The WCTU was the most vocal and militant women's organization in Tasmania in the 1890s. It was the only group agitating for female franchise until the formation of the National Council of Women in 1899. The campaign lasted for eleven years, assisted by a handful of influential men.
Frances Willard, concerned with the effects of alcohol on women and children, started the WCTU in America in 1873. Their first world missionary, Mary Leavitt, came to Australia to form branches in 1885, including three in Tasmania which lapsed through lack of leadership. A second world missionary, Jessie Ackermann, revitalized the WCTU on her four month visit to Tasmania in 1892. The WCTU was the first national women's organization in the country, with hundreds of widespread branches - many in small towns - and thousands of members. Tasmania had 21 branches in the 1890s.
The WCTU members were middle and lower middle class women, many from non-conformist churches, usually respectable married women with children, who wore traditional clothing and agitated in a conventional manner - unlike the English suffragettes. Any woman could join who pledged to abstain from all intoxicating liquor. Members were known as 'White Ribboners' from the white ribbon they wore as a sign of purity. Their womanly virtues were stressed at all times. Although it was acknowledged that 'to every true woman the dearest spot on earth is Home Sweet Home', they had a Christian duty to work in the public domain for social reform. They were told that 'none had the right to be a modest violet'.
The primary aim of the WCTU was temperance, to achieve the moral reform of society.
However, as part of an international organization with a common platform, a suffrage policy was adopted in 1893 - the first womanhood suffrage league in Tasmania. The WCTU was not pressing for women's rights per se, unlike feminist groups in other states established to improve women's position. Rather, votes for women was a means to an end: liquor prohibition. They hoped to use political influence to recognize their demands, bringing a more compassionate and moral society that would adequately protect helpless women and children.
Members gave temperance lectures to large audiences; circulated suffrage petitions and against opium trade; agitated to close bars on Sunday; campaigned for unfermented wine to be used at communion, raised age of consent, and school temperance education. Their area of interest was wide, but the suffrage campaign dominated the 1890s with public meetings, literature distribution and petitions to parliament. Two other major campaigns were the Neglected Children Bill and the sanitary improvement movement.
The WCTU demonstrated that women could speak in public, run an organization efficiently, maintain international links, and put forward views that challenged authority.
The suffrage campaign was consistently frustrated by the ultra-conservative Legislative Council, with bills rejected in 1895, 1896 and 1898. After the federal franchise was granted in 1902, the Tasmanian parliament conceded votes for white women in 1903, to avoid electoral anomalies.
By 1903, the WCTU had lost its position as the premier women's organization to new upper class groups which had the patronage of the Governor's wife and women with prominent husbands or fathers.
The WCTU is still active in Tasmania, with two branches: Moonah and Scottsdale.
Alexander, A., 'A Turning Point in Women's History? The Foundation of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Australia', Tasmanian Historical Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2 (2001)
Jordan, R. White-Ribboners: the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Tasmania, 1885-1914, Unpublished BA Hons thesis, University of Tasmania, 2001
Pearce, V., '"A Few Viragos on a Stump"" the Womanhood Suffrage Campaign in Tasmania, 1880-1920", Tasmanian Historical Research Association. Papers and Proceedings, Vol. 32, No. 4 (December 1985)
This entry was researched and written by Wendy Rimon, B.A.