Header Image - Frances Willard. By Author Unknown, Francis Willard - Britannica, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6103783
The role of the temperance movement in the advancement of women’s rights
By Eleanor McKelvey, National Director of Online Engagement (Blog)
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded from a series of temperance demonstrations that took place between 1873 - 1874 in Cleveland, Ohio. Despite its humble origins, the Union developed into a global organisation within a decade. By 1882, the WCTU already had a chapter in Sydney, and then a few years later, had spread across Australia. At its peak, the WCTU had 72 chapters across the globe; including in the UK, New Zealand, South Africa and Asia.
The WCTU was born out of a mounting dissatisfaction with male drinking culture. Heavy drinking by husbands and fathers in the 19th Century not only placed a financial burden on families, but also perpetuated domestic abuse. Prohibition was finally introduced in the United States in the 1920s. Although the WCTU undoubtedly played a role in the establishment of American prohibition laws; under the leadership of Frances Willard from 1879 – 1898, the organisation accomplished much more. Certainly, the work of the WCTU of Australasia was instrumental in the enfranchisement of most Australian women by 1908.
The members of the World’s WCTU (WWCTU) showed exceptional levels of political savvy, especially in the late 19th Century. Here are some of the key reasons behind the WWCTU’s success in promoting women’s voices worldwide…
1) The WWCTU established itself as more than a one-policy organisation
For the WWCTU, temperance was really just one pillar of their broader objective of home protection. As the National Library of Australia describes, the WWCTU held the “belief that the dangers of alcohol could not be tackled in isolation”; that there were other threats to the safety of the home. Under Frances Willard, the WWCTU began to take on issues such as campaigning for equal pay, labour laws and prison reform, as well as suffrage. In particular, the second of the organisation’s “world missionaries” to be sent to Australia, Jessie Ackerman made suffrage a priority for the WCTU of Australasia. The successful campaign to get women in South Australia the vote in 1894 was led by the WCTU.
2) The women of the organisation showed persistence and ambition
Jessie Ackerman’s placement in Australia was part of an impressive effort by the WCTU to promote its agenda globally. The World’s WCTU was formed following Francis Willard’s correspondence with the British Women’s Temperance League. This alliance was then used to springboard the organisation across the British Empire. Within Australia, the Union was able to amass a significant following and engage with thousands. This included, for example, the WCTU’s role in collecting 33,000 signatures for a petition for Victorian women to get the vote. This was no small feat given that the signatures were collected within six months by knocking at doors!
3) The organisation had a federated structure
The federated nature of the WCTU allowed different localities to campaign in a regionally-appropriate manner and prioritise local issues. By 1885, the WCTU had branches in South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania.
At the same time, the WCTU made a continual effort to unify its chapters. As such, it represented a coordinated front with clear primary goals. The chapters were united into the WCTU of Australasia (WCTUA) in May 1891. This meeting marked the first interstate gathering of women’s organisations in Australia. Writing for his book Woman’s World, Woman’s Empire, historian Ian Tyrell describes how the unification of chapters into the WCTUA allowed the efficient dissemination of expertise and information throughout the continent. Furthermore, members sent to the national meetings could return home and spread the Union’s messages into rural areas of Australia. The commitment to regular national meetings was therefore crucial to the WCTU’s success in 19th Century Australia – a country which was sparsely inhabited, and where communication was exceptionally difficult.
4) The WCTU trained women in political conduct
In the late 19th Century, much of the political discussion of the day took place in taverns, which women were actively discouraged from entering. It is no wonder that so many politically-engaged women also supported temperance!
The WCTU conducted meetings in a formal manner, which had two key benefits. Firstly, the meetings’ formal structure helped women learn about political proceedings, in spite of their disenfranchisement. Secondly, the formality ensured that politicians of the time took the movement seriously. Before the WCTU, families’ and children’s affairs rarely had a place in political discourse. By the turn of the century, women of the WCTU had had success at lobbying politicians over key legislation relating to bar opening hours, and the minimum age for alcohol purchase.
Meetings of the WCTU attracted not only middle-, but also working-class women. This is notable, given that it was incredibly rare for organisations to transcend political boundaries during the 19th century. Furthermore, the WCTU showed religious tolerance and respect by including non-conformist churches.
Although the ingenuity of the WCTU is worth celebrating; it is equally (if not more) important that we learn from the WCTU’s mistakes. Obviously, we can look to the USA in the 1920s and 30s to see that prohibition (legally enforced temperance) is not a viable solution to women’s issues. Furthermore, even though the WCUTA’s contribution to the 1908 women’s enfranchisement in Australia was invaluable; we should keep in mind that Indigenous Australians did not win full voting rights until almost half a century later. In addition, Aboriginal women were initially excluded from the WCTUA’s meetings. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the WCTU of Australia decided to campaign for the rights of Indigenous women.
The most important message we can learn from studying the history of the WCTU is therefore one of evolution. We should keep in mind that the feminism of today lies within, rather than at the end of, a history of women’s empowerment. As we celebrate the achievement of feminist movements, we should not be afraid of drawing attention to the mistakes that have been made.