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Posted: February 13th, 2023

The American Temperance Movement

The American temperance movement marks its beginning with the publication in 1784 of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s pamphlet “An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind.” In 1813, the Society for the Suppression of Intemperance, the first society for the promotion of temperance, was founded in Massachusetts. The movement initially did not promote abstinence, but emphasized moderation in consumption of alcohol, and mostly concerned itself with the consumption of distilled liquors, not beer and wine.

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With the expansion of industrialization and the market economy, the rapid growth of cities and towns in the 1840’s, and the increase in immigration, Americans increasingly feared the loss of the cohesive and restraining nature of their communities. The temperance movement grew as a response to this rapid change as many Americans sensed a need to reestablish order and self-discipline.

From the 1820’s to the Civil War the American temperance movement flourished with many national organizations founded and various methods employed to encourage personal abstinence. The primary method involved “moral suasion” which emphasized personal change through religious conviction, but gradually the movement turned to legislative measures to establish control over the distribution and sale of alcohol. The movement was predominately middle class, Protestant, and based in small towns and cities throughout the northern regions of the country. With the advent of the Civil War, the nation turned its attention to the struggle over slavery. The temperance movement did not return to national consciousness until the 1870s with the growth of the women’s temperance movement.

The Women’s Temperance Movement

In the winter of 1873-74, the largest mass movement of women the country had ever seen occurred in small towns and cities throughout the Midwest. Beginning in Ohio, thousands of women took to the streets protesting the sale of beer and alcohol in the saloons of their towns in what became known as the Crusade. They were reacting to a climate of greatly increased consumption of alcohol and the pressure of economic forces outside their control. The brewery and distilling businesses had grown to be national industries, and they had begun using national methods and influence to continue this growth. Throughout the winter, regular prayer meetings and protests took place, and the women succeeded in persuading thousands of saloon owners to shut down their businesses.

The National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in November 1874 to ensure that the gains of the Crusade would have lasting influence. The WCTU institutionalized, nationalized and expanded on the methods of the Crusade. Initially this new development in the temperance movement returned to the method of “moral suasion” and invoked the moral authority of women to create individual and local change. Women formed local unions, and employed prayer meetings, the signing of temperance pledges, visits to homes and saloons, and personal contact with drinkers.

In 1879, the Union elected its second president, Frances E. Willard. Willard broadened the WCTU’s methods and its program for reform. The WCTU began working to reform labor laws, child welfare laws, and age of consent laws, and advocated for prison reform, temperance education in schools, and woman suffrage. They did all this while continuing to seek individual commitments to personal abstinence, and legislative mandates for local, state, and national prohibition. Willard called this wide program of reform her “Do Everything” policy and under her leadership the WCTU grew to be the largest organization of women in the 19th century.

The World’s WCTU

Ideas were circulating for an International Women’s Temperance Union as early as 1875, until in 1883 Willard formally called for the formation of the World WCTU and outlined the goals of the new organization under the slogan “For God and Home and Every Land.” Margaret Bright Lucas was appointed president in 1884, but the work of the WWCTU was limited due to its loose organizational structure and far flung workers. It was not until 1891 that the WWCTU was formally organized and held its first convention. Willard was appointed president at this time and, as in the U.S., the WWCTU began to grow dramatically under her leadership.

One of the largest and most influential of the World WCTUs was the British Woman’s Temperance Association (BWTA). In 1891 Isabel Somerset was elected President of the BWTA. Somerset later became a close friend and colleague of Frances Willard, and Willard spent a lot of time at Somerset’s homes in England in the early years of her presidency of the World WCTU. It was from England that Willard and Somerset began mapping the outlines and strategizing the growth of this new international organization.




The International History of the US Suffrage Movement”

By Katherine M. Marino

Sarah Redmond. From collections of the Peabody Essex Museum, MA

Figure 1. Sarah Parker Remond, ca. 1865. This portrait was taken while Remond was in England, the year before she added her name to John Stuart Mill’s petition for woman suffrage.

Albumen print, Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of Miss Cecelia R. Babcock, PH322. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA.

The history of the US woman suffrage movement is usually told as a national one. It begins with the 1848 Seneca Falls convention; follows numerous state campaigns, court battles, and petitions to Congress; and culminates in the marches and protests that led to the Nineteenth Amendment. This narrative, however, overlooks how profoundly international the struggle was from the start. Suffragists from the United States and other parts of the world collaborated across national borders. They wrote to each other; shared strategies and encouragement; and spearheaded international organizations, conferences, and publications that in turn spread information and ideas. Many were  internationalist, understanding the right to vote as a global goal. Enlightenment concepts, socialism, and the abolitionist movement helped US suffragists universalize women’s rights long before Seneca Falls. They drew their inspiration not only from the American Revolution, but from the French and Haitian Revolutions, and later from the Mexican and Russian Revolutions. Many were immigrants who brought ideas from their homelands. Others capitalized on the Spanish-American War and the First World War to underscore contradictions between the United States’ growing global power and its denial of woman suffrage. A number of women of color used the international stage to challenge US claims to democracy, not only in terms of women’s rights but also in terms of racism in the United States and in the suffrage movement itself. The complex international connections and strategies that suffragists cultivated reveal tensions in feminist organizing that reverberated in later movements and are instructive today. These multiple, and sometimes conflicting, international strands worked in synergy, bolstering the suffrage cause and expanding the women’s rights agenda. The resources that women shared with each other across national borders allowed suffrage movements to overcome political marginalization and hostility in their own countries. [1] A radical challenge to power, the US movement for women’s voting rights required transnational support to thrive. Abolitionism and the Transnational Origins of Women’s Rights Although the American Revolution and Mary Wollstonecraft’s  Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which circulated in the United States, activated discussion of women’s rights, it was the transatlantic crucible of abolitionism that truly galvanized the US women’s rights movement. [2] The antislavery movement, which Frederick Douglass called “peculiarly woman’s cause,” provided broad ideals of “liberty” as well as key political strategies that suffragists would use for the next fifty years—the mass petition, public speaking, and the boycott. Transatlantic networks of organizations, conferences, and publications drove abolitionism. Women in the United States looked to their British sisters, who in 1826 made the first formal demand for an immediate rather than gradual end to slavery. Boston reformer and African American abolitionist Maria Stewart, one of the first US women to publicly call for women’s rights before a mixed-race and mixed-sex audience, embraced a diasporic vision of freedom when she asked in 1832, “How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?” [3] Her vision of rights for African American women, specifically, in the face of economic marginalization, segregation, and slavery, drew upon universal rights that she found expressed not only in the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence but in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Haitian Revolution, the largest slave uprising, from 1791 to 1804. [4]

Cover of the Union Signal, WCTU's paper, March 17 1921

Figure 2. The WCTU’s global vision of suffrage, as well as the connections it drew between suffrage, domesticity, and temperance are illustrated in this cover of the Union Signal, the official organ of the US WCTU, March 17, 1921.

The hostility that Stewart and other female abolitionists faced for overstepping boundaries of female propriety by speaking out in public threw into sharp relief that, as abolitionist Angelina Grimké put it, “the manumission of the slave and the elevation of the woman” should be indivisible goals. [5] At the 1837 First Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, an interracial group of two hundred women called for women’s rights. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other female delegates were excluded from the 1840 World Antislavery Congress in London, Stanton hatched the idea for a separate women’s rights convention. The resulting 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and its demands for women’s rights were only possible because of abolitionists’ groundwork and the broad meanings of emancipation flourishing in the United States and in Europe, where revolutions had broken out that year. Stanton’s idea to include the right to vote in the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments was directly inspired by calls for universal suffrage made by British Chartists, the first mass working-class movement in England. [6] Quaker minister and abolitionist Lucretia Mott explicitly connected the Declaration to the 1848 abolition of slavery in the French West Indies, opposition to the US war with Mexico, and Native American rights. She and Stanton also found models in the matrilineal communities of the Seneca people, in which women held political power. [7] The right to vote proved to be the convention’s most controversial demand, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one of its most avid proponents. The right to vote became key to the many US women’s rights conventions that Seneca Falls set into motion, inspiring and drawing on the support of women in Europe and elsewhere, including immigrant women in the United States. In 1851, from Paris jail cells, revolutionary women’s rights activists cheered US women’s activism. In March 1852, German immigrant and socialist Mathilde Anneke started the first women’s rights journal in the United States published by a woman, the  Deutsche Frauen-Zeitung. After the Prussian victory over Germany she had fled to the United States, where she became a friend of Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. [8] Polish-born immigrant and abolitionist Ernestine Rose expressed her global vision for suffrage in 1851:  “We are not contending for the rights of women in New England, or of old England, but of the world.” [9] Such ideas resonated with Sarah Parker Remond, whose life reflects the overlapping transnational abolitionist and woman suffrage movements. In 1832 she helped found the first female antislavery group in Salem, Massachusetts. In 1859, while on an antislavery speaking tour in England, Remond reported, “I have been received here as a sister by white women for the first time in my life. . . . I have received a sympathy I never was offered before.” [10] For Remond, transnational connections became a concrete way to escape racism in the United States. She settled permanently in Italy, where she became a physician. In 1866, Remond affixed her name to John Stuart Mill’s petition to the British Parliament for woman suffrage. [11] (Figure 1)

Teresa Villarreal, cover of El Obrero. From Arte Publico Press, University of Houston, TX

Figure 3. Teresa Villarreal, cover of El Obrero (San Antonio, TX), November 17, 1910. In 1909, Villareal started this publication to enlist women and men in the revolutionary cause and new social order. The Mexican Revolution and working-class demands infused her calls for woman suffrage in the US.

Courtesy of Arte Público Press, University of Houston, Houston, TX.

Transnational Organizing and “Global Sisterhood” Transnational connections initiated by the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement only grew in the following decades. After construction of the first transatlantic telegraph lines in the 1860s, communications, travel, and transnational print culture helped produce the first international organizations for women’s rights that drew significantly on US women: the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1884 by US temperance leader Frances Willard; the International Council of Women (ICW), founded in 1888 by Stanton and Anthony; the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA, later renamed the International Alliance of Women), founded in 1904 and presided over by Carrie Chapman Catt (then-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association); and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), founded by US social settlement worker Jane Addams in 1915. [12] Alongside each organization’s particular focus—international arbitration, universal disarmament, temperance, married women’s civil rights, anti-trafficking of women, equal pay for equal work, among others—a global goal of women’s political equality drove them. [13] These organizations connected women across the lines of nation, culture, and language and had overlapping memberships. [14] They hosted international conferences, and they helped spearhead publications such as the IACW’s  Jus Sufffragii and the ICW’s  Bulletin, which shared information about suffrage organizing in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and other parts of the world. Of the four, the WCTU inspired the most dramatic grassroots suffrage activism, becoming the largest women’s organization in the world, with over forty national affiliates. An outgrowth of the US Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (1874), the WCTU argued that women could use their vote to promote temperance and end men’s alcohol-infused violence. The organization transformed the goal of woman suffrage into a legible and compelling one for large numbers of women. [15] Spearheading the first organized suffrage efforts in the white British colonies of South Africa, New Zealand, and South Australia, the WCTU was responsible for the world’s first national suffrage victory in New Zealand in 1893, and in Australia in 1902. [16] (Figure 2) Although these groups spoke of “global sisterhood,” their memberships were predominantly Anglo-American and European, and their publications usually only published in French, English, and German, in spite of demands to expand beyond these languages from women in Spanish-speaking countries and other parts of the world. [17] These international groups generally marginalized or excluded, and in the WCTU’s case segregated, US women of color. These groups often reflected what historians have called “imperial feminism”—a belief that white, Western women will “uplift” women in “uncivilized” parts of the world. [18] This logic went hand in hand with some suffrage efforts. WCTU missionaries in Hawai’i who sought to secure woman suffrage there in the 1890s, allied with white US business and military interests establishing imperial control over the island. [19] Suffragists also demanded the vote in the United States’ imperial acquisitions from the 1898 Spanish-American War—the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba—both as part of a civilizing mission and to force discussion of a federal suffrage amendment in the United States. [20] Meanwhile, while celebrating early suffrage victories within the western United States in the same period, most white suffragists overlooked the fact that these states denied the right to vote accorded native-born white women to many Asian American, Mexican American, and Native American women. [21] African American suffragists powerfully critiqued Anglo-American dominance on the international stage and within the US suffrage movement as they made important contributions to it



However, as the movement progressed, it shifted its focus towards complete abstinence, leading to the formation of the American Temperance Society in 1826. The movement gained momentum in the early 19th century and gained support from religious organizations, women’s groups, and medical professionals.

The temperance movement had a significant impact on American society and politics, with many states passing laws to regulate or prohibit the sale of alcohol. The movement also played a role in the passage of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. The amendment was ratified in 1919 and became known as the Prohibition era.

However, Prohibition proved to be unenforceable, and the amendment was repealed in 1933 with the passage of the 21st Amendment. Despite the repeal, the temperance movement continued to influence American society and remains an important part of American history and cultural heritage.

The temperance movement continues to have an impact on modern society, with organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) working to prevent drunk driving and promote responsible alcohol consumption. The movement’s legacy can also be seen in the current debate over the regulation of alcohol and its effects on public health and safety.

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