It took a long time for women to get the right to vote. And it took a lot of different opinions about how to go about fighting for that right. Frances Willard, the second president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, used marches and speeches. Her fellow WCTU member, Carrie Nation, preferred… a hatchet.

On this episode, the second in a series, we look at a few of the women who were involved in this important movement. Frances Willard, Carrie Nation, and more.

Truce is a listener-supported podcast. We’re about a thousand dollars in the hole after two seasons of the show. Consider donating a few dollars to keep this thing going.

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


CS: Chris Staron (host)
JV: Jim Vorel from Paste Magazine
CW: Claire White from the Mob Museum
SW: Sarah Ward from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union
MD: Mary DeMuth of the Pray Everyday Podcast

CS: This is second part in a series. Go back and listen to the first part for a little bit of context.

Women were finding their voices. The temperance movement, driven by women and men, was taking off. Because, in the 1800’s, we were a drunken mess. People drank so so much alcohol. Three times what we drink today. It seems obvious that change was eventually going to come. From the battle arose a few shining stars. Two women from the same organization whose approaches could not have been more difficult. One answered adversity with calm marches, diplomacy, and speeches. The other responded to adversity… with a hatchet.

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.

We tend to think of teetotalers as stodgy and uptight. But they may not have been. They were the progressives of their day, advocating for a better society.

Here’s Jim Vorel, a staff writer at Paste Magazine.

JV: Progressives were on the side of a national prohibition amendment because they felt that alcohol and liquor were something of a scourge of the working man, of the working class, that the working class would never be able to rise above their station if they were spending all of their money at the saloon and that it was predatory and taking advantage of them, which to an extent it was.

CS: Some Americans saw alcohol as the thing that held people back from contributing to society. Organizations that campaigned for temperance were soon tied in to women’s suffrage.

JV: Because they argued that if women were given the vote, if women achieved the vote, that they would be the key instrumental voting demographic that would usher in prohibition.

CS: But for a while the two issues were almost inseparable. So… if you owned a distillery or brewery… you might not be so keen on the idea of women having the right to vote. There was a whole industry in jeopardy. Factories. Delivery mechanisms. Farmers. Jobs. In this country it seems like we’re always dragging jobs and farmers into every fight. The alcohol industry wasn’t going to just let this thing happen. They did some shady stuff.

JV: In particular there is the case of Phoebe Couzins who is a famous suffragette in the late 1800s. But she kind of fell on financial hard times and the brewers association of the day paid her off to literally switch sides on the topic of suffrage. She got money straight from Adolphus Busch of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery and everything and it was just incredibly underhanded. It paid her to suddenly after decades of arguing in favor of prohibition and women’s suffrage to suddenly veer into the opposite direction and say that her gender did not deserve the vote.

CS: They paid an impoverished woman to turn against her own interests.

JV: And she was asked why and I think the quote here says, “observations made during my struggle to get the privilege of the ballot for my sex convinced me I was wrong”. And so they paid for her to go out on speaking tours, you know, and just saying, like, “I was wrong. I don’t deserve the vote.”

CS: They also released syndicated newspaper columns that were printed all across the country.

JV: Columns that were supposed to be coming from the perspective of rural farmers, very much like the demographic they were trying to reach. But they weren’t being written by any real farmers, they were being written by the brewer’s association and they had ridiculous arguments like, “God pity our country when the handshake of the politician is more gratifying to woman’s heart than the patter of children’s feet.” There’s one where they said they should be happy enough to raise future rulers. Why
should they need to… feel the need to vote on representatives when the next generation of representatives are their children. Their male children, specifically.

CS: These assaults in the media were intended to stop women from getting the vote, in hopes that it would also take down the temperance movement. In this case, big alcohol was literally trying to oppress women. Think about that next time you go to ladies night. Not only did women have little recourse if their husbands or fathers beat them or lost the farm to alcohol addiction, big alcohol itself was also against them.

Women’s movements had powerful opposition. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have power all their own. Like the second president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Frances Willard. She’d helped to start an all woman’s college, the first with a female leader of a college who could grant diplomas. Then she was the first Dean of Women at North Western College. After that she became the head of the WCTU in Chicago. Speaking of the WCTU, here again is Sarah Ward, the National President of that organization.

SW: She gets all the credit for all these things she did, but really her gift was she listened to anybody who came with an idea. And women weren’t drinking so it wasn’t any big problem to become a member of the WCTU but then they all had their pet peeves and grievances that they would like to have something done about. And they would appeal to Frances and she’d say, “oh, yes. That’s a great idea. You go ahead and set it up and get it going.”

CS: Which is how the WCTU went from focusing on temperance to… so much more. With over 40 departments.

SW: There was one called Mercy, and out of it came the Humane Society, they were trying to make things better for animals. And they even went so far as told women to stop buying hats that had feathers.

She had this saying… “do everything”.

SW: Yes it was “do everything”. And so the women came and they were doing everything.

CS: This goes against everything modern marketing gurus will tell you. Others might be tempted to take it one issue at a time. But not Frances Willard.

SW: So she and this secretary, Anna Gordon, travelled by stage and train and so on all over the United States.

CS: Visiting every city they could to talk about temperance.

SW: And of course she had a little more difficulty in the south because they still didn’t think women should be out doing and speaking, they should just stay home and be ladies. But she had a wonderful gift of speaking and so she even began to even break down buriers and she got into the southern states.

CS: Building momentum everywhere they went.

SW: And then they went out West and they visited an opium den in San Fransisco and she said, “oh”. And she had this quite a long speech and that speech is actually on her statue in Statuary Hall. But the one phrase that we pull out a lot is, “we are one world of tempted humanity.”

CS: One world of tempted humanity. Which I kind of like. It takes it from being just “those evil people out there” to… all of us are tempted. So she sent women out across the world.

SW: About 1782-83 she had a women, Leavitt, who was invited out the Sandwich Islands, which, of course, became know as Hawaii to give some lectures and there was some temperance work there.

CS: The movement had already spread to Canada as well.

SW: And then England started very soon after that. And this Lady Henry Somerset and Frances were the best of friends.

CS: It was going so well that she decided to keep expanding. Remember that woman who went to Hawaii?

SW: She thought she’d send this Mary Clement Leavitt on around the world and so she worte her and said, “go on, go on”. And of course there was no money. And for those of us who have worked in the WCTU we just sort of laugh and say this is how its been from the beginning. And this woman had about $20. And Frances wants her to go on to Australia, I don’t know how she thought she was going to get there. And so the people in Hawaii caught on what the problem was and they took up an offering and they sent her on and she was gone for 6 or 8 years. Never saw a person that she knew in that whole time and even though she went back and forth across the equator many times and had a fantastic time of establishing unions, she evidently never went back to the same place so she never saw a face that she saw before.

CS: Can you imagine? All of that travel, before the invention of airplanes? That’s how much she believed in this cause.

SW: The reason I brought all this up, back to Frances Willard, she decided while Leavitt was out doing all this travel they should have a petition. And so it’s called the Polyglot petition. And it has millions of signatures that she carried with her all over the world and then it was presented to Grover Cleveland and it was presented to the queen in England and it was asking them to stop alcoholic beverages an opium.

CS: A petition from all around the world, asking leaders to take the temperance movement seriously. The movement kept building. Not just in the public square, but also teaching temperance to children. Even in public schools.

SW: And then we had this Mary Hunt who was getting this temperance in the public schools it was required to teach the effects of alcohol. So when that generation grew up and started voting and got it on the ballot, well yes, they said, we know it’s not good for us. So they voted alcohol out.

CS: And Mary Hunt, the woman in charge of education, became a force to recon with. She had a background in chemistry and didn’t like the inaccuracies printed in her textbooks.

SW: And so it became in many of the states that they would only accept textbooks that she and the WCTU had approved and she didn’t usually write them, but she had people who were writing them. And if she approved them they were sold and if not they didn’t get very far.

CS: They were eventually required to teach temperance in every state.

SW: And they signed this then that they had to have that this was a national requirement that they had to teach it. This was Grover Cleveland again and she went in to see him because they were scared to death that he wasn’t going to sign it. And she said, “I didn’t come to ask you if you were going to sign it. I know how you are supporting us. I just came to say when you finish signing it will you please send me the pen.” And about five days later she got the pen and he’d signed it.

CS: They were forward thinking, even calling out the dangers of tobacco smoke before it became common knowledge. The WCTU was a whirlwind of activity and they weren’t the only organization pushing for temperance or the right to vote. But, as a case study, it should demonstrate how much they were able to do long before social media made it easier to assemble a protest. Or spread ideas. They could overcome fake news in the newspapers and… get the job done. Frances did it through marches, petitions, and speeches. Like this one.


We, women of the United States, sincerely believing that the best good of our homes and nation will be advanced by our own greater unity of thought, sympathy and purpose, and that an organized movement of women will best conserve the highest good of the family and the State, do hereby band ourselves together in a confederation of workers committed to the overthrow of all forms of ignorance and injustice, and to the application of the Golden Rule to society, custom, and law.”

CS: Not every woman in the WCTU had the same approach as Frances Willard. Some preferred a less subtle approach. Enter one of my favorite historic figures. Ms. Carrie Nation.

Here is Claire White from the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.

CW: And Carrie Nation on the other hand liked to very literally take hammers and axes and rocks and smash anything that she believed was in her way.

CS: She was from the same group as Frances Willard. But with some…different methods.

CW: Kansas was already a dry state, they already had statewide prohibition. But the law was rarely if ever enforced. And Carrie Nation found that so offensive and really wanted the WCTU to find ways to force the state to actually enforce the law.

CS: She wrote letters. Marched temperance advocates through the streets it wasn’t working. She was the president of her local chapter of the WCTU. How were they going to solve this problem if the police and judges weren’t going to do their jobs? What good is a law if it’s not enforced? Turns out this would be a plague on temperance and eventually on prohibition.

CW: She prayed on it and on June 5 of 1900, she said that when she awoke that she heard the message,” go to Kiowa, I’ll stand by you. And she believed that in those words that God was suggesting to her that she go to Kiowa, Kansas…”

CS:Where they were drinking illegally.

CW: And smash apart some saloons.

CS: She gathered what she called “smashers”. Rocks and bottles that she’d wrapped to look like packages. So nobody would know what was about to come.

CW: So she went there and destroyed three saloons. She was arrested more than 30 times over the next 10 years as she continued to do these things. She self described herself as a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus barking at what he doesn’t like.

CS: When she was in jail the first time she wrote, “you put me in here a cub. But I will go out a roaring lion. And I will make all hell howl.1”

She became famous for using a hatchet to smash bars. Not just barrels and bottles of alcohol. Like, whole bars. Mirrors, rungs of chairs. And she got away with it sometimes. Because she smashed things that weren’t supposed to exist. She called these events “hatchet-ations. Members of other WCTU branches did not want to join her. Carrie responded, “I tell you ladies, you don’t know how much joy you will have until you being to smash, smash, smash.”

CW: You know, sometimes it does take a little more of a militant stance to get things done.

CS: The governor begged her not to continue her crusade. But she said that if he wouldn’t enforce the law, then she had no choice but to do it herself. She funded her crusades against alcohol by selling pins made to look like her famous hatchet. She gathered a group of Kansans to help. They called themselves, the Home Defenders Army2.

The pictures of Carrie Nation in this era are just great. She looks like a little old lady you might expect to be running a used book store. Little round glasses. Frown lines. Conservative clothing. Holding a Bible and her hatchet.

Saloon owners hung up signs in their bars: “All Nations Welcome. Except Carry.”

Eventually, as you know, through marches, and the use of a renowned hatchet, Prohibition and the Women’s right to vote became constitutional amendments.

One of those ideas was a little more popular than the other. Prohibition didn’t have the staying power. A lot of people today think it was a bad idea. Some of that has to do with it’s effect on organized crime.

Here is Claire from the Mob Museum again.

CW: So Prohibition is the best thing that ever happened to organized crime. Temperance reformers really believed that by outlawing alcohol that crime would essentially disappear. They incorrectly assumed that all of the bar fights and domestic violence and public drunkenness that was happening in saloons and bars and beer gardens that that was the downfall of society, that that was what was causing violence and strife.

CS: But it continued, in no small part because the law said it was illegal to make, sell, and ship alcohol. Not to drink it. If you couldn’t buy alcohol in town, who did you get it from?

CW: Criminals, people who were already willing to break the law. So the mob immediately, withing a few hours of the enforcement of the 18th amendment we have trucks and boats around the country that are being hijacked and that alcohol is going directly into the hands of the mob and the mob is selling it to a willing and thirsty public.

CS: Prohibition, now, is considered by many to have been a failure. But was it even given a fair chance? The law was hamstrung, only prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol. It wasn’t illegal to own or drink it3. It also took a year from its passing until it became law, so people had a lot of time to stock up. And it wasn’t well enforced, sometimes because politicians were in the pockets of the bootleggers.

There is another side to this, though.

Good things happened because of Prohibition. Male deaths by cirrhosis of the liver dropped by two-thirds4. Also, the “roaring twenties” when a lot of Prohibition took place was a time of immense economic prosperity. Could it not have been, at least in part, that people had more money because they weren’t spending it on alcohol?

If you drink one bottle of wine a week, you’re spending about $1500 a year5. Yet 21% of Americans have absolutely no retirement savings. If you didn’t drink that wine for 4 years and saved that money, you’d have more in retirement than a quarter of the country.

According to the CDC, excessive alcohol use leads to 88,000 deaths each year in the US, or 1 in 10 deaths among people 20-64 years old. And, not to stir up controversy, compare that to the decidedly smaller number of gun deaths, which is at 38,000 per year. 88 thousand versus 38. You’re more likely to die via shot glass than by being shot. The economic cost of excessive alcohol consumption in 2010 was estimated at $249 billion, or $2.05 per drink sold.6

With all of that criticism, it’s important to note that alcohol is used in the Bible. Jesus turned water into wine, after all. Of course, in the United States, we like our freedom. I’m not arguing that we have to get rid of alcohol, I’m just saying we need to check ourselves. Prohibition did have some positive impacts and never really got a fair chance. It was a flawed 14 year experiment. I was taught in school that the people who wanted prohibition were looney toons. But these women were protecting themselves, their homes, marriages, their communities. So much of life is about finding moderation when society pushes us to excess. Jesus drank wine, but we’re not to get drunk.

The important thing is that it was an avenue for women to be taken seriously. The fight against alcohol allowed women to test their strength. Which, if nothing else, is a reason to think that temperance had some success. Without it, who knows how long it would have taken women to gain the vote? The movement gave voice to women who, before this time, were hardly allowed to participate in public life at all.

It started with prayer and the singing of hymns. And a hatchet. You can’t forget the hatchet.

Tell us what you think about temperance, the suffrage movement, whatever you like. You can record a voice memo on your phone and email it to me.

For further reading, check out Daniel Okrent’s book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Thanks to Sarah Ward from the WCTU, which you can find at Thanks to Claire White from the Mob Museum in Vegas. I’m told that the axe wielding Carrie Nation makes two different appearances in the museum. Thanks also to Jim Vorel for his research into the history of alcohol in the US. Nick Staron is always willing to help me untie my mental knots. Jenna DeWitt wrote the tweet that inspired both of these episodes. Truce is a listener supported podcast. You can go to our website and donate a few dollars to keep this thing going. I’m over a thousand dollars in the hole after two seasons and could use some help breaking even. Find the show on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and please tell your friends. Maybe also check out my movies Bringing up Bobby and Between the Walls on Amazon and Pureflix, and my novel Cradle Robber on your favorite ebook platform.

I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce

Liked it? Take a second to support Chris Staron on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!