150 years ago, even the most pro-family women in America were part of a movement that undermined masculine authority and paved the way for the acceptance of radical feminism.
Many non-feminists today express respect for the resolute Christian women who campaigned in 19th century America for the health of their nation.
Their primary objective was to outlaw the production and sale of alcohol, believing with some justification that alcoholism was at the root of poverty, work accidents, domestic abuse, and community violence.
Such women called themselves temperance advocates—though their goal was really prohibition, eventually ratified in 1919—and they have become in public memory the good feminists, who, unlike their more radical counterparts, entered public life with the goal of saving their menfolk rather than attacking them.
But the consequences, as we shall see, were to make feminist attack far more acceptable.
In their abhorrence of drunkenness, these passionate woman activists were not alone, and in fact men had gone before them in organizing against the problem of drunkenness in the early 19th century. The American Temperance Society, founded in 1826 , had 1.5 million members by 1835.
Social purity encompassed a wide range of causes, including prison reform, healthy living, outreach to immigrants, water and milk purification, the regulation of factory work conditions, and campaigns for male chastity to prevent the spread of venereal disease.
Control of unruly men, and particularly of unruly male passions, was a dominant concern, and many women had their first taste of activism—in meetings, petitions, public speaking and anti-saloon agitation—through local temperance chapters.
At its peak, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union had between 150,000 and 200,000 members, far more than any suffrage organization ever boasted.
The women’s concerns about alcoholism were not without foundation. The potent, noxious brew served up in taverns and saloons was often injurious, causing ruined lives, destitute families, and early death. When they discovered that men in positions of power would not or could not act to outlaw the liquor supply, the women took matters into their own hands, carving out a public role for themselves as the mothers of the nation.
In one of the temperance activist’s own words, “The Woman’s Temperance Crusade […] was the coming of ‘the hour for the women and the women for the hour’ in a great social reform movement’” (Woman and Temperance, 207).
These women did not reject motherhood and family life in the manner that other feminist activists would increasingly do; and they emphatically did not advocate sexual liberation. On the contrary, they called for the right to vote as, in their phrase, a “home protection ballot,” a measure to help them defend their domestic domain as loyal sisters, wives, and mothers.
Yet in key ways the temperance movement was the precursor, rather than the antithesis, of the anti-male jihad that followed. The movement deliberately promoted ideas of male inadequacy and female moral superiority. Its primary justification, in fact, was that men had for many years failed to prevent and beat back a serious threat to American communities; and that women, due to their greater capacity to care for the vulnerable, would fight more single-mindedly and courageously. The reality—that alcohol consumption had been in decline for many decades and temperance an increasingly powerful cultural notion—had no impact on the power of their platform.
The notion of women’s greater sensitivity to suffering was far from a new idea—it was a centuries-old belief—but it was turned to revolutionary ends when temperance activists imagined themselves an army more powerful and more fierce than any male battalion in history, marching with God-given weapons to defeat the enemy alcohol.
One temperance worker described her vision of the “Ninety thousand women in this procession, the advance guard of an army which is gathering from every State.” Notably, this advance guard was supported by “the rallying clans of the reformed men, always our chivalric guard of honor, as they fall into line […]” (Frances Willard, Woman and Temperance, 381-382). While the (“reformed”) men (“reformed” by women, obviously) have a worthy place in this gathering army, it is the women who are leading the way and taking the more valorous part.
Female power was central to the rhetoric of temperance activists, and temperance envisioned a transformation of American culture that drained moral authority and legitimacy from men as a group and transferred it to women. A lengthy, detailed record of the speeches and various campaigns of prominent activists in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is provided in leader Frances Willard’s book Woman and Temperance; Or, The Work and Workers of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The book was published in 1883, while Willard was the president of the national organization. All the specific quotations and anecdotes here are drawn from the book, which provides a fascinating window onto the religious conviction and exultant confidence of the women who campaigned against the Demon Drink and its male victims.
Though temperance women never expressed hatred for men, they did repeatedly portray them as weak, and frequently indecisive, venal, and lacking in courage. They depicted late nineteenth century America as possessing a moral vacuum at its heart, as symbolized by the saloon, into which young men were lured to their doom (“All the way toward manhood that dram shop, so social, so seductive, has been just across the street,” Woman and Temperance, 241).
In temperance activists’ depictions, the saloon was the anti-home. At a time when many houses were poorly heated and poorly furnished, the saloon offered the attractions of warmth, good lighting, friendship, social activities, entertainment, and refreshment—but all fatally tainted by alcohol. Young men, improperly guided by their fathers and church elders, left the moral safety of their true home (their mother’s hearth) and were lured into dissipation and bodily illness by the false home of the saloon. In the absence of the father’s correction, mothers declared it their right and duty to fight for the bodies and souls of their sons.
Willard’s book described the process as follows, using the example of one representative town in New Jersey that found its feminine salvation:
“A generation ago, [this town] was conspicuous for its immorality, resulting from the almost universal use of liquor. The whisky flasks were carried even into the workshops and freely used there. […] Many of the men were brutal, their wives wretched, their children ragged.
The churches had done all they could to stem the ever increasing tide of evil, but seemed powerless beyond a certain point. Temperance societies of men alone made noble efforts, but the evil remained unchecked.
At last the women were roused. The future of their brothers, their husbands, their sons, and of their daughters also, from whom they longed to avert the suffering many of them had borne, was all at stake. Enthusiastically, yet wisely and prudently, they used their influence for the abolition of the seductive snares spread for those they loved. They talked, they prayed, they worked, and gradually public sentiment changed.” (Willard, Woman and Temperance, 173)
The rest of the anecdote tells of the positive transformation of the town, the closing down of the taverns, and the regeneration of the inhabitants: “The drunkards’ wives who used to cower and suffer, now rejoice. The daughters are sent to school, the children are well fed and well clothed, and it would be hard to find anywhere a more prosperous or happier manufacturing community” (Willard, Woman and Temperance, 174).
The message is clear: women bring health, morality and order where the men, including the church pastors, have failed. No particular reason is given for the women’s success outside of the implication that they cared more, worked more effectively, and brought greater sincerity and passion to the cause. Women in these scenarios are themselves never tempted by alcohol or any other stimulant; they are never neglectful, weak, or self-centered.
Presented in such stark gendered terms, the temperance movement’s vision of America involved an implicit and sometimes, as above, explicit rebuke of failed masculine leadership. Women in temperance literature are portrayed as able to subdue even rebellious and dangerously wayward men through the power of prayer and their purity of purpose. Often in Willard’s volume, righteous women are shown invading the masculine space of the tavern, at first rebuffed and then ultimately welcomed.
In one recorded anecdote, a “brave Arkansas girl” walks into a saloon to preach against drink with her fellow activists, and is undaunted when the saloon-keeper raises his pistol against her: in response, she “sprang lightly to his side, singing ‘Never be afraid to work for Jesus,’ and laid her gentle hand upon his weapon’” (292). Men in saloons, hearing the words of temperance activists, allegedly turned away from their cups: “I shan’t drink tonight. I can’t forget the way that lady who led the meeting spoke about our mothers” (226) says one regretful reprobate.
Frances Willard’s compendious volume records many such scenes of conversion in which women use emotional and moral suasion to pacify resistant men. In one such scene, a temperance activist speaks to a man in a saloon and almost immediately reduces him to tears and repentance:
“At one saloon I felt an unaccountable prompting to go to the end, where a gentleman sat in such a position as to prevent our seeing his face. His manner and bearing seemed strangely out of place there, and he was so mortified to be found in a grog-shop by ladies that I felt half sorry that I had spoken; but trusting in the One who had led us thither, I said, ‘You seem to be depressed, and I am come to tell you of a Friend who will be with you always, even to the end of the world.’ The word about God’s love touched him, and he broke down and wept bitterly” (Willard, Woman and Temperance, 112). The man leaves the tavern with the women workers, and thanks them for saving his life.
The stories establish the activists as mothers of the nation, with even adult men depicted as their erring and ultimately penitent children, coming to them with sobs, begging for forgiveness, willing to be guided by them. Though the forgiveness is ultimately that of God, the intercessors are clearly female, and the power reversal effected—in which women are the authorities, women the source of law, righteousness, and peace—is as decisively emasculating as anything later feminists could envision or declare.
“Put men by themselves in camp and wilderness, and how long is law their arbiter rather than the matched strength of arm with arm and blow for blow?” Willard wrote dismissively, asserting that “It is pure, ennobled Christian womanhood, with herteachings and example, that has made law possible to the Anglo-Saxon race” (Woman and Temperance, 394).
Whatever individual members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union intended, and however sincere their love for their menfolk and sons, their words and actions had the effect of infantilizing men and thoroughly impugning male judgement and abilities. Temperance activists’ vision of America clearly replaced male law and authority with female righteousness and the power of sexual shame, and ultimately suggested that, at best, “reformed” men might make up an “honor guard” to support and defend their female leaders.
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was the first modern instantiation of a nation-wide vision of female social power, and though it was more benign than alternate feminist versions, its preference for the feminine and its denigration of masculinity paved the way for the explicit anti-male bigotry and female supremacism of later feminisms.