The Secret Feminist History of the Temperance Movement
A couple years ago, while researching my memoir about a love affair with a man addicted to heroin, I got lost in the testimonies of temperance women. I was trying to understand the deleterious effects of men’s addictions on women’s lives throughout history; still, it was a somewhat surprising place to find myself. The temperance movement, as I learned about it in middle school, was part of a puritanical Christian bid for the total prohibition of alcohol. I was led to imagine angry, humorless middle-aged white women pouring out crystal decanters of brandy or smashing barrels of rum in dark saloons. Ruining men’s party, in effect. Really not my kind of ladies — or so I thought.
Once I began reading about the movement, I discovered it was far bigger than I imagined, and far more nuanced. The temperance movement was one in a constellation of social and moral reform movements that followed the 18th century Protestant revival known as the Second Great Awakening. It arguably began with the publication in 1784 of a tract by Benjamin Rush called An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind, which argued a point that seems obvious now: that drinking too much alcohol was bad for one’s health. (Rush’s inquiry may sound dull, but it’s a passionate piece of writing: “If angels weep, it is at such a sight,” he writes of men lost to drink.)
Temperance societies formed throughout the first half of the 19th century, but the movement didn’t belong to women until the founding, in 1874, of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The organization fought not only for temperance but held progressive positions on a broad range of other social issues, including prison reform, stricter anti-rape laws, municipal sanitation, free lunches, and labor rights. They also sought to curb so-called “vices” like prostitution. Their main focus, particularly at first, however, was to curtail the suffering of families at the mercy of alcohol.
There was something specifically female about this complaint. At a time when they couldn’t vote, divorce easily, own property, or in many cases hold jobs, women were dependent on men for their security. Marital rape was legal and prosecutions for rape and domestic violence were rare. The age of consent in some states was as low as ten. In many cases, women’s life chances, already woefully constrained by their gender, were all but destroyed by the alcoholic men in their lives.
And if they couldn’t beat ’em, they couldn’t join ’em, either: women chiefly bore responsibility for domestic life, and though some surely drank alcohol, heavy drinking among women was not socially acceptable. All this meant alcoholism could bring ruin to their homes and families and they couldn’t even blow off steam at the bar with their friends. (Spoken like an alcoholic, maybe. Full disclosure: I am one.)
In churches and halls across the country, on the subjects of abusive husbands, crushed dreams, and liquidated paychecks, they did not mince words. Their speeches were full-hearted and incredibly badass. Trapped in the grinding stress of my own relationship with an addict, I found it thrilling to read about these women who, like me, were unwitting bystanders to male self-destruction. The difference was that they had a whole movement.
“We did not dream that we had much to do but to weep and mourn in secret places over the misery Rum was creating,” said one Mrs. R. Ostrander, president of the Wisconsin Woman’s State Temperance Society. “But a new era has arisen and a brighter day has dawned. The call now is, WOMAN! be up and doing! Let your voice be heard, as certain as a trumpet’s sound.”
They even seemed to understand the self-hatred that powers and often sustains such unions. I nodded in somber agreement when I read Seneca Falls reformer Amelia Bloomer saying, “The idea of living with a drunkard is so abhorrent, so revolting to all the finer feelings of our nature, that a woman must fall very low before she can endure such companionship.”
“Who does not feel the wish for power to hurl down both the drunkard and the drunkard maker, and restore to their true position and happiness those who are subjected to cruelty?” Bloomer asked in another speech. I thought of my then-boyfriend, an alcoholic and addict, who I did so often and so badly want to hurl down. Then I thought of the contemporary “drunkard maker” in our case, Purdue Pharma, and how much I wanted to destroy them.
But the rhetoric of Bloomer and others was also grounded in Christian ideas about sin and punishment. The women of the WCTU frequently invoked purity and pure-mindedness. Members wore white ribbons to symbolize purity and so much of their language was about decontaminating and thereby saving souls. They were bold, but their mission was evangelical. They agitated for more power so they could restore a dirty world to cleanness and Christian harmony.
The more I read, the more complex the story became. The WCTU was the largest women’s organization in the nation at the end of the 19th century, housing an enormous range of experiences and perspectives. Temperance women’s appeal was based on a belief in the moral superiority of women. They cleverly — and strategically — made a bid for greater economic and political power couched in very conventional ideas about femininity. We must be let into the halls of power, they were saying, but only to shore up the normative heterosexual white family unit. You can trust us. On the one hand, their message was radical. On the other, it was in service of the status quo.
Temperance laid the groundwork for both the prohibition and suffrage movements of the early 20th century—many prominent suffragists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, were active temperance crusaders. They believed that women could only gain power in the home by gaining a seat at the public table of American politics. (It was an early iteration of the Second Wave feminist tagline “the personal is political.”)
When I took in their emotional pleas and soaring proto-feminist oratory, I felt moved by the connection I felt to these women from over a century ago. I felt less alone, and I started to understand the dance of addiction and codependency in a deeper historical context. But the more I learned about the temperance movement, I came to understand that the roots of a pernicious strand of white feminism lay here, in the ideology of “true womanhood,” with its obsession with “innocence” and “purity.” The WCTU was the first national women’s reform organization to welcome African-American members, but its efforts to work on behalf of all women were dogged by racism from the start. I set out to learn more about the cult of white femininity at the center of temperance, as well as the role of women of color in the movement.