Just over 100 years ago the world's largest organization of women mounted an all-out war on liquor. Proclaiming alcohol the root cause of corruption, poverty, and lust, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union mobilized in 1874 to help enact prohibition into law. In the 1880s and 1890s they expanded their campaign to crusade for such radical reforms as woman suffrage, world peace, improved labor conditions, socialism, and the abolition of prostitution.
President Frances E. Willard and her co- workers bequeathed to posterity mounds of eyewitness accounts and reports on their various campaigns and meetings in every state, North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Even so, most historians have preferred first to create and then perpetuate their own favorite symbol of the early WCTU, namely, the hatchet-swinging Carrie Nation, who single-mindedly, single-handedly went about smashing saloons to smithereens in these same years.
Now, at long last, Ruth Bordin has picked up the record where Frances Willard and her cohorts left off, apparently combing through all pertinent primary sources for the period, 1873-1900 -- books, pamphlets, and "The Union Signal" (weekly newspaper of the WCTU), as well as minutes of meetings and verbatim reports of lectures. With a nice touch of continuity and perspective, Mrs. Bordin has called her book "Woman and Temperance," the very title of Frances Willard's 1883 book celebrating what that early leader subtitled "The Work and Workers of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union."
Happily, this new book is both scholarly and eminently readable. Carefully annotating her extensive research, Mrs. Bordin delineates the formation and rapid growth of the WCTU -- whose motto, "Do Everything," aimed at nothing less than the establishment of paradise on earth. At the same time, she makes both leaders and followers come alive with descriptions of how they looked and sounded, their very human reactions to success and setback, their controversies both within the organization and with the outer world.
Although she pays too little attention to setting the organization's activities in the context of post-Civil War politics and industrial dislocation, she is excellent in explaining why women gravitated to the WCTU rather than the suffrage movement. The multiple campaigns pursued by the union provided an outlet for the energies and dedication of those deeply concerned with solving society's many problems. Also, at a time when only a few members of the ruling elite of the United States (those of impeccable descent from early Protestant colonists) expressed any concern over "woman's emancipation," the WCTU invited the active participation of native Americans, blacks, Catholics, and Jews.
In stark contrast, militant suffrage leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were single-issue crusaders. Succinctly and pointedly, Mrs. Bordin concludes that when the WCTU dwelt on the single issue of temperance in the 20th century, it lost much of its following.
Incidentally, with great gratitude it should be noted that this is a very old-fashioned book: There is only one proof error, and this occurs in a chapter note (on Page 210 "nephew" degenerates into "newphew"); and equally rare these days, the book is well bound, clearly printed on good stock, and attractively designed.