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Oval showing faces of several dozen women, with names printed below
Composite photograph showing bust portraits of women active in the WCTU of Illinois. WCTU president, Frances E. Willard, is prominently shown in the center, circa 1879. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Temperance and Suffrage Movement Collections Connections

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As we celebrate Women’s Equality Day on August 26, it’s important to keep in mind that the women’s suffrage campaign wasn’t the only reform movement that women used to advocate for change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Temperance, although often overlooked today, was an enormously popular and influential reform movement during this time. Connections between women organizing for temperance and for suffrage can be found throughout various Manuscript Division collections.

Temperance followers advocated abstinence from alcohol, but also learned much about organizing for a cause through their advocacy efforts. For example, women gained important experience in public speaking, including future suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony, who gave her first public speech at a Daughters of Temperance meeting in 1849. “Moral suasion” was the main tactic used during the antebellum years as temperance organizers attempted to persuade potential adherents to abstain from alcohol based on individual virtue and self-discipline, including by signing temperance pledges. By the 1850s temperance became more of a political issue as the movement turned toward legislative measures, much like the women’s rights and women’s suffrage movements. But in the case of temperance, legislation focused on combatting the sale and distribution of alcohol.

Monochrome handwritten pages of speech, with lines crossing out text in some places
Susan B. Anthony’s first public address on temperance, March 2, 1849. Box 7, Susan B. Anthony Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Inspired by the fervor of the temperance movement, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1874, became the largest women’s organization in the United States by the late nineteenth century. The WCTU had more members and much more influence at the time than any other national women’s organization, including women’s suffrage organizations. Members of the WCTU pledged total abstinence from alcohol and wore the white ribbon, the symbol of the WCTU, representing purity and home protection. While some members believed that the WCTU should remain non-partisan and focus solely on advocating temperance, rising leader Frances Willard created dissension within the organization, believing that the WCTU should undertake issues such as advocating for women’s suffrage and supporting the labor movement, among other causes. Willard, an educator turned reformer, was elected WCTU president in 1879, and served in this leadership position for the rest of her life. Soon after becoming president, Willard instituted a “Do Everything” policy for the national WCTU which appealed to many local WCTU chapters. Willard’s policy emphasized each local union’s autonomy to support the causes they believed most benefitted their communities, including issues such as prison reform, children’s temperance unions, public kindergartens, health and hygiene, homelessness, and unemployment. By the 1880s, the WCTU became more politicized with Willard at the helm. Willard argued that as the nurturers of children and as moral guardians of the home, women should be more involved in public policy and politics. While the WCTU largely consisted of members with moderate to conservative viewpoints, the organization eventually supported women’s suffrage, considered radical at the time, as a way to achieve their goal of prohibition. Although the national WCTU supported suffrage as an organization, there was no consensus among local unions and individual members to support the cause of suffrage.

Monochrome image of handwritten letter on NWCTU letterhead
Letter from Anna Howard Shaw on National WCTU Franchise Department stationary to Lucy Stone discussing a temperance lecture during which she advocated for suffrage, July 18, 1888. Box 27, NAWSA Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Some temperance organizers gradually began to see suffrage as more important than temperance, and took the seemingly opposite position of Willard’s “Do Everything” policy, instead focusing their efforts on the suffrage issue. For example, Susan B. Anthony continued delivering temperance lectures in the early 1870s, but by 1875, she wrote in a letter that she desired a

“plan of protest…on the one & sole point of women disfranchised – separate & alone…. the very moment we put Temperance, Land Monopoly, Labor & Capital, anything, however good & needed – we sink our woman’s claim to equality of rights civil & political down the common level of the others – whereas we must keep our claim first & most important overshadowing every other—.”

Monochrome printed broadside showing three men seated at table and fourth man standing behind, smoking cigars with "Woman's Suffrage Defeated in New Jersey" headline visible on newspaper.
Broadside depicting the power behind the liquor lobby to suppress temperance and women’s suffrage, 1915. Box 75, NAWSA Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Like Anthony, Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, was also a renowned temperance lecturer who supported women’s suffrage. For Shaw, who eventually became the leader of the Franchise Department for the WCTU, connecting the issues of temperance and suffrage was part of her job description. Revealingly, however, in an 1888 letter, Shaw described a lecture at which “One of the Temperance women got up and asked if I intended to say that woman suffrage was of more importance than prohibition? I replied yes, a hundred times more.” Shaw eventually became president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the largest national organization advocating for women’s suffrage. Suffrage leaders Carrie Chapman Catt and Abigail Scott Duniway at one point saw the WCTU as injurious to the fight for suffrage because the liquor lobby proved such a powerful adversary to women’s involvement in politics. Most suffragists, though, did not necessarily see the two issues of temperance and suffrage as mutually exclusive. In 1891, Boston suffrage leaders (and temperance supporters) Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe organized a “Franchise Reception” for the attendees of the national WCTU convention in their city to encourage more temperance women to join the suffrage cause. The more they worked for the temperance cause and gained more knowledge of the political process, the more temperance workers came to see suffrage as a first step in gaining more influence on all other issues, including temperance. In this way, the success of the WCTU and its large network of local temperance unions often brought more women to support women’s suffrage than ever before. The expansion of other women’s organizations by the early twentieth century, including NAWSA, and a plethora of Progressive-era social issues competed with the WCTU for women’s time and money, and membership in the WCTU eventually began to decline. However, both temperance and suffrage supporters won their biggest political gains at this time and celebrated the national prohibition of alcohol with the successful passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919, and the winning of women’s suffrage nationally with the Nineteenth Amendment, just one year later, in 1920.

The WCTU is represented in the Join In: Voluntary Associations in America exhibition, on display at the Library of Congress until December 31, 2023. Learn more about women’s activism in reform movements in the Manuscript Division’s American Women Guide.


Sources Cited

“in 1849…” Historian Ann D. Gordon dates this speech as March 2, 1849. Ann D. Gordon, ed., The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, vol. 1, In the School of Anti-Slavery 1840-1866 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 135-142.

“The WCTU had more members…” Ruth Bordin, Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 52-53.

“support the cause of suffrage…” Bordin, Woman and Temperance, 96-116.

“Franchise Reception…” “Franchise Reception,” Woman’s Journal, November 21, 1891, 376.

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