The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (Wctu) During The Gilded Age

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The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) During the Gilded Age

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) During the Gilded Age


The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in North America grew out of the 1873 Women's Crusades and Praying Bands of Hillsboro, Ohio[1]. The Hillsboro women often aggrieved wives of drunkards banded together to visit local saloons, where they sang hymns, dropped to their knees in prayer, and urged saloonkeepers to pledge to stop selling spirits. The idea for the WCTU as an organisation can be traced to the 1874 Sunday School Assembly at Chautauqua, New York, which was also the inaugural assembly of the Chautauqua Institution. Local WCTU chapters sprung up in Canada and the United States in the same year.

The guiding vision and imagery for the WCTU as an international temperance movement drew from the religious Crusades of the Middle Ages and in turn from the hierarchical organisation of male temperance societies and the labour movement, which included the Knights Templar and Knights of Labour, respectively. These influences are visible in the use of executive officers, voting members, parliamentary procedure, marches, rallies, badges and ribbons, and the language of sisterhood. The WCTU's use of a white ribbon bow as its organisational emblem (heraldry) symbolizing loyalty to God, humanity, and country also signified solidarity among members, who self-identified as Crusaders and addressed each other affectionately as white ribbon sisters.

Post-Civil War Period (1865-1898)

In every sense a union of women, by women, and for women, the WCTU by 1892 had grown to more than 200,000 women in the United States and peaked at 21,000 dues-paying members in Canada in 1897[2]. The WCTU was the largest and most influential organisation of women reformers that had existed up until the late 19th century. By comparison, the membership of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1893 was 13,000. Today's Canadian WCTU has fewer than 300 members; today's U.S. membership numbers under 8,000. The WCTU began as a temperance movement but grew to a mass movement of social reform and political activism; its early guiding slogans of “Home Protection” and “Do Everything” led up to the later political chant of “Agitate—Educate—Legislate.”[3]

Although temperance societies existed for decades before the WCTU, the women in these societies were often secondary to men. Exceptions were suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who began their political activism on a temperance platform. The female-only WCTU had Frances Willard as president of the U.S. WCTU from 1879 and the World's WCTU from 1890 until her death in 1898. She became known internationally as an activist, and she is known increasingly today as a proto-feminist who framed the women's temperance movement in the 19th-century terms of the woman question and women's suffrage. As an indicator of her influence, hers is the only female statue of the 50 in the Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C. This statue marked her as Illinois's most honoured citizen at the time. At the time of her death in 1898, Willard was the most famous woman in the United ...
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