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The Reform Agenda of the Minnesota Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1878-1917

Paula K. Hinton
Tennessee Tech University

The document project on which this lesson plan is based is available by subscription only from Alexander Street Press.



The part played by many women in reform during the Progressive Era has often been ignored or labeled as something other than truly "progressive." The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) has commonly been included in that generalization. At the heart of this debate is politics: were these women dainty, old-fashioned, conservative church ladies? Or were they adept at using political strategies and tactics to get what they wanted? Were they conscious of the role that politics played in their work? Women often walked a fine line between accepting "woman's sphere" and venturing into "man's domain." This tension is evident in the documents included here.


  • To illuminate the role that politics played in the work of the Minnesota WCTU.
  • To understand the role that women played in the Progressive Movement and the obstacles they faced.
  • To highlight the breadth and depth of WCTU work in Minnesota.
  • To examine the evolution of the Minnesota WCTU over time.

Lesson Ideas

image Keep a journal of your thoughts and reactions to the documents as you read them.

image Each document is included for a reason—note the significance of each one.

imageimage Consider the following questions as you read the documents:

  • How did temperance become a gendered issue?
  • How did religion influence these women and their work?
  • Would the WCTU have been as successful had it not been a religiously affiliated organization?
  • How political was the WCTU? Should it have been more or less political? Explain.
  • What role did geography and class play in the WCTU?
  • Why did women join the WCTU?
  • In what ways did women's roles impede their participation in reform? How did women's roles enhance it?
  • What is most significant about these sources? What do they reveal that secondary sources (or other primary sources) would not?
  • What challenges did these women face? What were the rewards?
  • Discuss the strategies and tactics employed by the WCTU in Minnesota. Why were some successful and others unsuccessful?

image For Document 1:

  • What were the challenges of the first few years?
  • At the beginning of paragraph 3 Holt argues "We believe these W.C.T.U.'s are an outgrowth of the crusade movement. It is the crusade modified, made practical, more adapted to woman's nature and woman's work." Explain what she means.
  • Analyze the rhetoric used in this speech.
  • In paragraph 8 Holt asserts that temperance causes men to lose their masculinity. Explain what she means. Do you agree? Why or why not? What does this tell us about masculine identity at the time?

image For Document 2:

  • Analyze the rhetoric Scovell uses in her speech.
  • What particular issues, specific to Minnesota, did she tackle?

image For Document 3:

  • Discuss the organization of the state WCTU.
  • In the 2nd paragraph under "Suffrage" Hendrix lists the six states which had by then given women the vote. Why were these particular states the first to do so?

image For Document 4:

  • How did the work of the WCTU in Minnesota change during World War I? Why?
  • Why was the WCTU able to continue its work during the war, while the leaders of the national women's suffrage movement were forced to set aside their goals for the duration (and those who did not, like Alice Paul, were attacked)? In the first paragraph under "Red Cross" Hendrix mentions "housewives." Why did she use this term?

image For the Epilogue:

  • WCTU President Sizer is quoted in paragraph two. What did she mean by her statement from 1922?
Short Paper Assignments
  • How much of an effect do you think the Minnesota WCTU really had? Explain.
  • What is the value of primary sources in the study of women's and social history? What are the problems associated with using these sources?
  • How would women's families, in particular their husbands, react to their work? Would it be a help or a hindrance? What does that tell us about these women?
  • What effect do you think WCTU work had on the women's rights movement and women in general?

Group Projects, Role Play, Class Discussion

  • Discuss how the WCTU philosophy is still alive today.
  • Outline the evolution of the organization in Minnesota utilizing the documents.
  • Judging by what you have read in these documents, who was the best president for the Minnesota chapter? Why? Who is last on your list? Why?
  • Imagine that the WCTU existed today in your community and you are the newly elected president. Write a speech detailing your agenda, vision, strategies, etc.
  • Debate both sides of the issue of women's role in the temperance movement.

Term Paper Assignments

  • Locate presidential addresses from other state WCTUs from the same time period. Compare and contrast the focus, tactics, and strategies.
  • What role did industrialization and urbanization playing in both the motivation for forming the WCTU and the tactics adopted by WCTU activists? How did these developments both help and hurt the organization?
  • Examine the roles that nativism, class, and gender played in the motivation for the WCTU and show how they functioned.
  • Locate newspaper reports of WCTU activities in Minnesota. How was the organization covered? What does the coverage tell us about that community?

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