Early History

The National Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in Cleveland, Ohio in November of  1874. It grew out of the "Woman's Crusade" of the winter of 1873-1874. Initial groups in Fredonia, New York and Hillsboro and Washington Court House, Ohio,  after listening to a lecture by Dr. Dio Lewis, were moved to a non-violent  protest against the dangers of alcohol. Normally quiet housewives dropped to their knees in pray-ins in local saloons and demanded that the sale of liquor be  stopped. In three months the women had driven liquor out of 250 communities, and  for the first time felt what could be accomplished by standing together.

In the summer of 1874 at Chautauqua, preorganizational discussion was held by the women. They decided to hold a national convention that fall in Cleveland and the WCTU was formed. Mrs. Annie Wittenmyer was elected president; Miss Frances E. Willard, corresponding  secretrary; Mrs. Mary Johnson, recording secretary; and Mrs. Mary Ingham,  treasurer.

                                           Mrs. Annie Turner Wittenmyer
                                 First National President (1874-1879)

Behind the WCTU's  temperance reform was "protection

of the home." The slogan "For God and Home and Native

Land" (later changed to "Every Land") expressed the

WCTU's priorities. Through education and example

the WCTU hoped to obtain pledges of total  abstinence

from alcohol, and later also tobacco and other drugs.

The white  ribbon bow was selected to symbolize purity, and

the WCTU's watchwords were "Agitate - Educate - Legislate."

Local chapters were  called "Unions" and were largely autonomous, but closely linked to the state  unions and national headquarters. There were clear channels of authority and  communication and the WCTU quickly became the largest woman's organization in the United States (and later, in the world.)

The crusade against  alcohol was a protest by women, in part, of their lack of civil rights. Women could not vote. In most states women could not have control of their property or custody of their children in case of divorce. There were no legal protections  for women and children, prosecutions for rape were rare, and the state-regulated "age of consent" was as low as seven.

Most local political meetings were held in saloons from which women were excluded. At the end of the  19th century Americans spent over a billion dollars on alcoholic beverages each  year, compared with $900 million on meat, and less than $200 million on public education.

In 1879, Frances Willard became president of the WCTU and turned to organizing political means in  addition to moral persuasion to achieve total abstinence. Willard's personal motto was "do everything." The WCTU adopted this as a policy which came to mean  that all reform was inter-connected and that social problems could not be  separated. The use of alcohol and other drugs was a symptom of the larger  problems in society. By 1894, under "home protection" the WCTU was endorsing  women's suffrage. By 1896, 25 of the 39 departments of the WCTU were dealing with non-temperance issues. However, temperance, especially in terms of alcohol., tobacco, and other drugs, was the force that bound the WCTU's social reforms together. To promote its causes, the WCTU was among the first  organizations to keep a professional lobbyist in Washington, D. C.

Today the WCTU is the  oldest voluntary, non-sectarian woman's organization in continuous existence in  the world. The WCTU is a founding member (1888) of the National Council for  Women (Frances Willard was its first president) and the International Council of  Women in 1893. It is also a charter member (1945) of the United Nations  Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO). For almost 125 years the WCTU has trained women to think on their feet, speak in public, and run an  organization.

The WCTU has proposed, supported, and helped establish:

  • protection of women and children at home and work
  • women's right to vote
  • shelters for abused women and children
  • the eight-hour work day
  • equal pay for equal work
  • founding of kindergartens
  • assistance in founding of the PTA
  • federal aid for education
  • stiffer penalties for sexual crimes against girls and  women
  • uniform marriage and divorce laws
  • dress reform
  • travelers' aid
  • prison reform and police matrons
  • women police officers
  • homes and education for wayward girls
  • promotion of nutrition
  • pure food and drug act
  • legal aid
  • labor's right to organize
  • passive demonstrations and world peace

The WCTU has opposed and worked against:

  • the drug traffic
  • the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs
  • white slavery
  • child labor
  • army brothels

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.