Peculiar Feminism:
The Georgia Woman's Temperance Union
by Diana Cummings


Early temperance reform began with the Industrial Revolution as an elite-sponsored movement to maximize worker productivity and promote industrial safety. At this early stage, temperance was an attack on public drunkenness, which was blamed for accidents that could harm the worker or damage machinery.  By the early nineteenth century the middle class took up the temperance cause, attributing many social ills and poverty to the overindulgence of alcohol.  During the Second Great Awakening the temperance movement had also taken on a religious fervor. The temperance movement then adopted the more conservative stance of total abstinence, directing the main thrust of its efforts toward urban work among the lower classes.

A group of Georgians embraced the Woman's Christian Temperance Union as a method of social reform after Reconstruction. However, these women were more conservative than their northern partners in the Union. The WCTU of Georgia not only accepted the southern ideal of male chivalry, but  incorporated the woman's sphere of influence in their appeals. By using "indirect influence," the Georgia WCTU enjoyed a broad range of support among the elite class, politicians and the state's ministers. Using this method the early years of the movement was effective in accomplishing several progressive reforms.

When the National Union became increasingly liberal in defining the feminine sphere of influence, the Georgia WCTU began to lose this broad base of support. In an attempt to stem the loss of membership, as well as support, the Georgia Union distanced itself from the more unpopular reforms espoused by the National Union such as women's suffrage. But to its credit the leadership refused to sever ties with the national organization despite several years of stagnation in the later portion of the nineteenth century.

After reorganizing in the early twentieth century the WCTU focused exclusively on temperance issues. By espousing a conservative stance the WCTU was able to affect legalized prohibition in the state twelve years before the nation adopted the eighteenth amendment. Inspired by the social gospel, armed with temperance literature, and cloaked in the mantel of "southern motherhood," these women of Georgia proved themselves to be capable of affecting moral, economic, and political reform. In an era before enfranchisement was a viable option, these conservative women were able to influence the state of Georgia. While some modern critics have denounced these women for rejecting an opportunity to engage in the woman's suffrage movement, the WCTU proved a training ground for political action which would empower the next generation of feminists.

Organizational Years

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union was organized in 1874 during the National Sunday School Assembly at Chautauqua, New York. The women present had grown exasperated with the slowness of male leadership to enact legalized temperance legislation. They were also inspired by the successes seen in the Woman's Crusade of 1873-74, which had combined gospel fervor and personal protest to close many saloons in Ohio. An organizational conference was held from November 18-20, 1874 in Cleveland, Ohio and the motto "For God and Home and Native Land" was adopted.

This group of women was typically evangelical Methodist and initially garnered strong support from Episcopal Methodist ministers. A strong "Plan of Work" was adopted and by 1877 the white ribbon badge (a knot of white satin ribbon) was adopted as a symbol of membership and support for total abstinence.  Educator and organizer Frances Willard  consolidated her more liberal power base within the Union and became its president in 1879.

While enthusiastic about the successes of their northern compatriots, Georgia temperance supporters were unable to join the movement until early in 1880. The "Good Templars," a male temperance organization, invited Eliza Daniel Stewart to speak in Atlanta, where she organized the first Georgia WCTU chapter on April 20, 1880. True to the national norm this first meeting was held in a Methodist church.

For the first year the meetings at Trinity Methodist Church in Atlanta were largely devotional in nature and had no formal president. Establishment support for temperance was sufficient for the governor's wife, Mrs. Colquitt, to offer the Governor's Mansion as a meeting place, but she declined the offer of a leadership role in the movement. Mrs. E. C. Witter was elected to the post the next year, a leadership role she would maintain until 1902.

By 1881 the women of Atlanta requested a series of lectures given by Francis Willard which she conducted in the early spring. While some authors such as John Kobler, in Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (1973), stress Miss Willard's male mannerisms and severe style, Mrs. J. J. Ansley, author and Georgia W.C.T.U. member, went to great pains in describing her femininity and praised her abilities. Willard personally conducted the organizational meeting of the Savannah chapter on April 5 at the Independent Presbyterian Church where one hundred Savannahians signed total abstinence pledges. On April 10th Mrs. Charles Green was elected its first President, which is  indicative of elite support for the movement. Miss Willard noted a broad base of support in Savannah and in the State Legislature during a speech to Illinois supporters later that year.

During those early years the women of Georgia enjoyed the clear support of the state's ministers and Savannah was no exception. Rev. Richard Webb is often mentioned as conducting the local meetings in conjunction with the women; his wife Rebecca became the second president of the Savannah Union. Rev. P. Sherril of the (Colored) Congregational Church is listed as supplying the paternal leadership in the Negro WCTU meetings. The preferred method of this era was to encourage temperance services within established churches. Emotional sermons such as "The Bottle of Tears" by Rev. J.B. Culpepper (a circuit riding Methodist minister) were highly effective in relating the horrors which could befall a virtuous woman when her husband fell prey to drunkenness.

While the women of Georgia were slow to heed Miss Willard's encouragement to engage in public speaking, they were quick to master the skills of canvassing and petitioning. These self professed "timid" women gathered signatures and support in club meetings, church circles, and even street corners. With the direct encouragement of Judge John C. Cunningham, and support of their male counterparts, the "Good Templars," the WCTU collected more than 37,000 signatures in less than three months. For the next three years they gathered signatures and support for a local option law which would encourage each county to hold special elections to decide whether to prohibit the sale of "intoxicating liquors, except for medicinal, mechanical, and sacramental purposes."

The petitioning process helped the women overcome their reluctance toward public speaking. However, little evidence exists in secondary accounts that documents gospel temperance meetings south of Macon like the ones that were held each Sunday on Marietta Street in Atlanta. Also, unlike the ladies of North Georgia, Savannah WCTU meetings were held in a wide variety of locations, which could be indicative of a lack of a strong base of support from within the Methodist Church. However, since the Savannah Union was often referred to as one of Georgia's strongest chapters by Mrs. Ansley in her account of the Georgia movement, this may instead be a sign of broad based tolerance, if not deep support, of the cause. Christ Church (Episcopal) allowed monthly meetings to be held there, as did Wesley Monumental (Methodist) and Independent Presbyterian. When plans for attending the State Convention were being made in 1882, pastors were urged to appoint women from their respective churches as delegates.

In 1883 Miss Willard attended the first State Convention in Atlanta where she again strongly urged Georgia women to engage in public speaking. She also encouraged a broader based "do everything" policy even though southern women seemed reluctant to espouse all fifteen points of the "Plan of Work." At this convention Mrs. William C. Sibley of Augusta was elected State President, an office she was to hold until 1900. While strong support existed for Juvenile Temperance work, of which Savannah's Mrs. M.S.A. Webb was elected State Superintendent, the women of the state were reluctant to engage in more liberal activities such as support for women's suffrage and openly address political issues such as prison reform. As evidenced by the petition work co-ordinated by Miss Missouri H. Stokes promoting of local option elections, endorsement was also weak for the abolition of the use of wine at communion services. Also, in a state often ravaged by yellow fever epidemics such as the deadly Savannah epidemic of the late 1870's, support was still difficult to garner for abstinence from alcohol in medicinal elixirs.

The following year was one of numerical growth and expansion of the work of the Union. New chapters, such as the one at Emory College enjoyed the strong support of its President, Bishop Haygood, and Professor of Greek, Henry A. Scomp. The Department of Flower Ministries took the women into the prison system. Under the guise of providing maternal comfort, inmates were encouraged to sign the total abstinence pledge through personal appeals and temperance literature firmly attached to the flowers.

While still relying on out of state female speakers, such as Sallie Chapman of South Carolina, and strong ministerial support the women of the state were beginning to overcome their timidity over public speaking. By the National WCTU's tenth anniversary, Georgia had sufficiently organized to send a delegation to the national convention. National support for women's suffrage was growing stronger, and indeed Miss Willard had been an early supporter. However, southern delegates voiced concern over support of an official endorsement. A majority of National WCTU members had become convinced temperance legislation would only be enacted when women could directly affect government action after enfranchisement. Clearly, southern women were still confident success could be achieved within the established realm of the traditional feminine sphere of influence.

Early Successes

During the next five years the Georgia WCTU grew in influence and experienced several areas of heady success. In each of the years between 1881 and 1883 resolutions were presented before the Georgia Legislature concerning the County Option plan, which would provide legal means for a county-by-county prohibition referendum. By August of 1883 support was sufficient to carry the motion in the House of Representatives, but the bill was defeated in the Senate. While the state petition drive was not ignored, efforts were also included to prepare for the proposed prohibition battles on the county level.

WCTU local efforts now included the distribution of temperance literature and the organization of public addresses by national and local temperance workers. Gospel temperance meetings were held on election days and the local chapters often provided meals near polling places. In 1885 Fulton County voted to "go dry," an election day activity that was well documented in Mrs. Ansley's record. A large tent meeting was organized; once election results were known the Colored WCTU workers were included in the celebration.

On July 13, 1885 the Local Option Bill passed easily in the House of Representatives by a vote of 111 to 22, with strongest support coming from the more liberal independents of the northern counties of the state. But the Senate battle developed into a nine day filibuster in which liquor industry lobbyists revealed a stronger influence. The Bill finally passed on July 28. Tempering the victory was the defeat of a memorial concerning "Scientific Temperance Instruction" which would have required a temperance based curriculum in the public school system. Georgia legislators considered the measure unconstitutional even though similar bills had passed in other states.

Another area of growing strength was the Department of Prisons and Jail Work under the leadership of Mrs. E. E. Harper of Atlanta. Initially WCTU workers targeted male inmates, bringing flowers, food, and literature. The work was strongly evangelical and included prayer ministries in the hope that the inmates would live reformed lives after their sentences had been completed. The women were horrified when confronted with the conditions of the Georgia prison system. Hygienic conditions were severely lacking and the prison system was not segregated by sex or age level. They had also discovered that the lack of gender segregation had resulted in several births within the ranks of the female inmates. Equally distressing was the fact that the children born during their mothers' incarceration were raised in the jails with their mothers under the same poor conditions.

By 1885 Rebecca L. Felton had joined the WCTU and began organizing support for prison reform. In 1886 at the state convention a resolution was approved and Mrs. Felton was commissioned to address the Legislature. While assuring the legislature that the women trusted its political judgment as to the solution, the WCTU reserved "the privilege of indicating reforms" when it was necessary to protect women and juveniles. Efforts toward this matter, while criticized as clearly beyond the established female sphere of influence, were carefully constructed as to appeal to the chivalrous attitudes of the male legislators, "to take those convict women out of the prison camps, and protect them from the lustful guards."

While the admitted thrust of the Georgia WCTU's effort was the reform of the intemperate male, the protection of women and the home had always been the stated goal. Appeals in this matter were justified under the emotional banner of "Southern Motherhood" as "there can be nothing so imperative as the fate of their offspring."

While the convict population would not be as easily accepted as the personal offspring of these middle-class reformers, WCTU members often identified themselves with the whole female population of the state when wording their appeals. Appeals for the equitable treatment of convicts often did not apply to African American males, however, and Mrs. Felton often voiced her approval for the lynching of black rapists -- in direct opposition to the official National WCTU stance against this practice. The convict lease program was not officially ended until 1908, but the WCTU was able to affect legislation which provided gender and age segregated prisons by the end of the decade.

The strongest work being accomplished at the time was in the Department of Juvenile Works headed by Mrs. M.S.A. Webb of Savannah. Using temperance literature provided by the National WCTU and music written by National Secretary Miss Anna Gordon, "Bands Of Hope" were formed wherever possible to indoctrinate the children of Georgia. By 1884 Mrs. Richard Webb was also conducting a night school for boys in her home at 156 South Broad in Savannah. While initial resistance to this radical approach was strong, this area of effort made the strongest inroads because it was clearly seen as within the female sphere of influence. Sunday schools were subsequently opened to monthly temperance instruction with the support of the local pastors, who included abstinence from narcotics and tobacco in their instructional programs. Also planned in this Department's agenda were recitation and song programs; many fathers who were otherwise reluctant to frequent gospel temperance meetings apparently attended.

In the weekly Bands of Hope meetings, children too were encouraged to take total abstinence pledges. Indeed, alcohol consumption by children for medicinal purposes often included daily toddies, much as today's parents supply multivitamins. After initial restraint concerning the medicinal use of alcohol, the Georgia women became advocates of the pure food and drug reforms backed by the National movement. While these voluntary children's groups were highly successful, the Georgia WCTU also continued to lobby for the inclusion of temperance education in the public school curriculum. While the Georgia Legislature continued to reject Scientific Temperance Instruction, Physiology was added to the core curriculum in 1886 as a compromise measure. The Union was then able to obtain a level of cooperation among school teachers who included temperance instruction in their lessons. Annual essay competitions were introduced in local high schools as well as at Emory University.

A Period of Attrition

After five years of success and growth the WCTU looked forward to its largest state convention yet to be held in Savannah on May 10, 1887. Originally planned for Christ Church the meetings had to be abruptly moved to the rented Masonic Hall after being "shut out" of all the possible church sites. After enjoying five years of strong ministerial support, the Georgia WCTU was taken aback by such an obvious display of disapproval.  While no clearly defined reason for this action was stated at the time, many causes may be discerned.

Savannah politicians had never supported prohibition measures in the State Legislature, as can be noted in their negative vote for the County Option Bill. Indeed the city was still "wet" under the proposal. In April alone the Savannah Morning News reported the granting of more than one hundred and ninety liquor licenses. More important, however, was the growing opposition to the emerging political power of the group. The Deep South was home to many of the nation's distilleries, like the Savannah Brewing Company, and liquor manufacturers were organizing to oppose the WCTU's successful lobbying efforts. In addition, the proposed abolition of the convict lease program was seen as a threat by the planter class. Rebecca Felton had been strongly critical of the railroad industry's ability to regulate fair pricing, in effect calling railroad men dishonest. Christ Church was also the home church of William Gordon's family.

Although the mayor refused an invitation to open the convention, Savannah was represented by Colonel R. C. Pringle, who delivered an address entitled "County and State Prohibition." Liquor interests had influenced reversals under the County Option Plan, notably in Fulton County, so Pringle proposed a state prohibition law as the antidote. A resolution rejecting the high license option was  passed with strong support. Despite WCTU disapproval this measure was soon passed by the State Legislature. It proved to be highly effective because it raised the price of a liquor license to as high as $10,000. Sally Chapman, Southern States Superintendent, encouraged the women to continue their work, with home protection as the ultimate goal.

On the national level, the leaders of the Methodist Church refused to seat six women who had been duly elected as delegates to the 1888 General Conference (of which Francis Willard was one). The Methodist Episcopal Church had granted suffrage rights to women parishioners in local matters since 1868 and laity representation at the General Conference level was approved in 1872. The majority opinion as expressed by Rev. Alfred Wheeler, of Erie, New York was "the thought was never suggested that under it women could come to represent the laity." Heated debate both pro and con concluded with the motion to exclude the women until the matter could be settled in the District level Annual conferences.

The resulting retreat of ministerial support among Methodist ministers was most evident on the state level at the next annual state convention, which was held in Atlanta's First Baptist Church. With the exception of the Savannah convention in 1887, and the 1884 convention which had been held at First Presbyterian in Augusta, each of the state conventions had been held in Methodist churches. The National WCTU was becoming increasingly radical in its suffrage stance, with a wider show of support in the Northern and far-Western states. While not supported on the state level, this was causing negative public opinion in Georgia.

At the state convention, state's rights were evoked and a distancing from the national stance was declared. Female support of the suffrage movement in Georgia was weak and considered a threat to temperance legislation by the state Union. Formerly supportive politicians viewed female suffrage as a threat to their power base. While many white females viewed black male suffrage as an affront to their social class, efforts by Northern politicians to appeal for woman's suffrage as an antidote to black suffrage had already been negated by practices of legal restriction and extralegal intimidation. In addition, the support the state WCTU had gained through the more traditional means of indirect influence and appeals to southern chivalry had shown to be more effective in Georgia than elsewhere.

While the Department of Franchise, which was the pro suffrage arm of the National WCTU, was rejected on the state level, new Departments patterned after the National organizational plan were introduced. A resolution planning a state funded home for penitent fallen women was read and sponsored by the WCTU and Colonel Pringle. Although the measure was defeated in the Legislature, the Union made plans to develop such homes on the local union level. Planned as a model for the present day "halfway" house, these proposed homes would provide instruction and a temperant environment for former prostitutes and alcoholics.

Georgia delegates attended the 1888 National WCTU convention where women's suffrage was officially adopted. The Union also officially endorsed the Prohibition Party despite vocal opposition from Mrs. Ellen Foster of Iowa, who led a small group that favored the Republican Party. In her annual address, Miss Willard "showed pretty thoroughly that women are equally fit with men to cope with national questions and cited numerous instances of women who have influenced the destinies of the world."

Included among the guest speakers was Bishop Fallows, a Methodist minister who had spoken in favor of the women at the previous General Conference and now argued "that according to all divine and ecclesiastical law, woman is placed on fully as high a plane as man, and before long would have an equal voice in church ministry and management." Clearly the National WCTU was becoming more liberal in defining a woman's role in society; while continuing to focus on more traditional areas such as home and family, the organization's goals now included equal status in politics and religion.

Reaction on the state level in Georgia was evidenced immediately when more conservative members of the Union dropped their membership. While liquor supporters had increased their organization, and many ministers no longer offered united support, the increasingly liberal stance of the National WCTU appears to have done more damage to the state Union. In an effort to stem the losses, Rev. Samual W. Small, a Methodist Evangelist, invited the National WCTU to hold their 1890 convention in Atlanta. Governor W.J. Northern endorsed the invitation even though Mrs. Sibley voiced doubts over funding such an endeavor.

When Trinity Methodist Church trustees consented to the use of the church for the convention but stipulated no lectures could be given, DeGree's Opera House was rented for use as a lecture hall. The convention was able to revitalize temperance work within the state only temporarily. At the 1892 National Convention increasingly liberal stances of the WCTU in favor of more liberal marriage laws, the formation of labor unions, and a call for women in the ministry prompted an attack by influential Georgia ministers. Rev. Dr. McDonald, editor of the Christian Index, and Dr. J.B. Hawthorne published articles attacking Miss Willard, claiming she was trying to "revolutionize the social system and contemplating the most thorough and radical change in ancient or modern times." Even more damaging was the refusal of the North Georgia Conference of the Methodist Church to endorse the Union on the grounds that the National organization was negatively influencing the women of Georgia. Articles in reply were written by Mrs. Sibley, Rebecca Felton, and Henry Scomp, among others, but they were unable to stem the tide of withdrawals of membership.

In 1893 a formal vote was taken which rejected women's suffrage by a two thirds majority. The State Union adopted a resolution that affirmed their loyalty to the Nation, but reserved the right "to adopt only those principles espoused and plans devised by the National . . . that are best suited to the needs of our Southern work." Even with such formal distancing from the National and Miss Willard, who by now openly avowed socialist ideals, the hemorrhaging of membership could not be controlled.

Not only were more conservative members abandoning the cause, but the more liberal Georgians were leaving the union as well. By the 1894 convention the membership was down by half. The 1895 convention was conducted again in Savannah at Trinity Methodist Church, but with only thirteen Unions still active in the state, only a Sunday School room was necessary. The 1896 convention in Brunswick was so sparsely attended that the delegates present were treated to a drive and a side trip to St. Simon's. The remaining seven Unions were also disheartened to learn of the death of Sallie Chapman, Superintendent of the Southern States. To their credit, this small core reorganized the state Union to reflect their diminished ranks but refused to disband.

The National WCTU was also struggling at this point. Francis Willard was spending increasing amounts of time in England, often staying there year round. By her death in 1898, the National organization was in such a state of disarray that it was unable to send a representative to the Georgia state convention. When the issue of Woman's suffrage was again brought up for discussion and vote, Mrs. Sibley appealed again for a conservative stance.  The vote was a two thirds majority against suffrage. The next year was the lowest point for the WCTU as no state convention was attempted for the first time since its organization.

Reorganization to Victory

In 1900 Mrs. William Sibley called another state convention. Upon announcing her resignation, she nominated Mrs. Jennie Sibley as her successor. The state WCTU then set out to reorganize the state Union, purposely focusing only on temperance. In a very short period of time the Union was able to  lobby successfully for the "Scientific Temperance Education Bill," which was passed in 1901. Using the tried and formerly successful methods of indirect influence and appeal to male leadership in the Legislature, the WCTU succeeded in making Georgia the last state in the nation to adopt temperance into its public school core curriculum. With state wide prohibition as her organization's only goal, Jennie Sibley spent the next four years traveling constantly to reorganize the newer streamlined WCTU. In 1905, however, she suffered a break-down that led to her resignation.

Mary Armor was then elected president in time to see the statewide Prohibition Law debated from the gallery of the State House, which was packed with temperance supporters wearing white ribbon badges. Accounts from July 22, 1907 credit not only the efforts of Mrs. Sibley and Mrs. Armor with the victory, but Mrs. M.S.A. Webb of Savannah as well. She had pioneered the Department of Juvenile Works nearly twenty-five years before and was also in attendance. Many of the legislators participating in the vote on July 30, 1907 had attended Bands of Hope meetings as children.

Recognizing Mary Armor's strength as an organizer and speaker, the National WCTU recruited her;  Mrs. Thomas E. Patterson became the State Union president. The celebration was short lived, however, because the WCTU realized a "joker" clause had been added to the Bill which allowed the sale of Liquor in private clubs. The WCTU again organized southern motherhood to insist on a "bone dry" addition eight years later. The hoped for economic benefits were realized when an increase in savings was noted at Georgia Banks. While the Union had abandoned work to end the convict lease program in the late 1890's, that institution was outlawed in 1908. With the prohibition law in effect and prison reforms enacted, the state prison population was reduced by almost half.

The work of prohibition enforcement proved to be firmly within the sphere of male influence and the WCTU was reduced to maintaining educational reforms, both on the state and national level. The Great Depression and increased acceptance of social drinking among the middle class effectively stopped the temperance movement in the 1930's. While the Union was unable to stop the demise of the "Great Experiment," the organization is still in existence today and continues to provide temperance education and backs family oriented legislation.

Support for the woman's suffrage movement remained weak among the majority of Georgia women. The first Savannah organization, for example, was not founded until 1914. Male opposition to the movement was still strong in the State Legislature, which was the first governmental body to reject the nineteenth amendment in 1919. Opposition remained strong after the amendment was passed; the state's male political leadership refused to register voters in the 1920 election on a technicality.

Suggested Readings

Ansley, Mrs. J.J. History of the Georgia W.C.T.U. 1883-1907. 1914. Columbus: Gilbert Printing Co.

Culpepper, J.B. Women I Have Known. 1902. Louisville: Pickett Publishing Company.

Cherrington,Ernest Herst, ed. Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem. Volume III. 1926. Westerville, Ohio. p. 1077-1086.

DuBois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage, The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America 1848-1869. 1980. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Felton, Rebecca Latimer. Country Life in Georgia, In the Days of My Youth. 1919. Atlanta: Index Printing.

Floyd, Josephine Bone. "Rebecca Latimore Felton, Champion of Women's Rights." Georgia Historical Quarterly, 30(1946): 81-104.

Floyd, Josephine Bone. "Rebecca Latimore Felton, Political Independent." Georgia Historical Quarterly, 30(1946): 14-34.

Kobler, John. Ardent Spirits. 1973. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Pittman, David J. Society, Culture and Drinking Patterns. "Status conflicts and the changing ideologies of the American temperance movement." 1962. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Roth, Darlene R. and Louise E. Shaw. Atlanta Women From Myth to Modern Times. 1981. Atlanta: Atlanta Historical Society.

Schultz, Stanley K. "Temperance Reform in the Antebellum South: Social control and Urban Order." South Atlantic Quarterly, 83(1984): 323-339.

Scott, Anne Firor. "How Women Have Changed Georgia-and Themselves: The 1990 Elson Lecture." Atlanta History, 34(1990): 5-16.

Taylor, A. Elizabeth. "The Abolition of the Convict Lease System in Georgia." Georgia Historical Quarterly, 26(1942): 273-287.

Taylor, Elizabeth. "Revival and Development of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Georgia." Georgia Historical Quarterly, 42(1958):339-354.

Warlick, Roger K. As Grain Once Scattered, The History of Christ Church Savannah, Ga. 1733-1983. 1987. Columbia: The State Printing Company.

Wheeler, Marjorie Sprill. New Women of the New South, The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States. 1993. New York: Oxford University Press.