walkitout (walkitout) wrote,
walkitout
walkitout

_Woman and Temperance_, Ruth Bordin

Subtitled The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900

Published by Rutgers University Press

Hardcover original was Temple University in 1981; the first paperback was 1990. This has the preface for the first paperback thus some retrospective about where it fits into other women’s studies literature and also some comments about how the author would do things differently if writing it at the later date.

The author’s other books include a biography of Frances Willard.

I’ve read at least one other detailed history involving Prohibition (_Last Call_, by Daniel Okrent, which is also excellent). Immediately before this, my previous non-fiction read covering the rhetoric of the women’s movement before, during and after this time (_White Women’s Rights_, so-so).

The WCTU, the organization which is the subject of this organizational biography, continues to exist; you can visit their website here http://www.wctu.org/

Whatever you might think of alcohol (whether it is or was a problem, and if so, what if anything should be done to address it), the WCTU served a variety of purposes in its quest for Prohibition. It was an organization which respectable, middle-class women felt comfortable joining: it did not negatively affect their status as prosperous, locally influential wives and mothers nor did it threaten their religious identity or their church affiliation. Their husbands were more okay with them speaking in public in support of this cause, unlike others of the time (such as women’s suffrage, and, earlier, abolition), and were amenable to financially supporting this cause. Because the WCTU never allowed voting male members, the organization was made up of women at all levels of leadership and membership. Because Frances Willard, over time, came to believe that temperance and Prohibition would not by themselves cure all of the ills of the world, the WCTU branched out into numerous other causes (including women’s suffrage, kindergartens, the 8 hour day, Sunday off and half day Saturday, equal pay for equal work, disarmament, peace, international arbitration and numerous other causes), which by themselves had difficulty attracting the attention and participation of these women in support of them.

Willard and the WCTU made conscious choices to encourage local organization with local leadership, including Native Americans, blacks and various immigrant groups. Of course this was in service of the cause of Temperance, but it was also done in recognition that these groups (and Southern white women, for that matter) remained largely unpoliticized and Temperance could provide the same jump-start to political activism of all sorts which it had to the members of the WCTU.

Really, the WCTU is a model of how incredibly effective community organizing can be: a cause with broad, deep, non-partisan appeal combined with good works in communities, local pseudo-autonomy, national leadership, a willingness to join forces with other causes and other groups where membership overlapped in values and current priorities and above all effective legislation to impact education around the country is a pretty straightforward template for how change occurs in our country and around the world.

A good, detailed history monograph -- without even meaning to -- is deeply relevant and resonant in later eras. Ruth Bordin has produced one of the best. You might think of Prohibition with a shudder (honestly, I no longer do, altho of course I do not advocate for it, either), but the women who pushed the world in that direction (in conjunction with organizations like the Anti-Saloon League, which came into existence in part to counter the backlash to the WCTU) were politically brilliant and their example is instructive even now.

There are also some great details. Ohio law at the time of the first Crusade prohibited the sale of beer or alcohol to persons whose relatives had asked that they not be served. At times, Ruth Bordin’s perspective is too obvious, as when she criticizes Willard, describing her Crusade experience as “at best contrived and minimal”, largely because her experience was more as a teacher assigning themes in her classes on the subject, rather than direct action. And also when she describes Willard here: “Women liked Willard. Indeed she was more than liked, she was loved, she was adored. Her intense, almost sexual attractiveness to members of her own sex was a major factor in her success. Women competed for her favors and cherished some intimate moment with her as they would the attentions of a male lover.”

I’m mostly okay with the “almost sexual”; I’m _really not okay_ with the “male lover”. That male really does not need to be there; it is straight up (ahem) heterocentricity at a moment where heterocentricity is least justified.

WCTU was instrumental in getting the age of consent raised in many states, in part as a way or reducing prostitution. “In 1886 the laws of twenty states placed the age of consent at ten years, and one at seven. 86 By 1894 only four states (all in the South) still put consent at ten, and in twenty states legal consent had been raised to sixteen, an accomplishment for which the WCTU could take substantial credit.” A clearer example of good work done in the service of a cause that we may no longer approve of would be harder to imagine.

I picked my copy up at Half Price Books for $5.98, over 10 years ago, possibly closer to 20. If you would like my copy (it’s not available as an ebook, as near as I can determine), let me know and I’ll send it to you. I will hang onto it for at least a few months and will edit this review to indicate when I no longer have it.
Tags: book review, history, politics, women
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