The NATIONAL WOMEN’S CHRISTIAN TEMPERANCE MOVEMENT was founded in Cleveland, Ohio in 1874. The initial purpose of the WCTU was to promote abstinence from alcohol, which they protested with pray-ins at local taverns. Their membership grew rapidly, and the WCTU remains one of the oldest non-sectarian women’s groups in the United States of America.
In the winter of 1873, popular temperance speaker Diocletian Lewis (also known as Dr. Dio Lewis) gave several lectures on abstinence from alcohol in Hillsboro, Ohio. His speeches inspired the WCTU’s first peaceful protests, as well as the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement.
The newly founded WCTU held a national convention in Cleveland in the fall of 1874. They elected Annie Wittenmyer as president, Mary Johnson as recording secretary, Frances Willard as corresponding secretary, and Mary Ingham as treasurer.
The WCTU advocated for temperance as a way to make home life safer for women and children. Their slogan “Every Land” (formerly “For God and Home and Native Land”) emphasized their goal of alcohol abstinence throughout the United States. The WCTU adopted the white ribbon as a symbol of purity, and paired it with the motto, “Agitate, Educate, Legislate.”
After her tenure as corresponding secretary, Frances Willard was elected president of the WCTU in 1879. She shifted the organization’s focus to political activism as well as moral education. Her personal motto, “Do everything,” became an integral part of the WCTU’s practice for decades, prompting political action on the local, state, and national levels.
The WCTU grew into an international movement, and under Willard’s leadership, it became the largest women’s organization in the world by 1890. Willard remained president until her death in 1898, but the organization continued to grow after her departure.
The WCTU incorporated other civil and social issues into their platform as they grew, taking on sex work, women’s suffrage, and tobacco and drug use.
Although the popularity of temperance has abated, today most states and 36 countries still have active WCTU unions.