Woman’s Christian Temperance Union: Influence on the National Prohibition Act

The National Prohibition Act of 1919 may have resulted in 13 years of widespread, organized crime, but for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) it was a moral victory, providing families protection from alcohol addiction that had resulted in domestic violence and loss of employment, leaving many women and children destitute.

Creating a National Organization

By the 1800s, women were fed up with their lack of civil rights. They couldn’t vote, own property or have custody of children. They witnessed rampant alcohol consumption with detrimental societal effects. 

Instead of sitting quietly, they created an organization that supported various social reforms focusing on prohibition, education, public health, better working conditions and women’s suffrage. The WCTU became an official organization at its first national conference in Cleveland in 1874. Two years later, the International Woman’s Christian Temperance Union formed. At one time it was the largest women’s organization in the world, boasting over 370,000 members.

Minnesota’s Active Chapter

Minnesota had one of the largest and most prominent WCTU chapters. Harriet Bishop, for whom Bishop Elementary School in Rochester is named, was influential in the growth of the state’s temperance movement. 

Bishop moved to Minnesota in 1847 for a teaching position, founding the state’s first schoolhouse. A strong activist, especially in temperance and suffrage, Bishop traveled the state, encouraging women to organize local temperance clubs. 

The first local clubs were established between 1875 and 1877, leading to the creation of the WCTU of Minnesota in September 1877. Because of her efforts, Bishop is credited as the first organizer of the state’s WCTU chapter.

Rochester Temperance Movement

While Bishop helped lay the groundwork for the WCTU and its progressive agenda, it took people like Cora Ella Abernathy to carry on its mission. Abernathy moved from Iowa to Rochester in 1907 when her husband opened a private dental practice. She found her passion, spending 20 years as president of Rochester’s WCTU.

Rochester WCTU members protested outside saloons and were often yelled at and threatened, even drenched with alcohol. They held rallies and protests and hosted annual state conventions. They used the power of the press to their advantage, writing articles about their cause in local newspapers.

Abernathy had the support of Rochester Mayor Julius J. Reiter in her group’s temperance endeavors. Reiter passed and enforced several strict saloon and dance hall ordinances. According to the “Rochester Daily Post & Record” from December 17, 1917, “Dances are forbidden on Sunday and on weekdays except between 8 and 11 p.m. Unmarried girls under 18 are not allowed to be at the dance. Intoxicated persons…and drinking of intoxicating liquor in or around the dance hall is forbidden.” Reiter hired the city’s first policewoman to make sure his laws were followed. Mrs. Minnie Bowron watched the dance hall patrons with an eagle eye, arresting anyone who broke the rules. 

Prohibition Law and Local Businesses

During 1916 and 1917, Abernathy and other WCTU members participated in the state chapter’s effort to fill state legislature seats with politicians who supported their cause. Their dedication and hard work paid off. In January 1919, Minnesota became the 36th state to ratify the 18th amendment, making the production, sale and transport of alcohol illegal. The headline in the local paper the following day read: “Dry act now law, Rochester dry advocates intoxicated with joy at news.” The Rochester WCTU hosted a large celebratory event at a local church to mark the historic occasion. 

While Abernathy and other WCTU members were elated to see their dream become reality, the passage of the measure impacted local businesses. The 1919 “Rochester Directory” listed 16 saloons, but by the following year not one saloon remained. And Schuster’s Brewery, one of Rochester’s largest employers, shut its doors and never reopened. Owner Fred Schuster was quoted as blaming his company’s demise on the “women of
the country.”

Amy Hahn is a freelance writer.