Women's Christian Temperance Union

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Women's Christian Temperance Union


The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the nation's largest women's organization during the late 1800s, attracted over 150,000 mostly Protestant, middle-class members by 1900. The WCTU provided thousands of Christian women with a perceivably riskless transition into the secular world of women's associations. Among the numerous Chicago WCTUs organized, the first, the Chicago Central Union, led by Frances Willard between 1874 and 1877, was the most prominent. Matilda Carse succeeded Willard, and under her guidance the union launched two day nurseries, a mission for wayward girls, Sunday and industrial schools, two medical dispensaries, an employment bureau, and a low-cost lodging house and restaurant(Gelser 90-101). The WCTU was a forerunner of social settlements in many areas of social reform. Kindergartens, girls' sewing and cooking classes, and recreational and residential facilities were components of the Central Union's agenda prior to the founding of Hull House. The Chicago Central Union reached its zenith of activity during the 1880s and 1890s. The WCTU national headquarters, located in Chicago until 1900, lent the prestige of national leaders to local affairs. Frances Willard, who remained a local member while president of the national WCTU until her death in 1898, undoubtedly attracted many women to the Chicago group. During the early decades of the twentieth century, as the Central Union declined, its projects were administered by the Cook County WCTU, established in 1901 and still active(Jordan 45-61). For over 100 years the WCTU has been conducting training seminars for teachers and others interested in alcohol tobacco, and drug education. Today the WCTU is still concerned that the wide availability of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs combines with other social problems to the detriment of society.


Women were very active in public activities and political matters throughout the 19th century. This was especially the case when the issue was seen as a moral one. The first major issue that drew the attention of women was the abolition of slavery and the second was the attack on alcohol consumption. 3 The WCTU defines temperance as "moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful." 4 Because it considers any amount of alcohol to be harmful, it rejects the mainstream Christian belief that the consumption of alcohol in moderation is not sinful. It similarly rejects the medical consensus that drinking in moderation it is healthful unless contraindicated(Veer 112). Instead, it promotes total abstinence.

National Prohibition has been interpreted as a cultural war between Protestants who were already well-established in North American and the newer Catholic and Jewish immigrants, who typically drank alcohol beverages as part of their cultures. In addition, Protestants tended to live in rural areas and towns whereas the newer immigrants tended to settle in large cities, thus creating another division. 5 WCTU membership included women from nearly every sector of American life, but consisted largely of lower-middle and middle-class women with strong ties to evangelical Protestant churches. In the summer of 1874 at Chautauqua, preorganizational discussion was held by the women. They decided ...
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