As a little disclaimer before I begin, I have never been particularly enamored of feminist approaches to scholarship. One problem I have with such approaches is that they project current experiences of and beliefs about sexism onto other times and places where they might or might not have any relevance. As I’ve studied various regions and time periods, I realized that views about and roles of women are extremely variable. Women have more or less always had roles in society that differed from those of men, but the degree and way in which they differed, and how these roles were valued, vary widely across time and space.
One thing about recent women’s history that has interested me is the changing concept of the political role of women. Of course, women have not always been considered to have a political role: Emile Durkheim showed what he thought of such things in his 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society with the disapproving observation that “There are even now a great number of savage peoples in which the woman involves herself in political life.”
While Durkheim was solemnly denouncing the involvement of women in politics as detrimental to organic solidarity, however, women around the world were deciding that political involvement was the only answer to ensuring their own well-being and that of their families. However, their goals and methods were markedly different from modern feminism, although echoes of their beliefs and practices can still be heard across the political spectrum. Nearly all women today have inherited some part of their political beliefs, and looking into the work of the women of this period has given me more insight into current political worldviews and divisions.
The emergence of women in the political realm in the late 19th century, and the campaign for women’s suffrage, was associated closely with, of all things, the temperance movement (1, 2). This movement, known as “first-wave feminism,” was a curious mishmash of progressive and conservative means and goals which drew from both the evangelical revival of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the 19th-century equal rights movements (3). The women of this period saw themselves as equal to but different from men, believing that their main sphere of concern was within the home. They felt that that womanly characteristics of caring and nurturing would be of benefit in the public sphere, and the rights they sought were mainly connected to their roles in the home, over property and their children (4).
The temperance movement began in the early 19th century, part of a perception of a need for moral reform in a wider sense (5) and was from early on mainly a woman’s movement. It became more organized after the Civil War, however, especially with the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874. The organization became international in 1893 (6). Especially under its influential president Frances Willard, the Union espoused a wide variety of causes from the criminalization of alcohol sale and use, to votes for women, equal pay for equal work, crackdowns on prostitution, child labor laws, organized labor, education, and world peace (7). The fact that this movement had little to do with modern divisions between conservative and liberal can be seen in the fact that it culminated in both the 18th and 19th amendments; as well as in the Union’s two slogans: “For God and Home and Native Land” and “Agitate – Educate – Legislate.”
Perhaps this array of causes coalesced around temperance because, on one hand, it attracted a wide range of women: more conservative women who did not seek the vote, and more radical ones for whom it was only part of a wide range of desired reforms (8). On the other hand, the crusade against alcohol struck at the core of women’s lack of rights: in the 19th century, men drank, but women suffered for it (9, 10). Alcoholic husbands and fathers abused and impoverished their families, and as women had no rights over marital property or children, they were helpless to better their situation.
However, women did not seek only the rights that would allow them to escape from abusive situations. Rather, they sought the salvation of the men in their lives from the ravages of alcohol and other vices. The role of the Victorian woman was as a protector of the home and the nurturer of virtue, and the temperance women saw alcohol as seducing men away from virtue, destroying their bodies and their minds as well as the lives of their families. The desire to protect men from alcohol grew out of this Victorian concept of woman as guardian of virtue.
The means by which women sought these reforms changed somewhat over time (11). Early on, they sought change by “moral suasion,” in keeping with the prevailing belief that this was the proper realm of women, who were unsuited for political involvement. It was not long before the women decided that political action was necessary to achieve their ends, however; but the movement continued to be rooted in both Christianity and domestic concerns, rather than a secular political philosophy or women’s freedom to take on traditionally male roles in the public sphere.
This stands in contrast both to the 1970s vision of feminism and to the temperance movements’ contemporaries, the suffragettes (12) (about whom more in a future post, hopefully). The means by which they worked for temperance consisted mainly of prayer and hymn-singing at taverns, and the goal was the conversion of men into Christian husbands and fathers by the elimination of alcohol and other temptations to vice. There were other, more colorful characters in the temperance movement such as the hatchet-swinging Carrie Nation (13); but her goal also was to do God’s work.
The temperance movement consisted mainly of lower and middle-class white women, although the Anti-Saloon league was also in operation under male leadership (14). Black women also led temperance unions (15); but the Union was criticized by contemporary African-American reformers for racial insensitivity (16, 17).
Like the Wesleyan evangelical movement of the eighteenth century (18), this “first-wave feminism” was a mix of what would in modern terms be called “progressive” goals (relief for the poor, the rights of women) with profoundly conservative ones (the enforcement of Christian “purity” by legal means (19). Both were seen as necessary, most importantly as the work of God, but also for the relief of human beings; because both societal indifference and personal behavior such as alcoholism and promiscuity contributed to the misery of the poor and underprivileged. Though the schism between these two sets of goals is probably for the most part unbridgeable by this time, nearly all women have inherited some part of the temperance women’s beliefs, even if only that women have an important contribution to make to the political realm. In closing, it is important to note that the WCTU is still in existence (20, 21), still bridging the gap between conservative and liberal based on a particular set of ideas about women and religion.
The diverse means employed by the temperance workers (22)
Prohibition stuff (23: warning, plays music)
Documents from the temperance movement (24, 25)
A final note: I was messing with different ways of handling links while working on this, and hope it is not too distracting. Some of the numbered links refer to the same web page, when that web page made significant reference to more than one point I wanted to make. All of the pages I’ve linked to are worth reading, and go into much more detail and offer more points of view than I could.