Causes: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union

Click to view more press depictions of the 1873 revolt against saloons
Women shut down a saloon, 1874, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-121647

Temperance was a popular issue for late nineteenth-century reform women. Temperance reformers sought to limit the consumption of alcohol by Americans. This issue resonated with many women because alcohol consumption often increased the frequency and severity of domestic violence and abuse. In addition, men would sometimes squander limited household finances on alcohol.

In December of 1873, in Ohio, New York, and other states, women staged a revolt against saloon owners. Several thousand saloons were temporally shut down. In 1874, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded. Under the leadership of Frances Willard, the WCTU became the most powerful women’s organization in the late nineteenth-century. At one time, it united 150,000 dues-paying members. Although its focus was on temperance, under the leadership of Willard, the WCTU advocated a variety of social reforms, including woman suffrage.

Frances Willard,
Library of Congress,

Carry Nation, 1904,
Library of Congress,

The WCTU was successful in achieving many important temperance measures. By 1901, due to WCTU efforts, every state in the nation had some kind of program to instruct children in public schools about the dangers of alcohol. One of the most colorful members of the WCTU was Carry Nation. Beginning in 1900, she traveled around Kansas, smashing saloons with a hatchet.

However, beginning around 1898 with the death of Willard, the WCTU lost some of its steam. Leadership of the prohibition movement was taken over by the male-dominated Anti-Saloon League. Still, the WCTU was certainly instrumental in paving the way for the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which prohibited the sale of alcohol nationwide.

Members of the National WCTU Committee that founded the Grace Dodge Hotel for Women in Washington, DC tour the completed hotel
Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-91816


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