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Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Iowa



The first state convention of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) of Iowa was held in 1874, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This convention united nineteen of the state's temperance unions under the leadership of President E. A. Wheeler. The first convention of the National WCTU was also held in 1874, with Annie Wittenmyer of Keokuk, Iowa, serving as the first president of the organization. The WCTU of Iowa held an annual convention each October in churches across the state. Women became members of the WCTU of Iowa upon signing the WCTU of Iowa Constitution, pledging to perform temperance work, and paying annual dues. The WCTU of Iowa provided organization, administration, and directives to Iowa's county WCTUs. County WCTUs were responsible for providing administrative oversight to local WCTU chapters.

WCTU members in Iowa were engaged in a range of educational, legislative, and political efforts during the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the social purity movement, efforts to prevent juvenile delinquency, and support for women's suffrage. The WCTU drew upon educated and professional women to provide legal counsel, devise legislative strategies, and write reports on social issues. In 1874, members were encouraged to "improve their right of petition" by sending state legislators "urgent and persistent appeals" to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. In the 1880s, members petitioned the state to form a women's prison and reformatory.

In 1882, shortly after the organization became an incorporated body, the WCTU of Iowa founded the Benedict Home in Des Moines, Iowa, as a reformatory for "fallen women." Over 1,900 single pregnant women and former prostitutes lived at the Home between 1882 and 1943. Nearly 1,600 babies were born at the Benedict Home; many were placed for adoption. Young women had to be free of venereal disease and promise to receive at least one year of Christian training at the Home. Relatives were not permitted to visit young women during their "confinement," and residents were permitted to send two letters per week; letters were subject to review by supervisors at the Benedict Home. The Home was supported by donations from local WCTU chapters and modest funding from the State of Iowa. After 1943, the Benedict Home served as a retirement home for WCTU members and later, as a shelter for recovering addicts.

At the 1889 annual convention of the National WCTU, under the leadership of Frances Willard, delegates voted to endorse candidates running on the Prohibition ticket in races across the United States. The Iowa delegation walked out of the convention to protest the National WCTU's decision to engage in partisan politics. Later, at the 1889 annual convention of the WCTU of Iowa, President Judith Ellen Foster voiced her displeasure with the National WCTU's decision when she read aloud a portion of the WCTU of Iowa Constitution, "This organization shall be non-partisan in its political work." The WCTU of Iowa established a special fund to hold members' dues until the National WCTU disengaged from partisan politics. A group of Iowa women disagreed with Foster and supported the National WCTU's engagement with partisan politics. At the 1890 annual convention of the WCTU of Iowa, a faction led by Marion H. Dunham defected from the WCTU of Iowa, pledging to support the agenda of the National WCTU. This new group called itself the WCTU of the State of Iowa. For the next sixteen years, Iowa had two statewide WCTUs. The first organization, the WCTU of Iowa, remained the larger of the two during this period and continued to publish the newsletter, the WCTU Bulletin. The smaller group, the WCTU of the State of Iowa, supported the partisan agenda of the National WCTU, and was presided over by Marion Dunham for its entire sixteen year history. Frances Willard and Anna A. Gordon attended the first meeting of the WCTU of the State of Iowa, held in Des Moines in 1891. The two branches reunited in 1906. At this time, the monthly newspaper of the WCTU of Iowa took a new name, the WCTU Champion.

Under the leadership of President Ida B. Wise-Smith, the WCTU of Iowa joined other statewide temperance groups to lobby successfully for the reinstatement of prohibition in Iowa in 1916, nearly four years before the US Congress passed the 18th Amendment outlawing alcohol in 1919. Wise-Smith would later serve as the president of the National WCTU, after the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933.

While the organization's primary focus was the prohibition of alcohol, members of the WCTU of Iowa at various times also called for the ban of tobacco, gambling, abortion, and gay marriage. Describing its methods as evangelistic, preventative, and educational, members of the WCTU of Iowa organized women across the state to combat what they perceived to be social ills. Membership in the WCTU of Iowa peaked in 1930, when it had 60,000 dues-paying members. By 2006, the organization had only ten members across the state of Iowa. Despite its small membership, WCTU members maintained a nursing home in Kearney, Iowa, and three shelters for homeless people in Des Moines.

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:

Welch and Angrick Collection

Identifier: IWA0095

Material relating to the Heart of Hawkeye Council of Campfire Girls, The Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and the Iowa Department of the Woman's Relief Corps.

Dates: 1880-1995

Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Iowa records

Identifier: IWA0751

Organization dedicated to legislative and educational efforts to prevent juvenile delinquency and support woman's suffrage.

Dates: 1874-2006

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2001-2010 1
Administrative records 1
Artificial collections 1
Collectors and collecting 1
Council Bluffs (Iowa) 1