making it the first truly national women’s organization in the country. The size and influence of the WCTU during this period was unprecedented; no other women’s reform organization had ever had its power and scope. For the first time, tens of thousands of women were entering the public sphere as agitators a...

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...olitical—particularly in the South and, to a lesser extent, in small towns in the North—the national chapter’s unswerving devotion to politicized reform created a culture that encompassed—but minimally infringed upon—even non-political WCTUs.

Although temperance women’s alliance with the Prohibition party failed to result in their enfranchisement, or in a influential political party led by women, (the party’s influence peaked in 1884, and by 1892 it was once again of negligible political importance), the WCTU nevertheless helped shape a distinct political sphere for women. And the extensive amount of “moral” legislation that WCTU women successfully agitated for at the state and local levels, such as prohibition, blue laws, age of consent, school suffrage for women, and scientific temperance education in public schools is evidence of how strong that culture was.

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