Section 6: Fighting Domestic Violence, Learning to Mobilize

In the 1870s, many women theorized that domestic violence would be greatly reduced if alcohol was eliminated from society. Inspired by evangelist Dwight L. Moody’s preaching against alcohol, women in the Midwest organized the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), operating under the motto “Home Protection.” The movement quickly spread across the nation, and WCTU became the largest female association in the United States. 

Frances Willard (1839-1898), president of the national WCTU, visited Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1883 and, during her visit, organized several chapters. The Tennessee WCTU quickly developed an ambitious legislative agenda, and members became prolific letter writers in support of that agenda. For instance, when the Tennessee General Assembly lowered the age of consent to 10 years, the WCTU pushed back, and more than any other women’s organization, it was in the best position to argue for Prohibition. With these efforts, WCTU members became aware of their ability to successfully mobilize and effectively implement change; and while such advocacy became the model of female-led organizations, woman suffrage was far more controversial, impeded by lingering ideals of female submission, reinforced at social, religious, and legal levels.

Abby Crawford Milton (1881-1991), a leader in the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Movement and Knoxville’s Temperance Movement, among other social and civic causes, preserved this photograph. It shows a contingent of Black women parading down Gay Street in support of Prohibition. The parade was held on March 11, 1907, the day Knoxville went “dry” by local option.

Despite this support, The National Advocate reported that “every precinct in [Knoxville] went dry except the two Negro precincts. The Baptist Reflector … advocates that no Negro be allowed to vote in any local option election in the State. Liquor has been at the bottom of much of the trouble in the South in recent years between whites and Blacks.”

Black Temperance workers parading down Gay Street, photograph, March 11, 1907; courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library