Suffrage in 60 Seconds: Temperance

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In the late 1800s, an organization called the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, or WCTU, pushed for two big causes: an end to the use of alcohol, which is called temperance, and women’s suffrage. It might seem weird for these things to be linked, but for many activists, the connection was obvious. For one thing, Americans in the 1800s drank more alcohol than we do today, and it led to real social problems. WCTU members argued that because women had so little economic and political power, they were especially vulnerable to poverty and abuse if men in their families were alcoholics. WCTU leaders like Frances Willard and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper argued that the way to break the power of the “liquor traffic” was for women to win the right to vote and enact alcohol prohibition and other reforms to “protect the home.” The WCTU endorsed suffrage in 1881, when many people still thought of women voting as outlandishly radical. Its tens of thousands of members would form the grassroots of the suffrage movement for many years to come.

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What did woman suffrage have to do with alcohol? Leaders of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union like Frances Willard and Frances Watkins Harper convinced WCTU members that they could accomplish social change if women won the vote. NPS Women's History Fellow Ella Wagner has the details.

Temperance was one of many social and political movements which women led long before they won the vote.

Part of a series of articles titled Suffrage in Sixty Seconds.

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Last updated: January 5, 2022