The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.)

By Sala Thanassi

Frances Harper Women’s Christian Temperance Union, ca. 1893”

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1874, and provides a unique lens through which to better understand the specific activism efforts of Frances Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, and Fannie Barrier Williams. The W.C.T.U. was committed to the expansion of federal power at the end of the Reconstruction era. Frances Harper agreed with the W.C.T.U.’s strategy of calling upon the federal government to aid in the country’s social problems, primarily through constitutional amendments for woman suffrage and the prohibition of alcohol. Harper saw its large membership base as a promising site for interracial cooperation, and supported its focus on Christian reform and the protection of children. During her later activism, she became a leader within the W.C.T.U.: in the 1880s, Harper worked towards interracial alliance as the W.C.T.U.’s national superintendent of “Work among Colored People”. In 1890 she was demoted from national superintendent, which led to her 1896 decision to join the National Association of Colored Women. (Parker)

While Mary Church Terrell was a prominent advocate for women’s suffrage and social justice, she did not support the temperance movement, the major focus of the W.C.T.U. From her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, she wrote, “I could not help feeling that the W.C.T.U. was, as an organization, doing much to promote race and color prejudice, and it seemed to me that it was taking a very narrow and superficial view of a complex problem” (Terrell). She also expressed frustration with the fact that many white suffragists (some of which belonged to the W.C.T.U.) refused to address issues of race and racism in their activist work. Unlike Harper, Terrell also believed that the organization’s focus on prohibition sidelined the more pressing matters of poverty, inequality, and discrimination. Some of her critical speeches and articles can be accessed through the Mary Church Terrell Papers at the Library of Congress. 

Ida B. Wells joined the W.C.T.U. in the 1890s, in the interest of forming alliances with white women’s organizations in order to platform her anti-lynching activism. However, she was not a member for long: like Terrell, she quickly grew frustrated with their focus on temperance and prohibition, and their neglect of the anti-lynching cause. From her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, she wrote, “I could not forget that while these same women were reluctant to help me in my fight against lynching, they had been very active in demanding the suppression of the liquor traffic” (Wells). Wells eventually left the organization and continued her advocacy through different avenues. The records of Wells’ and Harper’s involvement in the W.C.T.U. are preserved in the organization’s historical records, many of which can be located in archives and special collections at universities and libraries.