Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Western Washington

  • By Mildred Andrews
  • Posted 12/02/1998
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 407
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The main purpose of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was to achieve prohibition of alcoholic beverages by law. The organization, which is still in existence, came into being in 1873 and 1874, in Ohio and New York. In summer 1883, Frances Willard (1839-1898), who was then president, brought the crusade to the Pacific Northwest. Besides the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, the WCTU supported a wide variety of other causes, from suffrage for women to the campaign against cigarettes. Under the leadership of Frances Willard, its president from 1879 until her death in 1898, its motto was "Do Everything."

The National Organization

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union began organizing in late 1873 in Ohio and New York. In a campaign organizers termed the "Woman's Crusade," women prayed and then marched into saloons and asked the proprietors to shut down their establishments. Women first did this in Fredonia, New York, under the leadership of Esther McNeil, and this group was the first to adopt the name Woman's Christian Temperance Union. A meeting to found the national organization was held in August 1874, on the Chautauqua Grounds at Chautauqua, New York. The first national convention took place on November 18-20, 1874, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Besides singing hymns and praying in saloons, members founded public reading rooms, and presented anti-drinking programs in schools. One notorious short-term member, Carry Nation (1846-1911), smashed up saloons with a hatchet. She was condemned not only by the press, but also by her WCTU sisters.

In the summer of 1883, WCTU President Frances Willard brought the crusade to the Pacific Northwest. Willard noted that the craggy Cascade Range divided the state into two distinct halves, and established two unions, one east and one west of the mountains.

Grass Roots Organizing

Local units sprouted in communities large and small. Women who had previously worked for temperance in the egalitarian International Order of Good Templars, shifted their allegiance. Within a year, the WCTU counted 629 members in King County alone.

In June 1884, the Western Washington Union held its first annual convention in Seattle. Mrs. W. F. Thomas, president, informed the delegates that the international WCTU "was the largest society ever composed exclusively of women and conducted by them." She proclaimed that the goals were to educate youth, to transform "by the power of divine grace those who are enslaved by alcohol," and to remove the saloon from the streets by law (Annual Report).

Members planned to lobby the legislature for support of a temperance program for the public schools that would include temperance textbooks and scientific instruction to teach children about the physiological effects of alcoholic beverages and narcotics. Thomas exhorted, "As the army of drunkards march onward to the grave, let us see to it that their ranks are not recruited by little children who are still under our influence. Let us gather them into our 'Bands of Hope' and teach them ..." (Annual Report).

In Washington Territory, women won the vote in 1883. The temperance crusade took a new twist when most women joined forces with "law and order" men to enact local options. They closed down brothels and saloons across the Territory, including in Seattle.

The city, which relied heavily on "sin taxes," lost revenue. A powerful Saloon League successfully lobbied the judges of the territorial supreme court, who in turn found legal technicalities with which to rule woman suffrage unconstitutional.

At the fourth annual convention, held at Seattle's Plymouth Congregational Church, Mrs. Hansen proclaimed, "We have been despoiled of our crown of liberty ... [and] been deprived of our weapon, the ballot, with which we hoped to defend our homes and children; but we are not discouraged, remembering that right is right, since God is God and right the day must win" (Annual Report).

The WCTU in Auburn

Meticulously organized, the Western Washington union networked its way into King County communities like Auburn. In the 1890s, when saloonkeepers violated the law and opened on the Sabbath, 60 members marched into their establishments to urge them to close, then confronted the Justice of the Peace and the City Council to demand enforcement.

In 1904, the Auburn unit established the city's first lending library, the seed for the Carnegie Library built in 1911 and now designated a landmark. In keeping with the WCTU's vision, the library became the city's "temple of culture," providing a proper venue for meetings, events, browsing, and most importantly, an alternative to saloons. To improve public sanitation, the local unit raised funds for the town's first public drinking fountains.

Although often overlooked, the WCTU's most significant legacy was its grassroots impact and profound local influence. Its units established public libraries in communities across the nation. The organization viewed reading as a means to education, and education as a means to self-improvement and good citizenship. Local units also pioneered social services to empower women such as, in Seattle, a children's day nursery and a women's exchange where house-bound women could market their needlework, jams, and baked goods.

In 1889, the Western Washington WCTU founded the White Shield Home in Tacoma, a residence for unwed mothers and their infants. The home's purpose was "to redeem our erring sister from her life of shame into a life of pure, true womanhood. She whose particular sin shuts her out from any other home can find shelter here till she can prove her worthiness to take her place again in the world as a woman and not as an outcast" (Annual Report).

The Frances Harper Unit

The WCTU was multi-racial. In the early 1890s, women in Seattle's First African Methodist Episcopal Church organized the Frances Harper Unit. (Frances Harper was an African American Abolitionist, a novelist, and a national organizer of African American units of the WCTU) The Frances Harper Unit elected as president a formerly enslaved woman, Emma Ray.

Members of the Frances Harper unit spent time with people who were ill, cooking and cleaning for them and holding prayer meetings. They canvassed the city's red-light district and visited prisoners in jail, intent on redeeming prostitutes and drunkards (both men and women), whom they regarded as society's victims. In some cases their new friends became converts and joined them in church.

The Frances Harper unit received high marks from leaders of the Western Washington WCTU. However, it disbanded when the pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church asked them to continue their good work under the aegis of the church.

Emma Ray was the lone African American woman to continue to attend city and regional meetings. In 1899, when the national WCTU held its convention in Seattle, Lucy Thurman, a leading African American, urged Ray and others to reorganize their unit. With support from a new pastor, the Frances Harper Unit continued its work well into the twentieth century.

In the early 1900s, the Western Washington WCTU moved its headquarters into the Arcade Building in downtown Seattle. The building became a hub of women's political and altruistic activities. The Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association established a free dispensary in the Arcade, offering medical service to the poor. Feminist physician Dr. Cora Smith Eaton contributed part of her office suite as headquarters for the newly revitalized Washington Equal Suffrage Association (WESA).

Suffrage and Temperance

In November 8, 1910, Washington's male voters ratified the woman suffrage amendment by a margin of almost two to one. In 1911, the WCTU and the WESA joined forces with Seattle clubwomen to support a recall campaign against Mayor Hiram Gill, who had broken his promise to confine prostitution to the Skid Road area. Instead, he had granted permits to his cronies to build the world's largest brothel on a city street. With the campaign slogan, "Ladies: Get Out and Hustle!" Seattle's newly enfranchised voters hustled Gill out of office.

Buoyed by the rising tide of reform, WCTU President Emma Wallingford Wood (1859-1949) led the carefully orchestrated campaign for "dry" laws (laws prohibiting alcohol). In 1914, Washington voters ratified a prohibition amendment that Seattle voters favored by a 61 percent margin. The law was enacted in 1916, and three years later the federal prohibition amendment passed.

The WCTU had accomplished its major goal, and most units gradually disbanded. But in recent years (in the late 1990s) the organization has revitalized. It is restoring the Frances Willard House, a national landmark in Evanston, Illinois, and converting it to a museum. At the top of its agenda is keeping children away from drugs and alcohol. Today (in the late 1990s) the WCTU has a growing international membership of more than half a million women and men.


Mildred Tanner Andrews, Washington Women as Path Breakers (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1989); Andrews, Woman's Place: a Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 12-13, 182-83, 278; Sandra Haarsager, Organized Womanhood: Cultural Politics in the Pacific Northwest, 1840-1920 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 63-99; Esther Hall Mumford, Seattle's Black Victorians, 1852-1901 (Seattle: Ananse Press, 1980), 150-52; The Seattle Times, January 6, 1991, sec. K, p. 6; Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Auburn Unit, Records, ca. 1890-1920 (Auburn Public Library Archives, Auburn); Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Western Washington, Annual Meeting Reports, 1884, 1888 (University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Seattle); Woman's Christian Temperance Union Website (www.wctu.org). Note: This entry was revised on May 8, 2003.

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