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Internet Modern History Sourcebook

Woman's Christian Temperance Union:

Growth of Membership and of Local, Auxiliary Unions, 1879-1921

The major women's political activity of the late 19th and early 20th century was not organized around political rights feminism, but around the temperance movement. Because of the general concensus that the temperance movement produced a disaster during the period of prohibition, and because of a lack of sympathy for its overt evangelical Christianity, the temperance movement did not receive its full due as an aspect of the history of American women's political activity.

It is now clear that, contrary to claims of women's removal from public life, American women throughout the 19th century were very active in public politics. They could pursue this activity most easily when it was put under the sign of "morality" - hence the widespread female  involvement first with the movement to abolish slavery (which was seen as especially immoral because of the assumed sexual exploitation), and then with the attack on alchol.

It is important not to suggest that the moral concerns were a "cover", but it is equally important to realize that alcohol was attacked not just because of supposed religious objections, but because excessive use of alcohol destroyed the lives of many women who faced drunken husbands.

Year Number of Local, Auxiliary Unions # of states and territories with Unions Aggregate Membership
1879 1,118 24 26,843
1883 2,580 42 73,176
1890 7,126 48 149,527
1900 7,067 52 168,324
1910 12,000 53 248,343
1921 12,000 53 345,949


Norton Mezvinsky, "The White Ribbon Reform, 1874-1920 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1959): 68

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, July 1998

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