One of the most famous marriages in women’s nineteenth century activism is that of suffrage and temperance. These causes had much in common: friends, money, political affiliations, tactics. Their relationship was certainly not perfect and rifts made headlines, but theirs was a relationship that mattered. In searching for information on early suffrage movements from textbooks to wikis, much is also learnt about the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the role played by temperance women in much of the English-speaking world. Although temperance was a serious political movement that helped train women in the conventions of political lobbying, when it comes, in particular, to the English literature on suffrage their contributions are generally overlooked.
As Ian Tyrell illuminates in Women’s World, Women’s Empire women created a vast and effective political network through the temperance movement. Under the banner of temperance, women agitated for moral, social and political changes, including suffrage. Whether it was changing the laws about alcohol or about who could vote, these politically active women were very often one and the same. The most famous global champions were American Frances Willard (1839-1898) and her close friend the English aristocrat Isabella Somerset (known as Lady Henry Somerset; 1851-1921).
But temperance women do not always get their due in the scholarly and popular literature on women’s suffrage. In English accounts in particular, they are almost entirely missing from suffrage scholarship, perhaps because their suffragist activities were more subdued than the suffragette militants. While the Pankhursts and their followers were disrupting meetings, being force-fed, smashing windows and running out onto the horse track, thousands of temperance activists maintained their long running strategy of lobbying, collecting signatures, campaigning for sympathetic political candidates and running for school boards and other offices they were permitted to hold. From their earliest days English temperance women urged women to fight for the right to vote because they believed only the ballot could persuade policy makers to change the rules governing alcohol consumption and protect women and children from men’s alcohol-fueled violence.
The English connection between temperance and suffrage was so strong that it eventually caused a major schism in the wildly popular British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA). A small faction argued that they wanted suffrage and temperance to be separated and pressed the BWTA to give up agitating for the vote. In contrast, the bulk of the BWTA, like their colleagues in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, saw the causes as inextricably linked. Eventually dissidents broke away and formed a temperance only organization while the majority acted on the advice of Frances Willard, ‘do everything.’
Once English women did get the parliamentary franchise, the BWTA urged its membership to stay politically engaged. Women should put their voting power to work, and the BWTA taught them how to do it. In fact, when the Evening News polled its readers in 1907 about who they thought the first female Prime Minister should be, they overwhelmingly chose Lady Somerset, the longtime president of the BWTA (February 27). Such dreams, however, were not to be. In the 1920s, women activists turned increasingly elsewhere for inspiration. A new generation often interpreted opposition to booze, like opposition to pornography in the 1980s, as little more than sour-faced and hopelessly out-of-date puritanism. In that condemnation, the full range of the WCTU challenge to the status quo disappeared from sight. In fact, its determined opposition to violence against women and children, an abuse that continues to scar the world, suggests that recovery of its history is overdue.
Barrow, M. (2000) Teetotal Feminists: Temperance leadership and the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage in C Eustance et al. A Suffrage Reader: Charting Directions in British Suffrage History (pp 69-89). New York, New York, USA: Leicester University Press.
Black, R. (2010) A Talent for Humanity: the life and work of Lady Henry Somerset. UK: Antony Rowe Publishers.
Evening News, London (1907, February 27) newspaper cutting.
Niessen, O. (2008) Aristocracy, Temperance and Social Reform: The Life of Lady Henry Somerset. London, UK: Tauris Academic Studies.
Shiman, L. (1992) Women and leadership in nineteenth-century England. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.
Tyrell, I. (1991) Woman’s World, Woman’s Empire: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in International Perspective, 1880-1930. Chapel Hill, NC, USA: University of North Carolina Press.