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Aug. 26 is celebrated annually as Women’s Equality Day – honoring the ratification of the 19th (women’s suffrage) Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. August 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification and we have already begun working on a plan for events and programs to honor this momentous date.
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) formally endorsed women’s suffrage as a national organization in 1881. With the encouragement of then President Frances Willard, the organization recognized the women’s ballot as an essential tool to achieving its goals and began working to make suffrage happen.
Willard framed women’s suffrage as part of a campaign that she called “Home Protection.” She spoke of the need for women to protect themselves and their families and use their votes to do so. This idea of the ballot for “home protection” purposes persuaded many women that suffrage was indeed a worthy cause.
The WCTU cooperated with other women’s suffrage organizations. Willard had a close friendship with Susan B. Anthony, and Anthony asked Willard to mobilize the WCTU in support of suffrage. Indeed, in many states, the WCTU was a training ground for women to gain leadership experience which translated into their work with suffrage organizations like the National American Women’s Suffrage Association and others.
The WCTU’s work for suffrage increased in the 1890s and after Willard’s death in 1898. By 1908, 37 of the 46 states with active WCTUs had Franchise (Suffrage) Departments. States without departments were concentrated in the more conservative South. Lillian Stevens, elected president after Willard’s death, continued to use the language of “home protection” to encourage WCTU members to work for the ballot.
Suffrage work took many different forms for the WCTU. Drawing on their toolbox of lobbying techniques, WCTU members across the country collected signatures on petitions, circulated literature, hosted nationally renowned speakers, wrote and produced “suffrage plays,” and hosted debates between the WCTU and other community organizations on the theme of women’s suffrage.
In 1914, Anna Gordon was elected President of the WCTU, and she led the organization through some of its most important years—the ratification of the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) and the 19th Amendment. After the 19th Amendment passed the House and the Senate in 1919, it was sent to the states for ratification, and here the WCTU’s grassroots connections and local unions came to the fore.
Once the vote was won in August of 1920, the WCTU proclaimed that it was woman’s duty to go to the polls. The department of Christian Citizenship replaced the Franchise Department. The organization focused on providing civic education to women to help them be intelligent and informed voters. Without the WCTU’s involvement in the fight for women’s suffrage, ratification of the 19th Amendment would have been a much harder fight.