WCTU - Our History

U.S.A. Beginnings

1873 - In many towns in Ohio and New York in the fall of 1873 women concerned about the destructive power of alcohol met in churches to pray and then marched to the saloons, entering them, singing, praying, and urging saloonkeepers to stop selling alcohol. These were the great women's temperance crusades of 1873-1874.

The women of Fredonia, New York are credited with being the first of the women's groups to visit the saloons, under the leadership of Mrs. Esther McNeil. Subsequently, on December 22, 1873, they were the first local organisation to adopt the name, Woman's Christian Temperance Union.

Hillsboro, Ohio is credited with being the birthplace of the Woman's Temperance Crusade. Dr. Dio Lewis gave a lecture on Temperance at the Hillsboro Music Hall on the evening of December 23, 1873. On the morning of December 24, 1873, under the leadership of Mrs. Eliza Thompson, daughter of a former governor and wife of a highly respected judge, seventy women arose from their knees and started from the Presbyterian church to the saloons.

"Walking two by two, the smaller ones in the front and the taller coming after, they sang more or less confidently, 'Give to the Winds Thy Fears,' that heartening reassurance of Divine protection now known as the Crusade Hymn.

Every day they visited the saloons and the drug stores where liquor was sold. They prayed on sawdust floors or, being denied entrance, knelt on snowy pavements before the doorways, until almost all the sellers capitulated." - Where Prayer and Purpose Meet by Helen E. Tyler -

In 50 days they had swept the liquor traffic out of 250 towns and villages.


1874 - In the summer of 1874 at Chautauqua, a discussion was held by the women. They decided to hold a national convention that Fall in Cleveland and the WCTU was formed. Mrs. Annie Wittenmyer was elected president; Miss Frances E. Willard, corresponding secretrary; Mrs. Mary Johnson, recording secretary; and Mrs. Mary Ingham, treasurer.

Water fountains were erected in the downtown areas of cities.

The organisation grew to 1,000 local unions in 23 US states with over 26,000 members

1875 Concern was expressed about the use of tobacco in addition to alcohol

1877 - A pledge of total abstinence from alcohol was adopted as the basis for WCTU membership. (It remains the same today.)

1879 - Frances Willard became president of the WCTU and turned to organising political means in addition to moral persuasion to achieve total abstinence.

Francis Willard encouraged women to learn to speak in public, be involved in every social issue needing a woman's perspective, and to own their own businesses.

1883 - World WCTU established

1885 - WCTU missionary Mary Greenleaf Clement Leavitt went on a tour of New Zealand and helped establish WCTU branches there. Operating as a freelancer, Leavitt helped establish WCTU branches in the Hawaiian Islands, Australia, Madagascar, India, China, Madeira, Mauritius, Ceylon, Siam, the Straits Settlements, Korea, Japan and Europe.

1920 - The 19th Amendment gave the vote to women. WCTU members had actively campaigned for this right.

1996 - Sarah F. Ward, 13th National President. The first website was begun in 1997. She authored the history for the 125th year: The White Ribbon Story: 125 Years of Service to Humanity. A new initiative to involve younger women as Project Managers was promoted.

1999 - Celebration of the 125th anniversary of the WCTU was observed.

Australian History

1882 - WCTU commenced operation in New South Wales on Monday, 22 August, 1882 in the Temperance Hall in Pitt Street, Sydney. The meeting was hosted by Mr Eli Johnson, a visiting American temperance lecturer.

1884 - Other local Unions were started in the suburbs of Sydney as well as in country areas of New South Wales.

1884 - Mary Clement Leavitt was sent out as a white ribbon missionary from the U.S.A. to Australia. During her visit, she formed five branches in Queensland, one in New South Wales, one in South Australia and three in Tasmania.

1885 - The first branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in Tasmania was formed in Hobart, but was very short lived.

1885 - The first local Union in Queensland was formed in Brisbane in September, inspired by the visit of Mary Leavitt. Mrs W. Steele was elected first president.

1885 - The first local Union was established in Victoria and the movement grew rapidly. The Victorian Union was founded largely due to the efforts of Marie Kirk and the Rev. Philip Moses who arranged the first Organising Conference in 1887.

1886 - The Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Queensland was formed at the first Colonial convention.

1886 - Influenced by the visit of the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union missionary Mary Leavitt, three new branches were established in Tasmania.

1886 - The WCTU in South Australia was started in Adelaide with 57 members on the afternoon on Thursday April 8th, in the rooms of the Y.M.C.A., Gawler Place, by Mrs Mary Clement Leavitt of America. An adjourned meeting was held in the same place on April 9th,and at these two meetings it was decided to form a local union, and the rules and plan of work, outlined by Mrs Leavitt, who presided, were adopted. Mrs Leavitt presided at a further meeting on Monday April 12th,when officers were elected as follows: Local President - Mrs W.E. Rice; local secretary - Miss Papualin [who was also secretary of the Y.W.C.A.]; local treasurer - Mrs Matthew Goode.

1887 - The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Victoria was founded when the 12 existing local branches in Melbourne suburbs and regional Victoria joined together to form a Colonial Union.

1889 - The movement was reinvigorated by visits from the American Union’s second world missionary, Jessie Ackerman. She particularly ensured that women's suffrage was high on the agenda in the early activities of the Australian Union.

1889 - The first Colonial Convention of the WCTU of South Australia was organised by Miss Jessie Ackerman, with a membership of 1112 and 23 local unions. Elizabeth Webb Nicholls was its first state president.

1890 - A Colonial Union, to be known as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of New South Wales, was formed.

1891 - The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) of Western Australia was founded, inspired by the visit of Jessie Ackerman. The first local Union In Western Australia was formed in York, with another five soon following. By August 1891, a Colonial Union with 155 members had been established.

1891 - Tasmanian State Union formed.


1891 - The Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Australasia (later renamed the National Women's Christian Temperance Union of Australia) was formed on the 25th May, 1891 at a meeting held in Melbourne for the purpose of federating the existing Colonial Unions. This was probably the first interstate gathering of women’s organisations held in Australia and the Union was the first national women's organization in the country.

1894 - There were 14 local Unions in Tasmania with a membership of 280. In the 1890s the Hobart Branch worked with the Chinese community and prisoners and advocated broad ranging social and political reforms including women’s suffrage. During World War I they fought for early closing and distributed literature on venereal disease. They also fought for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act.

1965 - The WCTU of the Australian Capital Territory was incorporated into the New South Wales Union.

Networking has been important part of our organisation. WCTU was an original member, and remains a member, of the National Council of Women throughout Australia as well as being involved with other organisations.

2008 - The WCTU of New South Wales changed direction and formed the WCTU Foundation to provide funding for initiatives in drug and alcohol education and work.

2009 - National Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Australia Ltd changed its name to WCTU Australia Ltd and took the name WOW Unlimited for use in Drug Education, Facebook and Youth Group activities.

2013 - The 39th World WCTU Convention was held in Glenelg, South Australia from May 3 - 8. Over 180 members from more than 20 countries met to share reports, discuss business, share fellowship and receive inspiration to share the vision of a drug-free world.