The Temperance Movement and First Wave Feminism Part 1

Throughout her autobiography Emma Ray’s ministry and personal life is deeply connected to the temperance movement of the early 20th century.  One of the most powerful sections of Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed takes place in 1914 when the state of Washington puts the probation issue on the state ballot. The 18th amendment, outlawing alcohol nationally, wasn’t passed until 1919. So, Washington was leading the way in a national effort to ban alcohol. The work of prohibitionists such as Emma and Lloyd who worked with other Free Methodists and members of various religious movements was a driving force in Washington deciding at the state level to consider probation. Prior to the election Emma, Lloyd, members of the Free Methodist Olive Branch Mission in Seattle, and thousands of other activists marched together in a political “get out the vote” parade. Emma describes it in vivid detail:
“There was a call for every prohibitionist to meet at a certain place in the morning and take part in a parade. For once most all sects of religion answered the call and came together, and with them a great number of unbelievers. There were men, women, children, young people, old people, and cripples; the feeble ones that could not ride mustered up strength and marched, all with the determination that John Barleycorn must go. “In union there is strength.” There were floats of every description, and almost every person had a banner. Some of the banners read, “John Barleycorn must go,” “He robbed me of my father,” “He killed my brother,” “He broke up my home,” and such like. We started at the North End and marched down First Avenue. Part way down First Avenue we looked back towards Pike Street and it was a beautiful sight to see those banners and flags floating in the breeze. It reminded us of the Scripture in the Song of Solomon, when he was speaking of the church, and asked, “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, as fair as the moon, and as clear as the sun, and as terrible as an army with banners.”

We noticed how this demonstration struck terror to the hearts of the saloon-keepers. As they stood in the doors of their saloons, or on the walks, and watched, we could tell by their faces that they, too, believed that we would gain the victory.

I had witnessed such a sight once before when but a child, and that was when the Negro race celebrated its first national independence. I felt just such a thrill then as I did when in the parade. Every one that could walk marched in the parade. Mothers with small children holding on to their skirts, and with babies in their arms, some of the returned soldiers from the war, and old ex-slave men.” (p.242-243)

The work of the Washington prohibitionists paid off and prohibition was passed in the state.  Looking back we have the hindsight of seeing the failures of the prohibitionist movement. However, what is often overlooked is the fact that this was one of the first movements, besides the abolitionist movement, that allowed women to actively organize and participate in public politics. Both the abolitionist and temperance movement paved the way for the suffragist movement that was also gaining moment about the same time as the temperance movement. (The 19th amendment giving women the right to vote was passed in 1920, only a year after the 18th amendments passed). There is an intrinsic connection between the temperance movement and the suffragist movement; yet the connections are often ignored because the temperance movement is viewed as a conservative religious movement separate from feminism. Yet, if women, such as Emma Ray, felt empowered by their faith and their belief in prohibition then this should not be overlooked just because it might not fit into the accepted narrative of first wave feminism.

Next week I will explore the aftereffects of prohibition in Washington and the pros and cons Emma notes about enforced temperance.

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