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Woman's Christian Temperance Union

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Title: Woman's Christian Temperance Union  
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Subject: Prohibition in the United States, Temperance movement in the United States, 1873, Anne Ward (suffragist), Woman's Christian Temperance Union
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Woman's Christian Temperance Union

The logo of the WCTU

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was the first mass organization among women devoted to social reform with a program that "linked the religious and the secular through concerted and far-reaching reform strategies based on applied Christianity."[1]

The WCTU was originally organized on December 23, 1873, in Hillsboro, Ohio, and officially declared at a national convention in Cleveland, Ohio in 1874.[2] It operated at an international level and in the context of religion and reform, including missionary work as well as matters of social reform such as suffrage. Two years after its founding, the American WCTU sponsored an international conference at which the International Women's Christian Temperance Union was formed.[1]

The connections and contradictions between the two parts of its purpose—Christianity and Temperance—meant that the women involved confronted ideological, philosophical, political and practical dilemmas in their efforts to improve society around the world. Although some labelled the Union as gender-biased, others disagreed by pointing out the many male supporters behind the scenes.

History and purpose

The purpose of the WCTU was to create a "sober and pure world"[1] by abstinence, purity and evangelical Christianity. Annie Wittenmyer was its first president.[3] Its second president, Frances Willard, a noted feminist, made the greatest leaps for the group. Its members were inspired by the Greek writer Xenophon, who defined temperance as "moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful." In other words, should something be good, it should not be indulged in to excess; should something be bad for you, it should be avoided altogether—thus their attempts to rid their surroundings of what they saw (and still see) as the dangers of alcohol.[4]

The WCTU perceived alcoholism as a cause and consequence of larger social problems rather than as a personal weakness or failing. The WCTU also agitated against tobacco. The United States WCTU formed a "Department for the Overthrow of the Tobacco Habit" as early as 1885 and frequently published anti-tobacco articles in the 1880s. Agitation against tobacco continued through to the 1950s.[4]

This 1902 illustration from the Hawaiian Gazette newspaper humorously illustrates the Anti-Saloon League and the Women's Christian Temperance Union's campaign against the producers and sellers of beers in Hawaii.

Thus, the WCTU was very interested in a number of social reform issues, including labor, radicals, the WCTU offered a more traditionally feminine and appropriate organization for women to join.

Although the WCTU had chapters throughout North America with hundreds of thousands of members, the "Christian" in its title was largely limited to those with an evangelical Protestant conviction and the importance of their role has been noted. The goal of evangelizing the world according to this model meant that very few Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus were attracted to it, "even though the last three had a pronounced cultural and religious preference for abstinence".[1]

Policy interests

The WCTU's work extended across a range of efforts to bring about personal and social moral reform. In the 1880s they worked on creating legislation to protect working girls from the exploitation of men.[5] They also wanted to aid immigrants coming into the United States. They focused on using the legislature to keep Sunday as a Sabbath day and restrict frivolous activities. In 1901 the WCTU said that golf should not be allowed on Sundays.[6]

Between 1900 and 1920, much of their budget was given to their center on Ellis Island, which helped to start the Americanization process. The WCTU felt that immigrants were more prone to alcoholism. The fiction they created greatly centered on Irish and German immigrants' partaking of alcohol and being drunk.

The WCTU was also concerned about trying to remove poverty. It felt that the best way to remove poverty was through abstinence from alcohol. Through journal articles, the WCTU tried to prove that abstinence would help people move up in life. A fictional story in one of their journal articles illustrates this fact:
Ned has applied for a job, but he is not chosen. He finds that the potential employer has judged him to be like his Uncle Jack. Jack is a kindly man but he spends his money on drink and cigarettes. Ned has also been seen drinking and smoking. The employer thinks that Ned lacks the necessary traits of industriousness which he associates with abstinence and self control.[7]

The W.C.T.U. in Action

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union spread rapidly in the nation and one prominent state chapter was the Minnesota Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The Minnesota chapter’s origin is rooted in nation’s anti-saloon crusades of 1873 and 1874 where women all throughout the United States “joined together outside saloons to pray and harass the customers.”[8] In Minnesota there was stiff resistance to this public display and “in Anoka, Minnesota, ‘heroic women endured the insults of the saloon-keeper and his wife who poured cold water upon the women from an upper window while they prayed on the sidewalk below. Sometimes beer was thrown on the sidewalk so that they could not kneel there but they prayed.’”[9] As a result Minnesotan women were motivated and “formed local societies, which soon united to become the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union in 1874. Women from St. Paul, Minneapolis, Red Wing, and Owatonna organized their first local W.C.T.U. clubs between 1875 and 1877. The Minnesota W.C.T.U. began in the fall of 1877”[10] From this point the Minnesota W.C.T.U. began to expand throughout the state in both size and interests. Under the leadership of W.C.T.U. president Frances Willard from 1879-1898 the W.C.T.U. adopted “Willard's ‘Do Everything’ philosophy” This philosophy meant the “W.C.T.U. campaigned for local, state, and national prohibition, woman suffrage, protective purity legislation, scientific temperance instruction in the schools, better working conditions for labor, anti-polygamy laws, Americanization, and a variety of other reforms”[11] despite having the image of a mere gospel temperance organization. The presidential addresses of the W.C.T.U. provides excellent insight as to how the organization seamlessly blended issues of grass-roots organizing, temperance, education, immigration and cultural assimilation

The Minnesota W.C.T.U. worked hard to extoll the values of the W.C.T.U. which included converting new immigrants to American culture or “Americanization.” Bessie Laythe Scovell a native New Englander that immigrated to Minnesota in the 1800s served as president of the Minnesota W.C.T.U. chapter from 1897-1909 delivered her 1900 “President’s Address” where she expounded on the methods the Minnesota chapter of the W.C.T.U. would utilize to accomplish its variety of goals within the state. Scovell adopted what was at the time a “progressive” approach to the issue of immigrants, particularly German and Scandinavian in Minnesota, indulging in alcohol and stated:
“We must have a regiment of American workers, who will learn the German language, love the German people, work among the German children and young people until we get them to love clear brains better than beer. There must be others who for the love of country and dear humanity will learn the Scandinavian language and be real neighbors to the many people of this nationality who have come to make homes in America. Again others must learn the French and Italian and various dialects, even, that the truths of personal purity and total abstinence be taught to these who dwell among us. We must feel it a duty to teach these people the English language to put them in sympathy with our purposes and our institutions.”[12]

For Scovell and the women of the Minnesota W.C.T.U. speaking English and participating in established American institutions were essential to truly become “American” just as abstaining from alcohol was necessary to be virtuous. By linking language to culture and institutions Scovell and the W.C.T.U. recognized that a multicultural approach would be necessary to communicate values to new immigrants, but did not conclude that multiculturalism was a value in itself. The W.C.T.U. viewed the foreign European cultures as corrupters and despoilers of virtue, hence the excessive drinking. That is ultimately why it was paramount the immigrants learned English and assimilated.

Temperance movement

In the United States during the [13] This wing of the WCTU therefore was more concerned with how morality played a role during the temperance movement. With that in mind, it sought to save those whom they believed to be of lower moral standing. For them, the alcohol problem was one of moral nature and was not caused by the institutions that facilitated access to alcohol.

Women of the WCTU at a meeting, 1924.
WCTU display booth at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, 1945.

The second president of the WCTU, Frances Willard, demonstrated a sharp distinction from Wittenmyer in how she felt the WCTU should be involved in the temperance movement. As president between 1879 and 1898, Willard had a much broader interpretation of the social problems at hand. She believed in "a living wage; in an eight-hour day; in courts of conciliation and arbitration; in justice as opposed to greed in gain; in Peace on Earth and Good-Will to Men."[14] This division illustrated two of the ideologies present in the organization at the time, conservatism and progressivism. As a result, the Eastern Wing of the WCTU supported Wittenmyer and the Western Wing had a tendency to support the more progressive Willard view.

Membership within the WCTU grew greatly every decade until the 1940s.[15] By the 1920s, it was in more than forty countries and had more than 766,000 members paying dues at its peak in 1927.[1]

Years Membership
1881 22,800
1891 138,377
1901 158,477
1911 245,299
1921 344,892
1931 372,355
1941 216,843
1951 257,540
1961 250,000 [16]
1989 50,000 (worldwide)[17]
2009 20,000 [18]
2012 5,000 [19]

Classification of WCTU Committee

Reports by Period and Interests[20]
Period Humanitarian Reform Moral Reform Temperance Other N
1879–1903 78.6 23.5 26.5 15.3 98
1904–1928 45.7 30.7 33.1 18.0 127
1929–1949 125.8 37.0 48.2 1.2 81
  • Source:Sample of every fifth Annual Report of the WCTU

Percentages total more than 100 percent due to several interests in some committee reports.

Frances Willard was president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union for 19 years.

Frances Willard

In 1874 Willard was elected the new secretary of the WCTU. Five years later, in 1879, she became its president. Willard also started her own organization, called the World's Women Christian Temperance Union, in 1883.[21]

After becoming WCTU president, Willard broadened the views of the group by including woman's rights reforms, abstinence, and education. As its president for 19 years, she focused on moral reform of prostitutes and prison reform as well as woman's suffrage. With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Willard's predictions that women voters "would come into government and purify it, into politics and cleanse the Stygian pool" could be tested.[22] Frances Willard died in February 1898 at the age of 58 in New York City. A plaque commemorating Willard's election to president of the WCTU in 1879 by Lorado Taft is in the Indiana Statehouse, Indianapolis, Indiana.[23]

Matilda Bradley Carse

Matilda B. Carse became an activist after her son was killed in 1874 by a drunk wagon driver. She joined the Chicago Central Christian Woman's Temperance Union to try to eliminate alcohol consumption. In 1878 she became the president of the Chicago Central Christian Woman's Temperance Union, and in 1880 she helped organize the Woman's Temperance Publishing Association, selling the stock to rich women. That same year she also started The Signal; three years later it merged with another newspaper to become The Union Signal.[24]

It became the most important woman's newspaper and soon sold more copies than any other newspaper. During her time as president, Carse founded many charities and managed to raise approximately $60,000,000 a year to support them. She started the Bethesda Day Nursery for working mothers, two kindergarten schools, the Anchorage Mission for erring girls, two dispensaries, two industrial schools, an employment bureau, Sunday schools, and temperance reading rooms.[24]

The World's WCTU

The World's WCTU (WWCTU) is one of the most prominent examples of internationalism, evidenced by the circulation of the Union Signal around the globe; the International Conventions that were held with the purpose of focusing "world attention on the temperance and women's questions,[1] and the appointment of "round-the-world missionaries." Examples of international Conventions include the one in 1893 scheduled to coincide with the Chicago World's Fair; the London Convention in 1895; the 1897 one in Toronto; and the Glasgow one in 1910. The first six round-the-world missionaries were Mary C. Leavitt, Jessie Ackermann, Alice Palmer, Mary Allen West, Elizabeth Wheeler Andrew and Dr Catherine C. Bushnell.[25]

The ambition, reach and organizational effort involved in the work undertaken by the World's WCTU leave it open to cynical criticism in the 21st century, but there is little doubt that at the end of the 19th century, "they did believe earnestly in the efficacy of women's temperance as a means for uplifting their sex and transforming the hierarchical relations of gender apparent across a wide range of cultures."[1]

First Alberta Provincial WCTU convention, 1913, Olds, Alberta

In Canada

The WCTU also formed in women's society in Canada's temperance movement. One notable member was Edith Archibald of Nova Scotia. Famous Canadian feminist Nellie McClung was also involved.

In Australia

The WCTU reached Australia in the mid-1880s. Weekly temperance conferences were held at the East Melbourne home of [27][28]

In 1891, Jessie Ackermann, the round the world missionary for the American-based World's WCTU, became the inaugural president of the federated Australasian WCTU, Australia's largest women's reform group.[29] They were active in the struggle for the extension of the franchise to women through promoting suffrage societies, collecting signatures for petitions and lobbying members of parliament, see Women's Suffrage petitions in Queensland, for example.

In New Zealand

Led by Kate Sheppard from 1887, the New Zealand WCTU was a major force behind the campaign for women's suffrage. This resulted in New Zealand women being granted universal suffrage in 1893.[30] Lily May Atkinson was another significant member.

WCTU and Prohibition

Over the years different prohibition and suffrage activists had suspected that brewer associations gave money to anti-suffrage activities. In 1919 there was a Senate investigation that confirmed their suspicions. Some members of the United States Brewers Association were openly against the woman's suffrage movement. One member stated, "We have defeated woman's suffrage at three different times."[31]

Although the WCTU was an explicitly religious organization and worked with religious groups in social reform, it protested wine use in religious ceremonies. During an Episcopal convention, it asked the church to stop using wine in its ceremonies and to use unfermented grape juice instead. A WCTU direct resolution explained its reasoning: wine contained "the narcotic poison, alcohol, which cannot truly represent the blood of Christ."[32]

The WCTU also favored banning tobacco. In 1919 the WCTU expressed to Congress its desire for the total abolition of tobacco within five years.[33]

Under Willard, the WCTU supported the White Life for Two program. Under this program, men would reach women’s higher moral standing (and thus become woman's equal) by engaging in lust-free, alcohol-free, tobacco-free marriages. At the time, the organization also fought to ban alcohol use on military bases, in Indian reservations, and within Washington’s institutions.[34] Ultimately, Willard succeeded in increasing the political clout of the organization because, unlike Annie Wittenmyer, she strongly believed that the success of the organization would only be achieved through the increased politicization of its platform.

The Woman's Temperance Publishing Association

The Woman's Temperance Publishing Association was started in Indianapolis by Wallace but thought up by Matilda B. Carse. They thought there was a need for a weekly temperance paper for women of color. The creators wanted the first board of directors to be seven women who had the same vision as Carse.[35]

Current status

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union Administration Building in Evanston, Illinois, has been the headquarters of the WCTU since 1910.

The WCTU remains an internationally active organization.[36] In American culture, although "temperance norms have lost a great deal of their power"[37] and there are far fewer dry communities today than before Prohibition in the USA, there is a WCTU in almost every state in that country and in 36 other countries around the world.[38]

Requirements for joining the WCTU include paying membership dues and signing a North America's number one drug problem, as well as illegal drugs, abortion[40] and gay marriage.[41] The WCTU has warned against the dangers of tobacco since 1875. They continue to this day in their fight against those substances they see as harmful to society. The WCTU strongly supports banning same-sex marriage, which it sees as a negative influence on families.

The WCTU continues to publish a quarterly journal entitled The Union Signal whose main focus is current research and information on drugs.[42] Other national organizations also continue to publish.[43]

The WCTU also attempts to encourage young people to avoid substance abuse through participation in three age-divided suborganizations: White Ribbon Recruits for pre-schoolers, the Loyal Temperance Legion (LTL) for elementary school children, and the Youth Temperance Council (YTC) for teenagers.

The White Ribbon Recruits are mothers who will publicly declare their dedication to keeping their babies drug free. To do this, they participate in the White Ribbon Ceremony, but their children must be under six years of age. The mother pledges "I promise to teach my child the principles of total abstinence and purity", and the child gets a white ribbon tied to its wrist.

The LTL, Loyal Temperance Legion, is another temperance group aimed at children. It is for children aged six to twelve who are willing to pay dues annually to the LTL. Its motto is "That I may give my best service to home and country, I promise, God helping me, Not to buy, drink, sell, or give Alcoholic liquors while I live. From other drugs and tobacco I'll abstain, And never take God's name in vain."

The Youth Temperance Council is the final type of group meant for youths and is aimed at teenagers. Its pledge is "I promise, by the help of God, never to use alcoholic beverages, other narcotics, or tobacco, and to encourage everyone else to do the same, fulfilling the command, 'keep thyself pure'."[44]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Tyrrell, Ian (1991). Woman's World/Woman's christian temperance union: the Women's Christian Salvador Temperance Union in international perspective, 1800-1930. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press. p. 2.  
  2. ^ Elizabeth Putnam Gordon (1924). Woman Torch Bearers. Woman Christian Temperance Union. p. 15. 
  3. ^ "History of the Womans Temperance Crusade" 1882
  4. ^ a b Tyrrell, Ian (1999). Deadly Enemies: Tobacco and Its Opponents in Australia. UNSW Press. p. 26.  
  5. ^ Joseph R. Gusfield,"Social Structure and Moral Reform: A Study of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union", The American Journal of Sociology 61, No.3 (1955):223.
  6. ^ THE W.C.T.U. April 7, 1901New York Times
  7. ^ Joseph R. Gusfield,"Social Structure and Moral Reform: A Study of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union", The American Journal of Sociology 61, No.3 (1955):225.
  8. ^ How Did the Reform Agenda of the Minnesota Woman's Christian Temperance Union Change, 1878-1917?, by Kathleen Kerr. (Binghamton, NY: State University of New York at Binghamton, 1998). Introduction
  9. ^ How Did the Reform Agenda of the Minnesota Woman's Christian Temperance Union Change, 1878-1917?, by Kathleen Kerr. (Binghamton, NY: State University of New York at Binghamton, 1998). Introduction
  10. ^ How Did the Reform Agenda of the Minnesota Woman's Christian Temperance Union Change, 1878-1917?, by Kathleen Kerr. (Binghamton, NY: State University of New York at Binghamton, 1998). Introduction
  11. ^ How Did the Reform Agenda of the Minnesota Woman's Christian Temperance Union Change, 1878-1917?, by Kathleen Kerr. (Binghamton, NY: State University of New York at Binghamton, 1998). Introduction
  12. ^ How Did the Reform Agenda of the Minnesota Woman's Christian Temperance Union Change, 1878-1917?, by Kathleen Kerr. (Binghamton, NY: State University of New York at Binghamton, 1998). Document 2: Bessie Laythe Scovell, "President's Address," Minutes of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the W.C.T.U. of the State of Minnesota (St. Paul: W.J. Woodbury, 1900).
  13. ^ Gusfield, J: “Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement”, University of Illinois Press. 1986 page 74
  14. ^ Gusfield, J: Symbolic crusade; status politics and the American temperance movement, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1986. page 76
  15. ^ Gusfield, Joseph R. "Social Structure and Moral Reform: A Study of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union", The American Journal of Sociology 61, No.3 (1955):222
  16. ^ "Double-Do for WCTU".  
  17. ^ Johnson, Dirk (1989-09-14). "Temperance Union Still Going Strong". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-09. 
  18. ^ Bickel, Amy (2009-09-18). "WILD, WEIRD, WONDERFUL: Union unwavering in 97-year presence".  
  19. ^ "Beer at Walker's brat summit raise ire of temperance group".  
  20. ^ Joseph R. Gusfield,"Social Structure and Moral Reform: A Study of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union", The American Journal of Sociology 61, No.3 (1955):226
  21. ^ Women Christian Temperance Union. Francis Willard (Evanston, 1996-2008)[1]
  22. ^ Kenneth D. Rose, American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition (NYU Press, 1997), 36.
  23. ^ Scherrer, Anton. "Our Town." Indianapolis Times. 18 April 1939.
  24. ^ a b Judy Barrett Litoff, Judith McDonnell.European Immigrant Women in the United States Taylor & Francis, (1994) 51.
  25. ^ Frances Willard, Do Everything: A Handbook for the World's White Ribboners [Chicago: Ruby I. Gilbert, 1905] cited in Tyrrell, (1991) Woman's World/ Woman's Empire p. 86
  26. ^ Brown, Basil S. (2004). "MCLEAN, Margaret (1845-1923)". Australian Pentecostal Studies. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  27. ^ Hyslop, Anthea (1986). "McLean, Margaret (1845–1923)".  
  28. ^ Lake, Marilyn; Kelly, Farley (1985). Double Time: Women in Victoria, 150 Years. Penguin. p. 125.   (footnote 4)
  29. ^ Tyrrell, Ian. "Ackermann, Jessie A. (1857–1951)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 17 October 2011. 
  30. ^ Atkinson, Neill (2003), Adventures in Democracy: A History of the Vote in New Zealand, University of Otago Press, p.89.
  31. ^ Kenneth D. Rose, American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition(NYU Press, 1997),35.
  32. ^ "W.C.T.U. ASKS CHURCH TO USE GRAPE JUICE; Episcopal Convention Sends Back Word That It Is Too Late to Consider Question." October 26, 1913The New York Times,
  33. ^ "PLAN AMENDMENT TO OUTLAW TOBACCO; W.C.T.U. and Prohibition Workers Getting Ready for a Country-Wide Campaign. BUT KEEPING IT A SECRET Fear It Would Hinder Laws for Prohibition Enforcement, Says Report Offered in Congress." August 2, 1919,New York Times,
  34. ^ Murdock, Catherine G: “Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870-1940,” p.22. JHU Press. 2001.
  35. ^ Rachel Foster Avery, Transactions of the National Council of Women of the United StatesNational Council of Women of the United States (Washington, D.C., February 22 to 25, 1891)
  36. ^ "Woman's Christian Temperance Union homepage". Retrieved 2012-06-05. 
  37. ^ Joseph R. Gusfield, "Social Structure and Moral Reform: A Study of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union," The American Journal of Sociology 61, No.3 (1955):222.
  38. ^ "Links to other national WCTUs". Retrieved 2012-06-05. 
  39. ^ Robert P. Addleman (2003-09-29). "WCTU of Southern California". Retrieved 2012-06-05. 
  40. ^ "Issues". Retrieved 2012-06-05. 
  41. ^ "Internet Archive Wayback Machine". 2007-05-29. Retrieved 2012-06-05. 
  42. ^ "WCTU Publications". 2008-11-01. Retrieved 2012-06-05. 
  43. ^ For example, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Victoria publishes Annual Convention reports. Melbourne: The Union, 1956-2001.
  44. ^ "Youth Temperance Council Pledge". Retrieved 2012-06-05. 

Further reading

  • Gusfield, Joseph R. (1955) "Social Structure and Moral Reform: A Study of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union," The American Journal of Sociology 61, No.3.
  • Graw, Jacob Bentley. (1892) Life of Mrs. S.J.C. Downs; Or, Ten Years at the Head of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of New Jersey: Or, Ten Years at the Head of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of New Jersey. Gazette.
  • Clara Christiana Morgan Chapin. (1895) Thumb Nail Sketches of White Ribbon Women: Official. Woman's Temperance Publishing Association: Evenston.
  • Tyrrell, Ian. (1991) Woman's World/Woman's Empire: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union in International Perspective 1880-1930, The University of Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London. ISBN 0-8078-1950-6
  • Tyrrell, Ian. (2010) Reforming the World: the creation of America's moral Empire, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford. ISBN 978-0-691-14521-1
  • Woman's Christian Temperance Union Dept. of Scientific Instruction A History of the First Decade of the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction in Schools and Colleges of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union: In Three Parts. (1892) Published by G.E. Crosby & Co.

External links

  • WCTU Official Website
  • Australian WCTU
  • German WCTU
  • The Handbook of Texas: WCTU
  • Address Before The Second Biennial Convention Of The World's Woman's Christian Temperance Union, by Frances Willard, President (October, 1893)
  • Modern History Sourcebook: Woman's Christian Temperance Union: Growth of Membership and of Local, Auxiliary Unions, 1879-1921
  • “We Sang Rock of Ages”: Frances Willard Battles Alcohol in the late 19th century, by Frances Willard
  • Woman's Christian Temperance Union (Nebraska Chapter) records at the Nebraska State Historical Society
  • WCTU in Our Heritage
  • Woman's Christian Temperance Union (Iowa Chapter) records at the Iowa Women's Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City
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