History of the WCTU

"The mission of the White Ribbon Women is to organize Christian

women for the peace and purity, the protection and

exaltation of our homes."

-Frances E. Willard

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On December 13, 1873, Dr. Dio Lewis, a Boston physician, delivered a lecture in Fredonia NY. After the lecture, he was invited to deliver a temperance lecture the next day at a Sunday evening church service. He gave a forceful presentation about alcohol and his practical plans for action to stop the alcohol traffic. Rev. Lester Williams, pastor of the Baptist Church, asked the women to hold a meeting. Fifty women responded ready to act. 

On Monday morning, December 15, 1873, at 10:00am, about 300 men and women met in the Fredonia Baptist Church. The men prayed while the women organized. The men pledge $1,000 to help the women carry out their work to stop the alcohol traffic. They adopted the name, The Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Fredonia. 

In August, 1874, at the first National Sunday School Assembly held at Chautauqua, New York, Mrs. Mattie McClellan Brown of Ohio suggested a committee send out a call for a national, delegated convention to meet in Cleveland, Ohio, November 18-20. 

Frances Willard was the 2nd National WCTU President and the most famous. She believed that women, as the moral guardians of the home, should be involved in public and political activity. She increased the reform activity initiated by the WCTU with choices for local chapters. This made it possible for large numbers of women to work with the temperance movement and on issues that were of concern to themselves.


This became know as Frances Willard's "Do Everything" policy. It was passed at the National 1882 WCTU Convention. It encouraged local chapters to work on any and all issues they deem important. This allowed very conservative chapters to avoid issues such as the "Home Protection Ballot" (women's right to vote).


Willard contrasted a national WCTU meeting with "any held by men: Its manner is not the of the street, the court, the mart, or office; it is the maker of the home." She used domestic imagery, beautiful decorations, banners of silk, satin and velvet, usually made by the women themselves, to adore the walls and platforms. She presented the room as "cozy and delightful as a parlor could afford." 

She once commented, "We have been so busy making history we have not found time to record it." Therefore, in Do Everything (1895), she urged that "Each Union from the greatest to the least, should appoint a custodian of archives, souvenirs, and historic documents, who should also keep memoranda of its unfolding history."


The WCTU Administration Building in Evanston, Illinois holds WCTU's Library and Archives. The collection is extensive and is accessible to researchers. Many have come from around the world to learn more about women's history, including their fight for prohibition, the the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and and the work of the WCTU which gave women the right to vote, 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. . 

Today, the WCTU continues its work to educate about the dangers of alcohol and other drug use. The WCTU works to protect families from all negative influences under its "Do Everything" policy.

The WCTU is the oldest, continuous woman's organization in the world. It was the major force behind obtaining the 18th and 19th Constitutional Amendments to the United States Constitution. 

On the world level, the WCTU was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.














National WCTU Presidents

  • Mrs. Annie Wittenmyer served as the first president of the WCTU from 1874 to 1879. 

  • Miss Frances Willard became the national president of WCTU in 1879, and remained president until her death in 1898.

  • Mrs. Lillian M. N. Stevens was elected president of the National WCTU after the death of Frances Willard. Lillian served from 1899-1914.

  • Miss Anna Adams Gordon was national president of the WCTU when the Eighteenth Amendment was adpoted, a major figure in the Temperance movement. Anna served from 1914-1925.

  • Mrs. Ella Alexander Boole served from 1925-1933.

  • Mrs. Ida Belle Wise Smith served from 1933-1944. Ida was best known as the primary author of the Sheppard Bill in 1916 that imposed prohibition on Washington, D.C.

  • Mrs. Mamie White Colvin served as president of the WCTU from 1944-1953.

  • Mrs. Agnes Dubbs Hays served as president of the WCTU from 1953-1959.

  • Mrs. Ruth Tibbits Tooze served as president of the WCTU from 1959-1974.

  • Mrs. Edith Kirkendall Stanley served as president of the WCTU from 1974-1980.


  • Mrs. Martha Greer Edgar served as president of the WCTU from 1980-1988.


  • Mrs. Rachel Bubar Kelly served as president of the WCTU from 1988-1996. Rachel was the sister of Maine temperance lobbyist and Prohibition party leader Ben Bubar.

  • Miss Sarah F. Ward served as president of the WCTU from 1996-2006, and 2014-2019. Sarah is the author of "The White Ribbon Story," which details the history of the first 125 years of the WCTU in America.

  • Mrs. Rita K. Wert served as president of the WCTU from 2006-2014. 

  • Mrs. Merry Lee Powell is the current president of the WCTU. Merry Lee began serving in 2019.

The Suffrage Movement

Women's suffrage refers to the right of women to vote and to run for office. "Suffragists" advocated for the extension of political voting rights for women, while in some places "Suffragettes" were women who sought the right to vote through organized protest. Today, "suffragettes" is a term commonly used around the world to identify women who campaigned for the right to vote in elections. 

The suffrage movement in the United States chose the color of gold or yellow for identification. In 1867 when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton campaigned in Kansas to help pass a state suffrage referendum, the pro-suffrage forces adopted the state symbol, the sunflower, which led to the association of yellow or gold with the suffrage cause. Purple and white were subordinate colors often used. 

In the 19th century a "woman's place" was firmly in the home. Although a few women were attending university and seeking careers, most were restricted to the home and the exhausting physical labor required to maintain the house and raise the children. To many men it was incomprehensible that a woman could focus her attention on political matters. 


Women were portrayed as emotional, weak, unable to make decisions, and consumed with domestic and trivial matters. One objection raised was that married men would have a double vote since it was assumed their wives would vote as they were told by their husbands. Women from different backgrounds and different geographical locations worked together to achieve the vote and the recognition of their rights, which these votes provided.  

In 1888, the International Council of Women was founded in Washington, D.C., by Frances Willard (who wrote its constitution and served as first (president), Susa B. Anthony (who served as vice president), and May Wright Sewall (who served as corresponding secretary and later as president). Today, women's suffrage is explicitly stated as a right under the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted by the United Nations in 1979.

The beginning of the struggle for women's suffrage in the United States is usually traced to the first Women's Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848, under the leadership of Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Over three hundred men and women attended the convention, protested the mistreatment of women in social, economic, political, and religious life. Four years later, at the Women's Rights Convention in Syracuse, Susan B. Anthony joined the effort. While working for the cause of temperance, she demanded the vote for women. To her, the vote was the solution for everything.

In 1878, an amendment to the United States Constitution was proposed. It was reintroduced in every session of Congress for the next 41 years. Congress finally approved the 19th Amendment (votes for women) on June 4, 1919, and sent it to the states. It was ratified on August 18, 1920.

The role of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in the suffrage movement is significant. One lesson the women learned as a result of the Woman's Temperance Crusade, forerunner in the winter of 1873-1874 to the founding of the WCTU, was the need to be able to vote. Many of these women would never have sought this right for their own, but they desired to protect their homes and their country from the scourge of alcohol. Many of them were leaders in their communities and protected by important fathers and husbands. The women were shocked by the reaction of many men to the idea of suffrage. On the other hand, there were women who also opposed suffrage. 

In 1876, Frances Willard, convinced that women needed the ballot as a tool in their battle against alcohol, gave her first women's suffrage address, The Home Protection Ballot, at the National WCTU Convention in Newark, New Jersey. At the 1877 National WCTU Convention in Chicago, Illinois, another resolution was advanced to seek the right to vote on liquor issues. By this time, the growing suffrage movement in the United States had convinced many WCTU members of the value of the vote as a tool for their main objective of stopping the liquor traffic. On the other hand, many delegates still felt that suffrage was inconsistent with their sense of "ladylikeness." There was a lengthy and spirited debate before the resolution passed. 

At the 1879 National WCTU Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, Willard was elected National President, and by 1881 National Convention in Boson, Massachusetts, she had the WCTU's full support for women's suffrage. 


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