Well-Tempered Women: Nineteenth-Century Temperance Rhetoric

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As you can tell from the previous handful of entries, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole studying up on the events leading up to Prohibition. Carol Mattingly’s book pulls a lot of the disparate threads together for me with this book: “Alcohol became the primary woman’s issue of the century, because it came to symbolize and gave vent to frustrations about women’s powerless and precarious situation.” She also suggests that today’s feminists could take a page or two from WCTU’s playbook, with their success in recruiting the “average woman” to their cause and abandoning complex academic jargon. One of the strengths of the WCTU that’s missing today is an effective network of local, county, district, and state unions.

The first two sections of the book look at 19th century temperance women’s oral rhetoric. It’s frankly amazing that these women were able to bust through the stigma then (and now) existing of a woman speaking in public. These women cloaked themselves in the righteous coat of duty, and focused on the temperance message while almost covertly pushing for women’s rights as well. Wisconsin’s Mrs. Ostrander gives a clear example of this in her 1853 speech where she scoffs at those who accuse women who take public action of unbecoming behavior, but in the next sentence reassures the more timid in her audience that her focus is temperance, not women’s rights. These women made it more difficult for opponents to attack them by lecturing in churches wherever possible, although ministers were known to hoot them down with cries of “Shame!” Some speakers could not come out publicly for women’s rights because of fear of hurting their families, like Caroline Severance’s “I have in this city [New York] venerated grandparents, whose feelings I greatly regard, and would not willingly or unnecessarily wound… [so could not take] an active part in what will seem to them an antagonistic position for woman and uncalled for on my part.”

The Ohio Crusades of the 1870s required the women participating publicly to have great courage since they were ridiculed in the press and in the streets, jostled and spit upon, doused with dirty water and beer, dragged through the streets, covered in paint, hosed with water, rotten eggs/stones/boots/bricks hurled at them. This crusade wasn’t the first of the smashing and praying kind, though, with an event in March 1852 in Mount Vernon, OH, and a 1853 event in Ashland, OH where 30 women smashed up a grocery that was serving liquor, and then moved on to a woman tavern owner (Mrs. Witz or Mother Yonkers) to spill out all her whiskey.

Newspaper reports focused on “unfeminine” appearance instead of substance of lectures, and vegetarians are poked fun at as usual:

Anniversary week has the effect of bringing to New York many strange specimens of humanity, masculine and feminine. Antiquated and very homely females made themselves ridiculous by parading the streets in company with hen-pecked husbands, attenuated vegetarians, intemperate Abolitionists and sucking clergymen… Shameless as these females–we suppose they were females–looked, we should really have thought they would have blushed as they walked the streets to hear the half-suppressed laughter of their own sex and the remarks of men and boys. The Bloomers figured extensively in the anti-slavery amalgamation convention, and were rather looked up to, but their intemperate ideas would not be tolerated in the temperance meeting at the Brick Chapel. (New York Courier)

On the subject of dress:
* “Willard campaigned for a more ‘reasonable’ dress for women, but those efforts were combined with a pragmatic belief that members must present an acceptable appearance. Willard even had appropriate dresses and skirts designed specifically for WCTU members.” (p 66, with examples shown in plates 17 & 18)
* Mid-century speakers began wearing the modified dress adopted by Elizabeth Smith Miller and most famously worn by Amelia Bloomer. The dress was “a short skirt (usually knee length or hemmed at mid-calf) over Turkish trousers.”
* “Reports that emphasize the Bloomer attire are especially revealing because reporters never commented on or suggested the inappropriateness of other kinds of frivolous and revealing dress worn by some women; the fear obviously arose from the Bloomer’s deviation from cultural expectations for women. Bloomers covered women fully, while other ‘stylish’ dress left women’s bodies, at least their upper torsos, greatly exposed…” (p 103)
In the last section, Mattingly’s points out that little attention has been given to writers of temperance fiction, and she mines the archives for us. This provided me a list a mile long of forgotten women writers. She notes that the nation’s first “best-seller” was Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World in 1850. Maria Cummins (The Lamplighter, 1854) was another of the most popular novels of the century.

Random bit:
* Frances Willard learned to ride a bike at age 53, and named it Gladys.