Who were the people responsible for prohibition? A lesson in how to effect change in your community
Prohibition is often credited to the efforts of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). They are depicted in the photograph above. They were one of the most influential women’s groups of the 19th century and they advocated heavily against alcoholism and the sale of alcohol. In addition to prohibition, the WCTU’s goal was to “protect the home from evil influences and strengthen family life” (McCord, n.d.). These advocates argued against the sale of alcohol because they felt booze was the root cause of many of society’s problems. They argued “that alcohol abuse was the cause of unemployment, disease, sex work, poverty, violence against women and children, and immorality” (Canadian Encyclopedia, n.d.). These women looked around their communities and became worried about “the working man who squandered his hard-earned pay in some low saloon before staggering home to his degraded wife and their weeping, hungry children” (Couts, 2010). While individuals who made beer had previously been highly respected in society, they were now being blamed for social and cultural problems.
The first WCTUs were formed in the USA but moved to Canada when the first Canadian organization was formed in Owen Sound Ontario-Shout out Owen Sound! In 1874, Mrs. William Doyle formed “Prohibition Women’s League” and aimed to stop the sale of liquor in grocery stores (What would you say to her if you could go back in time?). Limited beer sales in grocery stores only returned to Ontario last year so we’d say she was successful in her efforts.
The WCTU campaigned through speeches, literature and petitions. Eventually, they decided that their goal could only be achieved by changing the law. They lobbied heavily and in 1878 the Canadian Temperance Act was introduced, also known as the Scott Act. This act stated that towns and counties could outlaw the selling of liquor within its boundaries by demanding a vote. Once the results of the vote were clear, the vote couldn’t be challenged for another three years. Shortly after the act was passed Fredericton, New Brunswick became the first town to vote itself dry. Many other towns and counties followed in their footsteps and eventually entire provinces became dry. The WCTU was finally successful in achieving their goal and in April 1918, the entire country of Canada became completely dry.
Prohibition came to an end in Canada during the 1920s and WCTU’s influence was significantly reduced. Their attachment to prohibition was polarizing for some members and led to a decline in their membership. Over the years, their prominence faded and as recently as “1995, there were 1,700 members in 67 branches, as compared to 2,473 in 1987” (Canadian Encyclopedia, n.d.). Today, the WCTU is still active in 72 countries with 500 000 members.
The effects of Prohibition have not faded as much as the WCTU. There are still dry townships and counties in Canada and the U.S.A. When Descendants applied to the AGCO for our brewery license we had to prove that we are not located in a “dry region”.
But before you judge these women and their efforts ask yourself what kind of conditions were they seeing/living in their communities? They believed they were helping people in their communities. They were a large group of organized people who were able to make drastic social and legal changes in a relatively short period of time. Their efforts didn’t last forever, and in many cases had the reverse effect they were seeking (they basically handed organized crime a golden goose) but the effects of Prohibition impact our lives to this day and that’s impressive. The next time you’re feeling defeated and like you can’t make a difference, just think of the WCTU. Right or wrong, they certainly had a lasting impact.
Coutts, I. (2010). Brew North How Canadians Made Beer and Beer Made Canada. Nanoose Bay: Greystone Books.
Museum, M. (n.d.). WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union) fonds (P590). Retrieved September 07, 2017, from http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/scripts/explore.php?Lang=1&tableid=18&elementid=113__true
Hallowell, G. (n.d.). Prohibition in Canada. Retrieved September 07, 2017, from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/prohibition/
Sheehan, N. M. (n.d.). Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Canada. Retrieved September 07, 2017, from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/womans-christian-temperance-union/