The 1800’s were a drunken mess. The median adult in the US drank 1.7 bottles of 80 proof alcohol each week. Each week! The 1800’s were also a time when women didn’t have many rights: they couldn’t vote, were expected to stay home, and were somewhat invisible in the public sphere. Until they’d had enough.
Thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, women fought for their rights. On this episode of the Truce Podcast, we begin our series on this historic battle.
Jenna DeWitt @Jenna_DeWitt
Jim Vorel from Paste Magazine @JimVorel
Claire White from the Mob Museum in Las Vegas @TheMobMuseum
Sarah Ward from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union https://www.wctu.org/
CS: Chris Staron (host)
JD: Jenna DeWitt
JV: James Vorel from Paste Magazine
CW: Claire White of the Mob Museum
SW: Sarah Ward of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union
This episode gets into some tricky territory. It’s worth saying that the views expressed here don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of everyone I interviewed or the organizations they work for.
The last couple of weeks have been kind of tough on the United States. We’ve seen a lot of angry people, especially angry women. I like many people, was looking for an intelligent commentary on that moment.
And, I found one. On Twitter of all places. From Jenna DeWitt
JD: Hey Truce podcast listeners. My name is Jenna DeWitt and I had a tweet last week that your host wanted me to share with you.
She was kind enough to record her thoughts on her phone and send them to me.
JD: So, I just tweeted that I was seeing a lot of people on Twitter asking, ‘when can we have a discussion about the relationship between alcohol and violence in this country?’
CS: Alcohol and violence. Because, at the heart of the battle we’ve been going through, is this uneasy tension. Between freedom and excess. Alcohol, for a lot of us, is something we’re kind of used to. At our parties, weddings, funerals, and, depending on your denomination, communion services. Many of us are okay with alcohol. So long as it stays in sight, but out of discussion. However…
CONGRESS: Doctor Ford has described you as being intoxicated at a party.
CS: From time to time…
CONGRESS: Did you consume alcohol during your high school years?
BRETT KAVANAUGH: Yes, we drank beer.
CS: It makes front page news.
BRETT KAVANAUGH: Boys and girls. Yes, we drank beer. I liked beer. I still like beer.
CS: Like when Brett Kavanaugh was nominated for a seat on the supreme court of the United States. And then accused of sexual misconduct. There’s enough coverage on that. We don’t need to spend any more time on it.
This whole thing got Jenna, and others thinking… why haven’t we been talking about the relationship between alcohol and violence? Between alcohol, violence, and their effect on women.
JD: And the answer is that Christian feminists have been talking about this for about 150 years. It was a key reason that Christian women were seeking the vote because they were seeing what alcohol had done to their families… and… they were really seeing a lot of the damage in society as well. But it was also a key reason that men wanted to keep us from getting the vote because they were afraid that if women had the vote they would take away alcohol.
CS: So let’s open it up. What’s the story, the connection between alcohol, women, the gospel, and… women’s rights? You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press pause on the culture wars to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
Believe it or not, Christians have historically played a big role on both sides of the issue. Christians, especially Christian women, were a force to be reckoned with when it came to the temperance movement in the 18 and 1900’s. Which was key territory in getting women the right to vote. Here’s Jenna again.
JD: I just think that before we go talking about the problems in our society today, we need to look back at history. And we need to see the whole history of what women have been saying about this topic for a long time.
CS: Challenge accepted. Let’s start with the American love of alcohol and the events that led up to the temperance movement. When you picture the 1700’s, the 1800’s… what do you see? I’m guessing covered wagons? Native Americans? The founding fathers? Who were the people back then, really? What were their habits? Many of us think of them, as being pretty prudish. Puritanical, even.
JV: It’s funny how the word puritanical gets used because the puritans really weren’t against alcohol at all.
CS: That’s Jim Vorel.
JV: My name is Jim Vorel, I’m a staff writer for Paste Magazine in Atlanta, Georgia. Mostly writing about film and craft beer.
CS: I called him up because he’s written about the history of alcohol and the women’s movement. Back to the Puritans.
JV: We use them as an example of this rigidness and moral inflexibility. But they thought that alcohol was like just part of daily life and a gift from God as long as you didn’t over-imbibe. It’s not that they were in favor of drunkenness, but they by all means drank.
CS: The Puritans drank. John Winthrop, remember that name? He was one of the founding members of of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Meant to be city on a hill, the second major settlement in New England. His ship across the Atlantic held more than 10,000 gallons of wine in its hold. And 3 times as much beer as wate1r.
As for the founding fathers – John Adams began each day with hard cider. Washington had a still on his farm. James Madison drank a pint of whisky every day. Not a shot. A pint.
JV: They drank a lot of rum and in general much more hard liquor back, especially during the triangle trade, you know… slavery. We were largely trading for molasses and sugar cane to make rum in those early days.
CS: As the country grew, so did the excess, in part because farming boomed.
JV: But then in the 1800s in particular there had been such a boom in terms of farming and new agricultural lands that they just had vast surpluses of cereal grains like corn and wheat.
How did you preserve crops in the 1800’s? You turned them into alcohol. Liquid assets. By the 1820’s, whisky sold for 25 cents per gallon, making it cheaper than wine, coffee, tea or milk.
JV: Peaking in 1830 when people were drinking, on average, it works out to like 1.7 bottles of standard strength 80-proof liquor per week per person.
CS: These statistics take into account changes in alcohol content over the years. When Jim says 80 proof that would be, like, whisky. Imagine a bottle of Jim Beam. Now imagine one and two-thirds standard (750ml) bottles of Jim Beam. That’s almost 1.3 liters of whisky. Per adult each week.
JV: It’s about three times higher than average standard current alcohol consumption. Now, keep in mind that that number, that number is like a median number. So that takes into account all of the people who didn’t drink. That’s not the average of among people who were drinking, that’s the average spread out among all the people.
CS: Changes your idea about the 1800’s a little doesn’t it? This is just in the US, too, by the way. Foreigners visiting in the 1800’s sometimes commented on how drunken the United States was. In 1837, a guy named Frederick Marryat published A Diary in America. He wrote…
ERIC NEVINS: I’m Eric Nevins from the Halfway There podcast, reading from A Diary in America. “I am sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink. If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink because it is hot; they drink because it is cold. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice; if not, they drink and swear; they begin to drink early in the morning, they leave off late at night; they commence it early in life, and they continue it, until they soon drop into the grave.2”
CS: I don’t know how they got anything done.
JV: I think they kinda didn’t get anything done. They just… mandated breaks in the work day. It was just expected that workers were going to be loaded practically all the time to the point where they had an 11am break that was called grog time where they would just pound a few.
CS: Doesn’t it kinda make sense that into this environment came the temperance movement – the call to encourage moderation, or to temper their drinking habits?
JV: We kind of look back on the temperance movement like it was a bunch of frigid old biddies who wanted to take everyones fun away, but given what consumption was like at the time you can actually see… you can certainly see what their rationale was in a lot of cases. You know, when it was a public health epidemic, yeah, like, it must have seemed like a pretty reasonable stance to take.
CS: It was a national health emergency. Instead of being “frigid old biddies”, suffragists were kinda forward thinking. Which is why talking about alcohol in the 1800’s naturally ties into a discussion of women. When we think about women’s rights now we’re talking about things like equal pay, discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment. In the 1800’s women were something akin to invisible in whole arenas of the public world.
Again, think about your picture of the 1800’s. Do you see any women in there? If you do, they’re probably in bonnets, cradling children on a covered wagon. Using a gnarled broom to sweep a wooden porch. One of the things that comes up a lot, especially around elections, is the topic of the good old days. When life was simpler. Some would say better. This sentiment is really offensive to, believe it or not, a lot of people. Before you tune out and say we’ve all gotten too sensitive, listen up for just a moment. Because the 1800’s were lousy for black people, the civil war didn’t end until 1865. And it didn’t magically become wonderful to be black. There was a lot of anti-semitism, anti-immigrant talk.
And it was lousy for women for reasons we’ll get to in just a moment. So, when politicians and speechwriters talk about the good old days, it leaves a lot of us saying… what good old days?
CW: There weren’t really a lot of options for women.
That’s Claire White.
CW: My name is Claire White and I am the Educational Programs Manager at the Mob Museum.
CS: Which is in Las Vegas. They’ve got an exhibit that goes into Prohibition and women’s suffrage. Back to the 1800’s.
CW: If you were in a situation where your husband or your father wasn’t able to hold a steady job or had some sort of mental illness or alcoholism, there were not very many options for you.
CS: It’s not like you could look in the want-ads or go online for job listings. It’s not just that women couldn’t vote, they couldn’t work. Not out in the world, anyway.
CW: If you had any way to make money it probably was in the home, which would have been very challenging if you were dealing already with household instability and domestic abuse. And there certainly was no real legal or political actions that would could take. A lot of the social reform movements of the 1800s were really the only way for a woman to exercise her political voice. You know, you could not vote in elections. Some states you could not even take cases to trial. So it really was one of the only ways for them to better their own situations.
CS: No work outside the home, no vote, and difficult, very difficult, to bring legal action against anyone. Hard to own property, tricky to maintain finances… Women were expected, if not mandated, to rely on their fathers or their husbands. The best they could do was hope that this man had his act together. But this was the 1800’s. And America, as we know, was pretty… sloshed. The first state to pass a law against wife beating was Tennessee, good old forward thinking Tennessee, in 1850.
If a man got drunk and violent to his wife, daughter, sister… there was nowhere for her to go. If he drank away all their money, there was little she could do. Is there any wonder that women became so involved in the temperance movement? Temperance has the weird distinction of meaning, officially, consuming in moderation, while also, socially implying abstaining completely. We’ll be bouncing back and forth a bit between those two.
CW: The temperance movement was really a training ground for future suffragists. And I think it’s often easy to forget that both movements started around the same time. It’s just that I think more men got on board with temperance earlier so that’s why we see a little more traction for it.
CS: The US seemed ready for change.
CW: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which was founded in Ohio in 1873 and was really one of the leading temperance organizations in the United States in… from the 1870’s to about 1900. They were as active in women’s suffrage and the women’s movement as they were in temperance.
SW: Just a note of caution, it is woman’s. It is singular. Each individual woman makes a pledge of total abstinence and becomes a member. You’ll usually see it in print as “women’s” but that’s my little pet peeve. I like to have the organization correctly named.
CS: I had the pleasure of speaking with Sarah Ward.
SW: Sarah Ward and I’m National President of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
CS: It started with a lecture series.
SW: You know at that time it was very popular for someone to go out and tour an area of the country and give lectures because there wasn’t any television, you know.
CS: There was a man giving lectures about alcohol.
SW: And so he was up in New York State, actually in Freedonia. He told them his father had been an alcoholic. This man… isn’t that awful… This is what old age does. His name will come to me in a minute. His name is on the tip of my tongue.
CS: His name was Diocletian Lewis. I had the benefit of looking it up.
SW: He was a medical doctor. His father had been an alcoholic and his mother, one time, desperate to be able to care for her family had asked her friends to pray. I think they had even visited the saloon, but anyway it worked. And so then… it was in December of 73. He was in Freedonia and he gave this lecture and he said, ‘I think you women could do the same thing.’
CS: They marched and prayed. It wasn’t a rousing success, but out of that meeting came the WCTU.
SW: So he went on down to Hillsboro, Ohio.
CS: To give a lecture. On temperance. About his mother, and her prayers and the marches…
SW: And he said, ‘I think that the women here could do the same thing.’
CS: And people at the meeting were like… we should get Eliza Thompson on this.
SW: So at breakfast on the 24th the children asked their mother if she was going to go. And she said, ‘well I haven’t decided’. And her husband was not particularly supportive, he said, ‘well you know it’s one of those things, but I know where your mother goes when she’s making a decision.’ So she left the breakfast table and went to her bedroom to pray and decide whether she wanted to go. And there was a knock on the door and her daughter was there with tears streaming down her face and a Bible in her hand and she said, ‘mother, I think this is your answer’.
CS: So Eliza went to the meeting. She sat in the back and the people there urged her to lead them.
SW: We don’t have the appreciation of what it was like for women. I mean, they’d never spoken in public. They just didn’t do anything like that.
CS: The men left the room to pray. The women organized and marched to the saloons.
SW: She said, we’ll go two by two and we’ll start from the shortest to tallest.
CS: She was the shortest, leading the way. Singing the hymn “Give to the Winds Thy Fears”. Some of the saloon owners didn’t let them in.
SW: So they knelt in the snow and they prayed and they read scripture and they sang hymns and they begged these saloon keepers to close their doors and send the men home so they had enough money to care for their families. And you have to realize there weren’t any food stamps, there wasn’t any welfare program. So if you had a husband who was drinking you either had to count on family or neighbors or the church or someone to help you because you couldn’t clothe or feed your children.
CS: Imagine being in a bar full of men. These weren’t clean hipster bars, but grimy, dark places. You’re there with your friends… on Christmas eve when you should be home with your family. And in walks your wife, your neighbor, women from church. Praying for you. Begging you to go home to your family. It sounds old fashioned, old timey, but… what could be more convicting than that?
SW: And a lot of these men did have a conscience and they knew they weren’t doing something that was right and so they closed.
CS: And the word spread. To Cincinnati. Indiana. New York. The bars didn’t stay closed for long. They’d shut down for a while and then reopen. So the movement got organized. They met in Cleveland, Ohio in 1874 to start the national organization. It would later be joined by other groups like the Anti-Saloon League. All to fight alcohol.
As Claire White said earlier, the temperance movement and the women’s suffrage movement started at about the same time. Temperance found traction a little sooner, and therefore was a great training ground for eventually getting women the right to vote. Not every Christian supported temperance. We’re a diverse people under a big umbrella, something to keep in mind every time you hear something about evangelicals in the newspaper. But the movement did have roots in Protestant faith. It began with prayer and hymns. Here’s Sarah Ward from the WCTU again.
SW: I can’t say that everyone, but I’d say the very strong majority were church women. And one… that I didn’t mention. When Eliza was getting her group organized to go, she called on one of the women to pray before they left the church. And that is recorded. And the woman said, ‘that is the first time I ever heard my voice in prayer’. Because they just prayed silently and they were never called on in a meeting to pray. So, which was another indication of how little women had any participation in anything going on in public.
CS: Women were finding their voices. There’s something about getting like-minded people together. Rallying around a common cause, that enables people to accomplish their goals. Change didn’t come overnight. It was a long, difficult struggle. But women were taking a stand. Their effort would eventually help pass Prohibition laws and then secure the right to vote.
First they had to get together. Realize they were stronger than the obstacles set before them, and march.
We’ll cover more of their stories in our next episode. For now, lets go back to where we started with Jenna Dewitt and Twitter.
JD: So, I just tweeted that I was seeing a lot of people on Twitter asking, ‘when can we have a discussion about the relationship between alcohol and violence in this country?’
CS: I don’t think we need statistics to tell us that we’ve got a problem. You’ve been out in the world right? To bars? Talked with people? You probably know someone who gets violent when intoxicated. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve been attacked by a person who was under the influence.
Our relationship with intoxicants is tenuous at best. We want our party culture, but we don’t want our elected officials to have partied. We have different standards for ourselves than for others. We want our drugs and alcohol, our freedom to do whatever we want, but we also expect other people to be on their best behavior when they are least able to do so. Its nearly impossible to make life-altering decision like “should I sleep with this person?” when even buzzed. Yet, a lot of us walk that tightrope. Alcohol can make dangerous people more dangerous. Sometimes otherwise decent people become threats.
The fact is that we know the connection between alcohol and violence. Some of us can drink responsibly, and some of us can’t. We should be able to go through life without being attacked. But we know that it does happen. And way too often.
There are no easy answers here. With all the stuff that’s gone down in the news lately I found myself stunned and silent. So of my friends have taken to Facebook to tell painful stories. Hopefully, these episodes about women standing up for the right to vote and calling for temperance will be of some value in the 24-7 news coverage. Maybe we can find inspiration here. Our own call to action and prayer.
Here’s some of Psalm 146, the passage that changed Eliza’s mind, compelling her to lead.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind;
The Lord raises up those who are bowed down;
The Lord loves the righteous;
The Lord protects the strangers;
He supports the fatherless and the widow,
But He thwarts the way of the wicked.
I’d love to hear from you about this subject. If you’ve got some thoughts you’d like to share, record a voice memo on your phone and email it to us at trucepodcast [ at @ symbol ] yahoo.com.
Our Bible reading was from the NASB. Special thanks to Jenna DeWitt for sparking this story as well as our next episode. Our clips of the Kavanaugh trial are from PBS’s Newshour. Thanks to Jim Vorel from Paste Magazine, and Claire White and Yentl Lieuw from the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, and Sarah Ward from the WCTU. We’ve got links to all of their sites on ours at trucepodcast.com. There you can find our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook feeds, and find links to my films Bringing up Bobby, and Between the Walls, and my novel Cradle Robber.
Hang on for just a moment for some important messages. First, I’ve got to say…
I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
1Audio Book: Last Call, 12:34
2From James’ article “When Americans Drank Whisky Like it Was Water.”