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by Aubrie McDaniel
In the Spring of 2020, the State Museum will commemorate the Woman Suffrage movement and the 100th Anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment with a major exhibition in the Museum’s temporary galleries. Leading up to and during the exhibition, we’ll be using our collection to highlight stories related to the Suffrage movement and women’s history in Tennessee.
Formed in 1874, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) is a religious organization with the primary goal of destroying the influence liquor had on the family unit and home. Women and men of the temperance movement sought to create moral reform and improve the welfare of others. Their work was not solely focused on prohibition, but this was their major concern – they saw many of the social and moral issues of the time as a result of alcohol use. Women, especially, viewed these issues as affecting their lives and the home sphere the most. They aimed to use their religious faith to enact change throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and protect those they deemed as the vulnerable members of society.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, there was disagreement among the population on whether women should have roles outside the home, especially in public speaking and political involvement. Due to the view that alcohol was an issue for the home and family, many women saw it as a chance to involve themselves in political action and social change. They formed the W.C.T.U., creating the largest women’s organization in the United States. It had chapters that spanned the continent.
The W.C.T.U. in Tennessee started after Elizabeth Fisher Johnson attended the first national convention of the movement in Cleveland, Ohio, in November of 1874. She returned to her home of Memphis, Tennessee and in 1875, formed the first Tennessee chapter of the W.C.T.U. She served as president until her death in 1883. Though her death was a blow to the Tennessee chapter, the surrounding local groups continued to bolster the union, ensuring its continued activity. In October of 1884, the third annual state convention took place in McKenzie, Tennessee. Here Lide Meriwether, an avid supporter of both temperance and suffrage, was elected president of the organization. During her time of leadership she traveled constantly throughout the state and other locations in America, where she would speak to the public, drumming up support for the movement. After stepping down as W.C.T.U. president in 1897 she went on to lead the first statewide Tennessee suffrage organization.
Her leadership and the hard work of others in the organization was evidenced by the Sixth Annual State Convention in 1887 which reported the attendance of 116 unions, 10 youth branches, 21 juvenile societies, and 14 African American chapters. Support was spreading throughout the state and by September 29, 1887, there was a vote in Tennessee to create a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited the traffic of liquor. Though there was strong support, the measure failed to pass. This caused a blow to W.C.T.U. in both membership and enthusiasm. Lobbying by liquor forces was cited as the cause of the loss. The setback, however, did not dissuade the women of the union from their goal, and they continued on working on reform.
African American women of the time were already participating in the national movement of the W.C.T.U. They saw it as a way to be involved on a political stage that excluded them for both their sex and race. These women supported prohibition and moral reform as a way to uplift their communities and take on leadership roles in social reform. While they did participate in the union, that did not make it a group that was supportive of racial equality, especially in the southern chapters. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, journalist and anti-lynching activist, and Francis Willard, president of the National W.C.T.U., came into conflict over Willard’s disparaging racist comments in an interview for an Atlanta newspaper. In Tennessee the chapters were segregated, having their own annual conventions. Two African American women attended and spoke at the white annual conventions representing the 14 African American chapters. Mrs. Lucy Tappan Phillips, wife of Rev. C.H. Phillips, became the Memphis chapter’s president in 1887. After leaving the position she continued to work in social activism for both African Americans’ and women’s rights.
In Tennessee, the W.C.T.U. continuously worked on prohibition support but also focused on other social and moral reform projects. They secured laws that changed the age of consent from 10 years of age to 18, created reform schools for juvenile offenders, reformatory work homes for women offenders, and placed women as police matrons in city courts. They organized Bands of Hope throughout the state, which were children’s groups that taught the dangers of alcohol. They also, in 1897, established the Frances Willard Home for working girls in Chattanooga which was open to women of any religious denomination. They lobbied effectively for the Scientific Temperance Instruction Law of 1887, a huge victory for the W.C.T.U. in Tennessee, which required all state supported schools to teach the effects of alcohol and narcotics on the human body.
The W.C.T.U.’s work on prohibition in Tennessee made progress through the years. Silena Moore Holman, who became president of the Tennessee union in 1899, was a large part of these advances. During her presidency the membership of the W.C.T.U. grew to over 4,000 members as she led the union in supporting laws that would lead to state prohibition. In 1899, the “Four Mile Law” was passed. While not created by the W.C.T.U. they would work to generate support and sentiment for the bill whenever it was on the table for extension or expansion. The law banned the sale of liquor within four miles of any county schools. This stopped the retail of liquor in rural areas, with only one or two towns in each county able to sell. The law was continuously amended until by 1907 only four cities in the state were able to sell liquor legally. While the benefits of this law were seen as a victory for the W.C.T.U., they never lost sight on their end goal of total prohibition in the state and nation.
A strong supporter of prohibition was Edward Ward Carmack, editor of The Nashville Tennessean. His death on November 9, 1908, after being shot during an altercation in downtown Nashville, caused a sensation throughout the state. It helped push forward the W.C.T.U.’s efforts and united the different temperance groups in Tennessee. Memorials were held by W.C.T.U. chapters in multiple towns. Literature, posters, letters, and other pro-temperance messages were pushed on the heels of his death. The election after this event saw majorities of those favoring state-wide prohibition being elected to the Tennessee Senate and House of Representatives. In desperation, those with liquor interests asked to be heard before the Committee on Legislation. When the women of the W.C.T.U. learned of this hearing they began doing what could be described as sit-ins in the city of Nashville, filling the Capitol’s galleries. They prayed and sang hymns during the speeches of those that were there for liquor interests. This went on for two days until the vote was made, and thirteen bills, which included the bill that prohibited the manufacturing of liquors, were passed.
After this, the W.C.T.U. would continue to work, supporting legislation that created better enforcement of the new laws, focusing on education of others on the dangers of alcohol, and supporting the national movement for prohibition. They also continued their work on moral reform, with some of the women working to support women’s suffrage both within the state and nationally. Though the W.C.T.U. in Tennessee did not give an official announcement of its support of suffrage, it allowed its members to participate in suffrage on an individual basis. This was due to differences of opinion within the state organization on suffrage. However, the political work performed by Tennessee W.C.T.U. members was a major factor in garnering support state wide for women’s suffrage. The W.C.T.U., on a national level, continues today to give women the ability and support of participating politically and advocating for social change.
The Tennessee State Museum has a number of artifacts connected to the W.C.T.U. and prohibition in its collection, some of which are on display in our permanent exhibition. Among those artifacts are a portrait of Tennessee W.C.T.U. President Silena Moore Holman, an Anti-Saloon League handbill, a prohibition prize medal from the W.C.T.U., a prohibitionist book by C.D. Johns titled Tennessee’s Pond of Liquor and Pool of Blood, as well as photographs of moonshiners and whiskey jugs.
Beard, Mattie Dancan, The W.C.T.U. in the Volunteer State. Tennessee: Kingsport, 1962.
Joseph R. Gusfield. "Social Structure and Moral Reform: A Study of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union." American Journal of Sociology 61, no. 3 (1955): 221-32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2772134.
"Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells." Center for Women’s History and Leadership. Accessed July 1, 2019. http://scalar.usc.edu/works/willard-and-wells/.
"The Vital Issue, published June 20, 1908 in Nashville by the Anti-Saloon League and W.C.T.U.
Portrait of Silena Moore Holman (1850-1915), by Willie Betty Newman, 1916
W.C.T.U Prohibition Prioze Medal Awarded to C. Carl Ousley, early 20th Century
Aubrie McDaniel is a graduate student from the Public History program at Middle Tennessee State University and the Museum's curatorial planning intern. During her internship at the Tennessee State Museum she did primary research on the political activities of women throughout the state including the W.C.T.U., involvement in WWI, and suffrage.