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Evanston and the Fight for the Vote

Getting Organized

Photograph, Annie Wittenmeyer

Annie Wittenmeyer, first President of the WCTU. 

Frances E. Willard delivering speech

Frances Willard delivers a speech as President of the WCTU. 

At the first WCTU convention in Cleveland in 1874, Annie Wittenmeyer, a well-known activist, was elected president of the organization. Frances Willard, from Evanston, was elected corresponding secretary. Under Wittenmeyer's leadership from 1874-1879, the WCTU focused heavily on gospel temperance and moral suasion: using prayer and personal conversion to induce invididuals to give up drinking. 

Wittenmeyer recognized that prohibition and social legislation was going to be essential to achieving the goals of the WCTU. Consequently, the WCTU began exercising their political rights of petition almost immediately. In 1875, Wittenmeyer herself brought a petition before the Senate Finance Committee and testified on its behalf. However, she resisted any activities that might look like a campaign for voting. Wittenmeyer believed that to campaign for the vote would distract from their temperance goals. 

In 1879, Frances Willard was elected as the second president of the WCTU. Willard had a wide-ranging vision for the WCTU that included actively lobbying legislators and campaigning for the right to vote. Willard framed her decision to add women suffrage to the WCTU's platform by framing it as "home protection." By this logic, women needed to be able to vote on issues that affected the home or the family. Framing it this way helped situate the vote as part of a woman's domestic duties, rather than a revolt against the idea of separate spheres that dominated the way men and women interacted. Voting would help the WCTU achieve their goal of total prohibition of alcoholic beverages, as Willard and the WCTU expected that women voters would be temperance women through and through. 

Under Willard, the WCTU established a "Franchise Department" that focused on gaining the right to vote. The Franchise Department wasn't active everywhere. Some women, particularly in the South, were reluctant to campaign for the vote even though it was part of the official national platform of the WCTU. The Franchise Department under the presidency of Frances Willard helped local and state Unions campaign for suffrage on a municipal and state level, and had moderate success in northern and western states.