Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Jan. 20, 2021

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Clark County History: Women’s Christian Temperance Union


Although the Women’s Christian Temperance Union first took on alcohol, its campaign expanded when its second president, Francis Willard, assumed office in 1879. Willard asked the members to “meet argument with argument, misjudgment with patience, denunciation with kindness, and all our difficulties and dangers with prayer.” She then created a “do everything” platform linking suffrage with temperance. When women got the vote, she believed they could legislate prohibition.

From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the WCTU was a powerful movement with chapters in every state, and Clark County had one. Although it likely arrived earlier, the Vancouver Independent printed an 1877 notice for the “next regular meeting,” inviting the “friends of temperance” to explore “promoting the interests of temperance among the masses.” It further asked “our public men” to describe the value of their abstinence. WCTU meetings at the Methodist Church included Christian and temperance readings and songs. It beckoned “young people of our city” for instruction on physical abstinence. The WCTU publicized its evening meetings as “pleasant and profitable.”

That year also brought W.H. Smallwood to lecture on the evils of alcohol. The Vancouver Independent praised Smallwood’s speech for its “aggressive style … sadly needed here.” Smallwood said ridiculing drunkards didn’t change them and — perhaps to the group’s horror — claimed prohibition always fails.

By the late 1880s, the local WCTU appeared in the Polk Directory cataloging just two officers. Three years later, the directory listed five, showing the group’s growth.

In 1897, the WCTU held its annual state convention in Vancouver, pulling in delegates from around the state. The newspaper called the event “a harmonious four day gathering.”

The WCTU was one of the first organizations to lobby legislators. After Washington women won the vote in 1910, the group lobbied the state to prohibit alcohol. In 1916, the state passed prohibition legislation. The WCTU achieved its national goal when the federal government passed the 19th Amendment granting women voting rights — ironically, only after it passed the 18th Amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcohol.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at