"Agitate - Educate - Legislate." This slogan of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union laid out its goals in the fight against alcohol. Established in 1874 in Ohio, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) joined the fight for Prohibition, with a special emphasis on women and children. The WCTU saw alcohol abuse as especially harmful to the home. Since women did not have many legal rights, their families were at the mercy of men whose abuse of alcohol could impoverish their homes and endanger their lives. The stated goal of the WCTU was “protection of the home,” so it seemed acceptable that women would defend their realm. So these temperance unions gave women a public voice. The WCTU first followed the path of other temperance societies, encouraging adults and children to sign pledges of “Capital T total,” or “teetotal,” abstinence from alcohol. Although the pledge campaigns were successful, the WCTU became concerned that this voluntary program would not affect those most in need, so they started to push for government intervention, Prohibition.
In 1879, Frances Willard became president of the WCTU and expanded its scope, moving from moral persuasion to political action. Willard's personal motto was "Do Everything," which encouraged women to become active in any social issue needing a women’s perspective. By 1896, 25 of the 39 departments of the WCTU addressed non-alcohol issues, including women’s suffrage, shelters for abused women and children the eight-hour work day, equal pay for equal work, prison reform, promotion of nutrition and the Pure Food and Drug Act, and world peace. In order to achieve these goals, the WCTU was one of the first organizations to actively lobby Congress to promote its Progressive agenda. In 1901, the WCTU was instrumental in passing a law requiring temperance instruction in all public schools.
Outreach to children, the next generation, was central to the WCTU mission. In the 1890’s, the WCTU started the Loyal Temperance Legion, an international club for boys and girls who pledged total abstinence from alcohol. Monthly meeting included activities such as plays, picnics, parades, and singing temperance songs. The first slogan of the Loyal Temperance League was “Tremble, King Alcohol, We Shall Grow Up!” The Young Crusader was the monthly magazine for members. The magazines were full of wholesome and moralistic tales and poems, with a decidedly anti-alcohol slant. The Library of Virginia has a collection of five of these magazines from 1934.
Published after Prohibition had ended, the magazine continued its mission in earnest. In a story entitled “The Kittens Bring the Light,” Joan and Jimmy are crying because “Daddy went out with some of his friends to celebrate REPEAL.” The LTL mascot, Humpy the Camel, wrote a folksy monthly editorial encouraging children to stay focused on temperance in the face of the widely available legal alcohol. “What will we do to help these children around this town to know that whisky, rum and beer should always be passed by, to know about the alcohol bug--how it gets your body and mind and soul; claims folks, chains folks, takes their money and to them gives nothin’ at all. . .” The answer: “Just get folks to join the L.T.L.” The featured story, “Good Times and Bob,” follows three boys on their way to school as they discuss how the end of Prohibition has impacted their families. Bob’s father has started drinking, which has serious consequences.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union is still active today, and, after 140 years, is one of the oldest continuously operating women’s organizations in the world. Although the Loyal Temperance Legion is long gone, the WCTU continues its mission of educating children about alcohol and drug use through its website “Drug-Free Kids.”
Citation: “The Young Crusader.” National Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Evanston, Illinois. Call No. HV5287.N37 Y6
“Early History.” National Women’s Christian Temperance Union. https://www.wctu.org/
“Roots of Prohibition.” Prohibition: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. PBS, 2011. http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/roots-of-prohibition/
In Their Shoes: If you were one of Bob’s friends, what would you say to him? If you were Bob, what could you do to help your family?
Analyze: Why would the Women’s Christian Temperance Union target children? Do you think it was effective? Why or why not
Current Connections: How does this compare to the anti- drug and -alcohol programs in schools and society today?