The WCTU promoted the understanding of the social and physicial problems alcohol can cause; advocated for women’s rights, including political, religious, personal and educational rights; and supported labor reforms for workers, including the 8 hour day (as an example, the local union was very involved with advocating for temperance in Evanston).
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in November 1874 in Cleveland Ohio as a direct response to the Woman’s Temperance Crusades of the winter of 1873. The Temperance Crusades were spontaneous demonstrations held by women in small towns in Ohio to stop the sale of alcohol at the drug stores, hotels and saloons in their towns. The WCTU was organized to formalize these early efforts and mobilize women for a national effort against the abuse of alcohol. Frances Willard, first Dean of the Woman’s College of Northwestern University and Evanston resident, was a founding member of the WCTU and the first Corresponding Secretary. When Frances Willard became the second President of the WCTU in 1879, Evanston became a national center of temperance activity. Through much of the 1880s especially, the work of the WCTU was conducted out of Frances Willard’s home at 1730 Chicago Avenue (Rest Cottage). She founded the World’s WCTU and wrote the Polyglot Petition here which eventually gathered seven and a half million signatures against the alcohol trade. She also served as an early spokeswoman for women’s suffrage and worker’s rights. When she died in February of 1898, her home was given to the WCTU and in 1900 the WCTU officially opened its Headquarters there. In 1910 a new Headquarters Building was built behind the house. From there, the WCTU saw successful passage of the 18th and 19th amendments in 1917 and 1920 prohibiting the sale of alcohol and bringing the right to vote to women. The WCTU still has its Headquarters in Evanston. Evanston also had its own local Union of the WCTU. The Woman’s Temperance Alliance, founded in March 1874, was the first organization of local women for the temperance cause. Its main purpose was to catch and prosecute violators of the “Four Mile Limit” which prohibited the sale of alcohol within four miles of Northwestern University and the city of Evanston. Elizabeth Marcy was the first President. In May of 1875, the Alliance changed its name to the Evanston WCTU, and in 1878 officially joined the State and National Unions. Other than law enforcement, the local union was involved with forming kindergartens and industrial schools, holding temperance prayer meetings and promoting temperance education in Evanston.
Evanston was a dry town from its incorporation in 1863 and all of its leading citizens were in some way involved with the temperance movement. Once Evanston resident Frances Willard became President of the WCTU, the community’s connection to the national temperance movement was made stronger. Since 1900, the WCTU National Headquarters has been located in Evanston.