In the last half of the 19th century a number of factors increased the sale and consumption of alcohol. The Industrial Revolution and Trans-Continental Railroad increased the amount of alcohol that could be produced and distributed. Social factors such as residual trauma from the Civil War and the unregulated sale of patent medicines, which were mostly alcohol and addictive substances like morphine and cocaine, increased alcohol and drug dependence. (People had little choice for pain management other than these addictive substances because there weren’t many alternatives. Even one of the most common non-addictive medications used today, aspirin, would not be invented until 1899.)
Alcohol abuse was rampant and devastating to families of all economic backgrounds--very much like the current opioid crisis we are facing today. To get a perspective of how big the problem was in America at that time, each year the sales of alcohol were over one billion dollars compared to an average of $900 million spent on meat and a mere $200 million on education.
This added fuel to the temperance movement, which had been brewing for a while, but finally organized nationally as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in the summer of 1874. To reduce America’s dependence on alcohol, they had prayer meetings, personally met with alcoholics and their families, signed temperance pledges, and set up “sober houses” as an early predecessor of rehab facilities. (Alcoholics Anonymous would not be formed until 1935 and is a separate organization.)
The WCTU did more than just push for alcohol reform. They advocated for child labor laws, prison reform, temperance education in schools, and pushed for laws raising the age of consent for sex which was as low as seven years old in some areas. Of course, they still had no political voice in making laws and most local political meetings were held in saloons where women were not allowed, so it was natural that many members were part of the suffrage movement as well.
In 1879 Francis Willard became president of the organization and remained so until her death in 1898. Under her intense “Do Everything” leadership, the WCTU flourished and went international as the World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU); both organizations still exist today.
Being part of highly organized charity groups like the WCTU was a training ground for female leaders at all levels. Women learned important skills of planning, working together, and how to be politically active. Even without the vote, women were realizing that they had a great deal of influence, especially in large numbers, if they wanted to use it. The next generation of women (and men) also benefited from seeing their mothers, aunts, and even grandmothers learn to have a voice.
Bonus: A six-foot-tall woman by the name of Carry A. Nation (her real name) is a very colorful character in American history who organized a local branch of the WCTU in Kansas. She felt personally called upon by God to take matters into her own hands and rid the country of alcohol. She walked into saloons and pharmacies, gave fair warning to those inside, and then destroyed the place with an ax. Her “hatchetations” and group of “home defenders” became national news. Despite being an extremely controversial figure, she had a following. People sent her gifts of hatchets and hammers and would come in droves to see her in action. She has been the subject of many books, pop culture references, and even an opera.
This week’s song pick:
“Rehab” by Amy Winehouse https://youtu.be/KUmZp8pR1uc
Episode 31 Sources: