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Evanston and the Fight for the Vote

Working for Suffrage

Photograph, Catharine Waugh McCulloch

Catharine Waugh McCulloch, a popular lecturer on women's suffrage and member of the WCTU. 

The WCTU focused its early suffrage efforts on state and municipal suffrage. Some western states had already given women the right to vote. Wyoming was the first state to grant women suffrage, granting it as part of their state constitution in 1869. Other states, like Kansas, granted women suffrage on a municipal level. In her 1887 address to the WCTU annual convention, Frances Willard hailed the female voters of Kansas as the vanguard of a wave of women voters who would push forward the Prohibition platform. In the 1880s, Willard advised the Franchise Department to focus on a state-by-state strategy for gaining suffrage, because this would avoid the "tedious work for a constitutional amendment" that would, in all likelihood, be defeated.

This strategy mirrored the strategy of the National Women's Suffrage Association and the American Women's Suffrage Association, the two largest suffrage groups in the country. The WCTU, however, had far more robust local organizations, and was able to take advantage of those to organize for women's suffrage. Local WCTU chapters partnered with the NWSA, AWSA, and the Equal Suffrage Association. In Kansas, this proved successful, and it set a pattern for future suffrage work by the women of the WCTU.

These state level efforts continued throughout the 1890s and into the 1910s. They included distributing pamphlets, hosting debates, and bringing lecturers to speak at local Unions and churches. Throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century, the WCTU campaigned for suffrage in states across the country. In 1913, Illinois granted women full suffrage, the first state east of the Mississippi to do so. In Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia, however,  resolutions on women's suffrage were defeated despite the best efforts of the WCTU and other suffragist organizations. They faced strong opposition from liquor interests, who feared that women voting would lead to Prohibition. 

The 18th Amendment, which established Prohibition, was passed by both houses of Congress in 1917, and ratified by the necessary 36 states fairly quickly thereafter. While the WCTU focused heavily on the ratification of Prohibition, they continued to work for women's suffrage even after they achieved their goal of a national Prohibition amendment.