After attending the first national convention of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the nation's largest anti-alcohol association, in November 1874 in Cleveland, Ohio, Tennessean Elizabeth Fisher Johnson (1835-1883) returned home and organized a local chapter of the WCTU in Memphis in 1875. Nashville women formed a similar group in 1881. On October 23, 1882, several women met in Nashville to officially establish the Tennessee WCTU and named Johnson its first president. Johnson died only six months later but local groups continued to organize. In September 1887 Mrs. C. H. Phillips of Memphis was named president of the Tennessee Black WCTU, an affiliate of the all-white WCTU. In that year there were 130 affiliated unions including 14 African American chapters, 10 youth branches, and 21 juvenile societies.
Both the Democratic and Republican Parties endorsed prohibition, but the measure failed to pass when brought to a vote in 1887. Discouraged by this failure, temperance advocates saw enthusiasm for their cause diminish, and membership rolls in the WCTU shrank. The union regained some of its popularity, however, by successfully lobbying for the 1895 Scientific Temperance Instruction Law requiring temperance education in all Tennessee public schools. WCTU members also were largely responsible for laws raising the sexual age of consent from ten to eighteen, placing police matrons in city courts, establishing a state reform school for juvenile offenders, and funding the Reformatory Work Home for Women. The Memphis union opened an industrial school for girls in 1882, and in 1897 the Chattanooga union built the Frances Willard Home for “working girls.” The group also advocated woman suffrage. By 1900, despite its failure to gain statewide prohibition, the WCTU was the most powerful women's lobbying organization in Tennessee.
The murder of Tennessee politician Edward Ward Carmack, a staunch supporter of the temperance movement, helped the WCTU's efforts. In language celebrating motherhood and fundamentalist Christianity, Tennessee WCTU members lamented Carmack's death, sent letters to the editors of the state's newspapers, approached their neighbors, and distributed posters. In 1909, on the day of the legislative vote, WCTU women sang hymns in the capitol's gallery when the bill was approved over Governor Malcolm R. Patterson's veto.
After 1909 the Tennessee WCTU continued its “scientific temperance instruction” and helped gain ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. After the repeal of prohibition in 1933, the WCTU remained a powerful force in Tennessee, but membership never again reached the highs of the 1880s or 1910s. Its influence today is still apparent because several Tennessee counties remain “dry” or closely restrict the sale of alcohol. Throughout its history, the Tennessee WCTU provided fundamentalist Christian women the opportunity to gain significant political experience without stepping beyond the traditional female sphere.
Mattie Duncan Beard, The W.T.C.U. in the Volunteer State (1962); Ruth Bordin, Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty (1981)