There is nothing more innately human than the tendency to transmute what has become customary into what has been divinely ordained.
-- Suzanne La Follette, 1926

History, it is often observed, frequently unfolds in surprising ways. The great progress in civil rights in the United States since the 19th century is in itself counterintuitive, but perhaps even more so is the unlikely fact that early successes were due in large part to conservative religious ideology. Since this nation's inception, Americans had been enamored with alcohol: distilled spirits were cheap, attractive, and their health effects not widely understood. Because of women’s exclusion from what were considered “male spheres” of social life, they were far less likely than men to drink alcohol. Instead, they witnessed, and suffered from, the negative results alcohol produced in their fathers, husbands, and sons.

Based on the misogynistic ideology imported from European (Christian) culture to the United States in its infancy, women were considered intellectually and temperamentally inferior to men. They were relegated to the domestic sphere and effectively allowed no participation in “men's affairs” such as politics. Because of their limitation to hearth and home, women were also thought to be morally purer than men. A wife and mother's responsibility was to instill principled values in her children and to maintain a household which would be a moral shrine for her husband. This emphasis on woman as conscience was spread and reinforced by Protestantism in a popular religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening at the turn of the 19th century.

Over time, however, women's awareness of their impotence to counter the detrimental effects of alcohol upon their families led them to realize their need to organize. They would need to take concerted action to fulfill their duty as the moral compass of American culture. In the mid-1800s, temperance societies and unions began to be formed. The most significant of these was the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), formed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1874. The WCTU would prove instrumental in rallying women nationwide away from their households and into the world of social activism—all the while appealing only to traditional, religious ideology and moral empathy. WCTU meetings included prayers, the singing of hymns, and heavily religious rhetoric. Indeed, it was the temperance movement's foundation upon biblical ideals which justified its members' anti-traditional action. Many women who would not otherwise have violated social norms were compelled to do so by their sense of religious duty, and many who would otherwise have denounced temperance women's actions as improper found it difficult to argue with their biblically-based reasoning.

The temperance movement was tremendously successful, boasting around 150,000 dues-paying members by 1892, fewer than twenty years after its formation. It also often achieved results where other potential avenues to women's rights could not. During the Civil War, for example, when all suffrage efforts virtually ceased, the temperance movement continued to thrive. Later, during World War I, the WCTU successfully lobbied for the federal prohibition of alcohol. The religious grounds of the argument for temperance were so powerful that women—who only decades earlier would have been loathe to merely speak publicly regularly did so, as well as engage in more radical actions. On a number of occasions, temperance advocates went so far as to ransack saloons and destroy barrels of alcohol, criminal offenses justified, in their eyes, by their moral imperative under God.

While the WCTU did push for suffrage, it only did so with the narrow goal of prohibition. Much of the rhetoric of women's rights proponents actually ran against conservative temperance women's philosophy. Nevertheless, many suffragists saw the positive effects of the temperance movement upon women's sense of, and respect for, themselves, and enthusiastically joined the cause. Two such women are honored on the Walk of the Heroines: Alice Stone Blackwell, a major suffrage leader, was a WCTU officer. Amelia Bloomer, another essential suffragist, was secretary of the New York State Women's Temperance Society. In 1848, Bloomer wrote the opening editorial for The Lily, a newspaper devoted mainly to the issue of temperance, but which also advocated women's rights more generally. They, alongside many other notable women, embraced the unique opportunity presented by the contradictions in the traditional religious notions of the nature of women, and used it to help spark and sustain the growing momentum toward historic civil rights reform.

Further Reading

Bordin, Ruth. Women and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873–1900. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1981.

Clinton, Catherine. The Other Civil War: American Women in the Nineteenth Century. Second printing, 1984. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1984.

Giele, Janet Zollinger. Two Paths to Women's Equality: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism. New York, NY: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Harris, Barbara J. Beyond Her Sphere: Women and the Professions in American History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Papachristou, Judith. Women Together. First American edition. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. 

Author: Brendan Brown, Monumental Women Senior Capstone, Winter Term 2014 (Major/Minor: Publishing/Philosophy)