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Woman's Holy War

  • Woman's Holy War; Temperance Broadside, ca. 1874
This print depicted female prohibitionists as crusaders. Society accepted women's involvement in the prohibition movement because it was a moral reform.
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Woman's Holy War; Temperance Broadside, ca. 1874

“Woman's Holy War,” was published by Currier and Ives about 1874. The picture depicts women dressed in armor, on horseback, and on foot, triumphantly destroying barrels of alcohol with the axes they wield. The woman in the forefront carries a shield similar to the one on the United States Great Seal, which bears the stars and stripes of the American flag, and lends an aura of patriotism to the temperance movement. There are distinct Christian religious overtones. The women, shown as knights or crusaders, remain paragons of womanhood as they ride sidesaddle. Their appearances are similar to contemporary depictions of Joan of Arc, the fifteenth-century French heroine and Catholic saint. Two banners in the back read, “In the name of God and humanity” and “Temperance League.” In the bottom right-hand corner, a man's foot appears as he flees before the women.

While the image is allegorical and fantastical, it is based in the real actions of women who in the mid-nineteenth century broke into establishments that sold alcohol and smashed or in some other way ruined the inventory. Later, early in the twentieth century, Carry Nation would adopt the axe as a symbol of her temperance movement. This broadside is a positive portrayal of women's participation in the temperance movement, which campaigned against excessive consumption of alcohol and was the precursor of the prohibition movement, which advocated prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol. Such reform movements brought many women into the public sphere for the first time.

During the nineteenth century, men's and women's duties were assigned based on gender. Men were responsible for providing for the family and participating in the outside world of politics and business. Women were expected to care for the home and because they were believed to be more pious, gentle, and demure than men, held the responsibility for raising children and creating a home that would be a refuge from the outside world. But, as this print shows, women did get involved in the public sphere. Women were active in abolitionism. In the late nineteenth century, they dominated the temperance and prohibition movements. These movements were considered suitable for women, because they were moral reforms and it was therefore appropriate for them to be involved in issues related to the family and domestic life.

In 1873 the Women's Crusade began after Ohio women were motivated to disrupt alcohol sales by congregating in saloons and leading prayers. Their tactics spread and women in the Midwest and northeast peacefully protested against local liquor merchants with prayers and hymns. Out of this movement came the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), established in 1874. The WCTU and other women activists dominated moral reform movements in the late nineteenth century.

For Educators


1. Who published this print and when?

2. What other reform movements were women involved in?

3. What women's organization was the most influential in the late nineteenth century?

Further Discussion

1. What about this print reveals that it approves of women's involvement in prohibition? What would be different about it if the artist had been critical of women's involvement?


Library of Congress Bibliographic Information-Woman's Holy War

Suggested Reading

Dannenbaum, Jed. "The Origins of Temperance Activism and Militancy among American Women." Journal of Social History 15, no. 2 (Winter, 1981): 235–252.

Varon, Elizabeth R. We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.