The temperance movement had roots in Britain and the United States in the early 19th century, where reformers identified alcohol as the root of evil in society, engendering poverty, bad health, brutality, (especially towards women and children) and immorality. Temperance movements were mainly led by churches and encompassed all classes and all denominations.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was established in New Zealand in 1885 in response to a great social problem of the time, the “demon drink” that had migrated with colonial settlers. The Union’s primary aim was to eradicate harmful alcohol, but it also encompassed wider areas of concern. The WCTU was redefining a complete social and moral environment. It sought to promote wider social reform by influencing legislative activity, and its major campaign, therefore, centred on gaining the vote for women.
On 5 October 1885 women in Wanganui met to hear an address by the American feminist, Mary Leavitt. She had come to New Zealand on a lecture tour for the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, which had just been formed in the United States of America. At the conclusion of the meeting those present decided to form a branch in Wanganui. By February 1886 there were 15 branches throughout New Zealand. Membership required the signing of a pledge to “abstain from all intoxicating liquors”.
Members were never questioned about their practice of Christianity. At the time, adherence to Christianity was seen as a given, the norm. The national WCTU suffrage leader, Kate Sheppard, wrote “We are perfectly sure that if our Lord Jesus Christ were here he would not hinder one of His followers from engaging in temperance, or any other good work, because of an error in the theology”.
At its first annual convention in Wellington in 1886, the WCTU resolved to work for women’s suffrage. Kate Sheppard, who was to become the leading face of Women’s Suffrage, was appointed national superintendent of the franchise and legislation department of the WCTU. In 1891 she began editing a women’s page in the temperance newspaper, the Prohibitionist, to promote votes for women.
The Wanganui branch of the WCTU had been formed and led by Mrs A Dudley Ward, the President of the new national Union. Thirty- three working and fifteen honorary members were enrolled on 5 October 1885. The Wanganui branch demonstrated vigorous temperance activity, but a lesser degree of political agitation for other social reform, and minimal concern with women’s issues. Throughout the suffrage period the local WCTU seemed to react to directives from the national executive, rather than initiate activity at a local level.
The Wanganui branch disbanded a year later and formed itself into a “sisterhood” through which members thought they could better meet the requirements of their district. While the early Wanganui Branch of the WCTU was believed to have supported women’s franchise, after disbanding its main focus was still temperance activity.
Individualism was a feature of the movement in general, particularly in terms of the moral choice a vote provided when selecting a candidate to support. This decision took the form of scrutinising the moral standards of candidates, rather than their political views and allegiances. Women of the WCTU believed social change did not involve a transfer of power from one group to another, but came from the changed consciousness of a morally transformed individual. Such a viewpoint put less emphasis on the formal structure of the law, which may have influenced the tendency away from political agitation for other social reform.
In Wanganui agitation for legislation was absent except for the general directive that members conscientiously use their vote to support the candidate with the “highest principles and who would advance the best interests of the community”. The Wanganui branch re-formed years after it disbanded, in 1896, three years after women’s enfranchisement. Membership increased to reach a peak of forty-nine in 1901; numbers then started to decline.
The first Franchise Leagues, the organisations that drove the movement of votes for women, were formed in New Zealand’s main centres by the WCTU when it appeared that the 1892 Franchise Bill was in danger of being lost. In these organisations, WCTU leaders joined with non-temperance feminists in a WCTU-initiated group. The WCTU and the Leagues aimed to educate women to a sense of their responsibilities and obtain signatures for the petition to parliament.
In Wanganui, however, the League was not WCTU-initiated. Women present at the inaugural meeting of the Wanganui Franchise League in June 1893 merely confirmed “women’s right to electoral privileges and the capacity to judiciously use them”, as quoted in The Prohibitionist of 3 June 1893.