The Women's Christian Temperance Union was crucial in introducing women to political life. In the 1800s women's public role was largely restricted to churches and charities. Under the leadership of Frances Willard, the WCTU was successful in making political organisation an essential means of achieving religious and moral goals. The WCTU's motto 'For God, Home and Humanity' dissolved the distinction between public and domestic life. The organisation was thus able to draw on the numerical and organisational strength of Protestant congregations. It is not coincidental that the WCTU was most prominent in Australia and the USA, societies where Catholicism was a minority religion and with strong traditions of evangelical Protestantism.
In recent decades the WCTU has been 'rediscovered' by historians, and its success on behalf of women's causes given due recognition. However it is also recognised that, although the WCTU was a distinctly feminist organisation, it struggled to transcend its home and family focus and develop policies relevant to women in paid work or living in more complex social situations.
Early hotel closing, the WCTU's major temperance achievement, had a profound effect on Australian social and political life for much of the twentieth century. According to a survey commissioned during the 1950s by the Australian Hotels Association, a majority of NSW women were effectively teetotal, while only a small minority risked their reputations by drinking in public. However early closing also hardened the social divisions between men and women, divorcing public drinking from food, women, entertainment and other 'civilising' influences. It also produced a flourishing black market in liquor and widespread corruption of police and other officials.
However the WCTU can point to the fact that, after a few decades of liberal licensing laws, excessive drinking and its consequences are again a political and social issue. Like gambling it remains an intractable issue, although a less specifically feminist one than in earlier times.
The Powerhouse Museum holds a large collection of brewing and hotel artefacts. Given that the history of these industries has been substantially shaped by the licensing laws, it is appropriate that the Museum also holds a collection documenting the major NSW temperance organisation. In addition, the WCTU collection is a valuable record of a major voluntary organisation and its media of communication, notably its outstanding collection of banners.
Charles Pickett, Curator, 2008