Founded in 1874 to counter the evils of alcohol, the Canadian Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) rapidly grew into a multi-faceted organization that championed various forms of childhood and adult education, homes for abandoned and ‘fallen’, poor, and orphaned women and children, humane care of the indigent aged, residences and ‘Travelers’ Aid’ for single working women, women’s hospitals, coffee houses, and reading rooms, traveling lecturers and missionaries.
The founder of the Canadian branch of this world-wide organization was Letitia Youmans (1827-1896), a Sunday School teacher, youth organizer with the Good Templars’ Lodge (a temperance organization for women and men), editorial writer for the Templars’ Temperance Union, teacher at the Picton Ladies’ Academy, and stepmother of eight. In 1874, she attended an international Sunday School conference at Chautauqua, New York, where the idea of forming a national women’s temperance group was conceived. That early connection with similarly-minded American activists, including the ‘saint’ of the world temperance movement, Frances Willard (1839-1898), remained constant but the Canadian initiative would always be independent.
The W.C.T.U. coexisted with a range of other women’s groups in all provinces and territories. Some were founded to expand social services such as the Children’s Aid Societies and orphanages, others to ameliorate economic and spiritual woes through cooperation with the Protestant churches and women’s missionary societies. By the 1890s, the W.C.T.U. had developed an effective national structure, allowing it to participate in important public causes. Although cooperation was commonplace among women’s groups, as a national body it refused to affiliate with the National Council of Women of Canada when it was founded in 1893. It considered the latter too secular and ecumenical.
An important cause of the W.C.T.U.’s strength was a decentralized organization that allowed members to pursue a wide range of goals through energetic lobbying. As part of its campaign to influence legislation, it became the first large Canadian women’s organization to support female suffrage. As importantly, it insisted on a public role for women and provided a forum through which the necessary skills could be developed. The culture of W.C.T.U. women, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Ontario and at the national organizational level, was based on an evangelical Christian vision for society. This animating force created a sense of authority for members who then sought expression and action on a more prominent stage than their own homes. Most, but by no means all, members were white, middle-class and Protestant. In the late nineteenth century, the W.C.T.U. organized some “Colored” local unions, through which they attempted to support temperance-minded women of colour in defence of their families.
Youmans’ evangelicalism, like that of the Ontario W.C.T.U. until well after the Great War, and the Dominion W.C.T.U. until about 1905, was characterized by a view of salvation as personal and experiential, that is, dependent on a spiritual ‘awakening’ of the soul. Such evangelicals viewed ideal society as composed of Christian family units in which moral leadership was exercised by the ‘angel in the house,’ the mother. They believed that the primacy of the family and the moral health of society were undermined by ‘frivolous’ pastimes such as dancing, gambling, and drinking, to say nothing of sexual double standards, prostitution or unions beyond those of a sanctified Christian marriage. Education was essential in serving evangelical goals by promoting more edifying activities, such as the development of new skills and the encouragement of service to the community.
Long after the W.C.T.U. had lost the leadership of Canadian temperance (approximately during World War One in most settings), it remained active and effective in childhood education through Sunday Schools and its complicated system of youth groups. Its power as a self-educating and -regulating organization for women without much formal education or societal opportunity reminds us how awareness of the shortcomings of existing society can mobilize ‘one good woman at a time’. Women were similarly inspired when they took again to the streets in the 1960s and 1970s as part of second wave feminism. Although the activism of that later generation was more ecumenical than narrowly Christian, both generations shared strong convictions that women were needed to transform the world.
Further Reading & Resources
Martha Tomhave Blauvelt, “Women and Revivalism,” in Women and Religion in America, 1, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Rosemary Skinner Keller, eds. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981, 1-45.
Ruth Bordin, Frances Willard: A Biography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1986.
Sharon Anne Cook, “Through sunshine and shadow”: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, evangelicalism and reform in Ontario 1874-1930. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995.
Sharon Anne Cook, “Letitia Youmans: Ontario’s Nineteenth-Century Temperance Educator,” Ontario History 84 (December 1992), 329 – 42.
Wendy Mitchinson, “The W.C.T.U.: ‘For God, Home and Native Land’: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Feminism.” in A Not Unreasonable Claim, Linda Kealey, ed. Toronto: Canadian Women’s Educational Press, 1979, 143 – 56.