Women and Temperance Part 2

The temperance movement, while often viewed as a failure because of the repeal of the probation, was in fact a huge success in terms of social movements.  The temperance movement was one of the most popular, successful and long lasting social movements in American history (Dannenbaum, 2001). This was in large part due to the commitment and conviction of religious women who spent decades fighting against alcohol consumption.  Many women who were involved in the temperance movement also become involved in the women’s suffrage movement because they realized the lack of voice they had in national issues.  Thus, by organizing and fighting for issues related to the domestic sphere – stopping domestic violence and poverty due to alcoholism – these women began to realize that there rights were restricted in other areas of social life as well.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been highlighting Emma Smith’s contribution to the temperance movement in Washington, and I’d like to continue where I left off.

Since prohibition is viewed as largely unsuccessful because it didn’t stop drinking, it drove it under ground and created a criminal occupation in bootlegging liquor, viewing it as a success is somewhat foreign to us. However, Emma Smith saw the passage of prohibition in Washington as a successful moral victory.  Yet, this victory was still fraught with complications. For instance what happens when you suddenly shut down the bars, what sort of social unrest will occur? In addition, is it possible that the very men who were against prohibition would ever willingly give up alcohol or would they just find other ways to get it? Emma Ray outlines these challenges in her documentation of the aftermath of prohibition passage:

The state went dry, as we expected, and then came the last night that the saloons were permitted to be open. Such a night of drunkenness and debauchery. Many were angry because the state had gone dry. Some of the business men in the slum district put up signs, “We’re going out of business,” “Seattle is dead–Prohibition has killed her,” in their windows. The men began to drink early in the morning. The saloon doors were wide open, and the men were almost two deep in some places at the bars. Some sat near the saloon doors asleep, some around the corners and in the alleys. They were all trying to drink all they could, because it was their last opportunity for open drunkenness. (p.246)

The next day after the saloons were closed there were heartaches and heart-breaks, and an intense thirst for drink. Many drank pure alcohol to quench their thirst. Some became blind, some died, and this was our chance for a revival. So we started a special meeting in the Mission. The Lord gave us a full house. There were no saloons for the men to sit around in, and they did not know where else to go, and they could not get their drink as before. They gradually began to wake up to their terrible condition. On one occasion there was a party that had a quart of wood-alcohol, and some of its victims died, but two came into the Mission, one with his eyesight almost destroyed, but the other recovered and was converted. (p.247-248)

Emma’s observations illustrate that the larger issues of spiritual health and community well-being she had fought for were successful What must be remembered when studying the narratives and motivations behind the temperance movement is the powerful commitment these women and men had to social change. They saw how addiction to alcohol led to poverty and domestic abuse and through their various charitable organizations attempted to educate the public about the pitfalls of addiction. Even if we don’t agree with prohibition we have to at least admire their ability to organize, sustain the movement and ultimately succeed in their national reform. There aren’t many other movements that have that kind of national success.

Dannenbaum, J. (2001). Origins of Temperance Activism, Journal of Social History.

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