Pennsylvania History: The Dry CrusadeAug 31, 2021 05:00PM ● By Marcos Colon
Imagine living in the 1870s. It was decades before women would have the right to vote, but that did not discourage a group of determined women in Union and surrounding Pennsylvania counties from working diligently to improve the lives of their families.
A change was coming to America, and it arrived in small increments as a result of the dedication of women who wanted to exercise greater control over their lives. Movements arose—to seek the right to vote (suffragettes) and prohibit the sale of alcohol (temperance).
There existed a close alliance between suffragettes and advocates for temperance. Women were thought by some to be morally superior to men by nature, and many advocates for women’s suffrage argued that women should have the vote because of this. Advocates for temperance wanted women to have the right to vote because it was believed they would vote for Prohibition due to their moral superiority.
At the beginning
At the heart of this change in Union and surrounding counties in Pennsylvania was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Many would call their actions not only admirable, but a service to society.
The WCTU was founded in 1874 by Frances Wilard, American educator, temperance reformer and women’s suffragist. Willard became the national president of WCTU in 1879, and remained president for 19 years. The WCTU became the biggest mass political organization of American women in history.1
Women had seen their husbands, brothers and fathers succumb to alcoholism that led to child and spousal abuse, poverty and injustice. They chose to mobilize and take action when “men constituting the powers that be” would not listen to their protests. 2 To say it became contentious is an understatement, but the WCTU did not deter from their mission.
Mary Zimmerman, of Lewisburg, taught women’s history for more than 30 years at Northern Virginia Community College, and served as past president of the League of Women Voters of the Lewisburg Area. She recently reflected on the struggles that women endured over the course of American history.
“Half of the population couldn’t vote based on their gender,” Zimmerman said. “Women should get the right to vote because they are human beings, and every human being should have the right to vote.”
A change was needed, and it would require a grassroots mobilization of women across America coming together to overcome, despite their limited power in 19th century America, both inequality and a societal ill that impacted their families.
“It was more acceptable for women to take public action if they were doing it for domestic reasons,” Zimmerman added.
A change was coming
Pennsylvania counties were divided into either ‘Dry’ (no alcohol) or ‘Wet’ (alcohol). The effort to control the sale of alcohol was an economic, political and social battle which required dedication and perseverance.
The main opponents to Prohibition were those reaping economic benefit from the sale of alcohol—bootleggers, bar owners and others who earned their living making and selling alcohol. The strongest opposition to women’s suffrage came from breweries, whose owners were concerned the Drys would put them out of business. Pressure exerted by WCTU members forced barkeepers to continually modify strategies to keep their businesses open.
In 1914, the Mount Caramel Item reported that Sunbury barkeepers began barring all women from entering their establishments. The stated reason: to protect themselves from legal action as a result of unknowingly selling alcoholic beverages to “women of questionable character.”3 This of course was just another tactic to undermine the work of the WCTU.
The WCTU faced an uphill battle, politically. Mary explained, “It was common to pay someone to vote on your behalf, or to go against a measure such as women’s suffrage.” The Australian ballot format, which shielded voting selections from view via a ballot box, had not yet been adopted in the United States. It was not uncommon for businesses to pay their employees to vote in such a way as to deter WCTU goals.
Despite this opposition, the WCTU grew, giving women a powerful political voice in areas like Union County. In Hartleton, women joined the local temperance unions campaigning against the pro-liquor license faction and were elected to offices within the organization. In 1879, motivated women from Mifflinburg successfully garnered enough signatures to prevent the Deckard and Showers hotels from renewing their liquor licenses. Out of the 400-plus signatures “submitted by the anti-license faction,” more than “one-half were those of women.” Women, although still barred from voting, demonstrated their might.
Courts began to issue refusals for liquor license renewals in every township, including Winfield, White Deer, New Columbia and West Milton. In Lewisburg, the last refuge for Wets, Prohibition was enacted on April 4, 1916, as a result of Dry momentum—in the form of more than 1,000 signed petitions—exerted by women and some men.4
The impact of these actions was felt by bootleggers and their customers. Their response was to employ hybrid liquor-sale locations. In 1923, for example, Harry Mutchler of Snyder County was arrested for selling alcoholic beverages to an underage boy in the restaurant section of his gas station. He and his son were caught with 75 gallons of whiskey.
The relevance of this period of female mobilization was not solely to cause divisions between Wet and Dry crusades. The underlying goal was to bring to light the serious domestic abuse women endured; they sought advances that would help themselves, their families and their communities.
On December 5, 1933, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah voted for ratification of the 21st Amendment. “The 18th article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed,” begins the 21st Amendment. These words effectively ended Prohibition.
The repeal of the 18th Amendment cannot be considered a failure, for women had demonstrated tremendous courage in their quest. In acknowledging the WCTU movement, we are informed about people who did not get much recognition or credit for their efforts. In fact, WCTU activism against alcohol ultimately helped win the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.