The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was the first mass organization among women devoted to social reform with a program that “linked the religious and the secular through concerted and far-reaching reform strategies based on applied Christianity.”
The WCTU was originally organized on December 23, 1873, in Hillsboro, Ohio, and officially declared at a national convention in Cleveland, Ohio in 1874. It operated at an international level and in the context of religion and reform, including missionary work as well as matters of social reform such as suffrage. Two years after its founding, the American WCTU sponsored an international conference at which the International Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed.
WCTU and Prohibition
Over the years different prohibition and suffrage activists had suspected that brewer associations gave money to anti-suffrage activities. In 1919 there was a Senate investigation that confirmed their suspicions. Some members of the United States Brewers Association were openly against the woman’s suffrage movement. One member stated, “We have defeated woman’s suffrage at three different times.”
Although the WCTU was an explicitly religious organization and worked with religious groups in social reform, it protested wine use in religious ceremonies. During an Episcopal convention, it asked the church to stop using wine in its ceremonies and to use unfermented grape juice instead. A WCTU direct resolution explained its reasoning: wine contained “the narcotic poison, alcohol, which cannot truly represent the blood of Christ.”
The WCTU also favored banning tobacco. In 1919 the WCTU expressed to Congress its desire for the total abolition of tobacco within five years.
Under Willard, the WCTU supported the White Life for Two program. Under this program, men would reach women’s higher moral standing (and thus become woman’s equal) by engaging in lust-free, alcohol-free, tobacco-free marriages. At the time, the organization also fought to ban alcohol use on military bases, in Indian reservations, and within Washington’s institutions. Ultimately, Willard succeeded in increasing the political clout of the organization because, unlike Annie Wittenmyer, she strongly believed that the success of the organization would only be achieved through the increased politicization of its platform.