The Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Essay: Breaking into the Temperance Movement, 1852-1853

On 20 and 21 April 1852 Elizabeth Cady Stanton (ECS) chaired the founding meeting of the Women's New York State Temperance Society in Rochester, New York. A month later Susan B. Anthony (SBA) was appointed one of the society's agents. The documents in this chapter record this first collaboration between ECS and SBA, which lasted just over a year.
The temperance movement sought to control the sale of liquor, reform the drunkard, and protect family members from the consequences of alcoholic abuse. Although the movement in New York was heavily dominated by ministers, it had by 1852 taken a political turn. The activist men petitioned the legislature to follow the example of the State of Maine and outlaw the manufacture and sale of liquor. After several years of campaigns and elections, the New York legislature passed this so-called Maine Law in 1854, though the governor promptly vetoed the bill.
Before 1852, women in the movement were assigned roles primarily as moral instructors, with little public activity or responsibility, but they were taking independent steps. ECS had contributed her mite to the movement by writing for a women's temperance newspaper in Seneca Falls. Her neighbor Amelia Bloomer published the Lily, in support of women's activism against liquor, and ECS contributed a series of articles on temperance in 1849. She returned to the topic numerous times thereafter. In her turn, SBA had joined a local union of the Daughters of Temperance in 1848, while she taught school at Canajoharie. Affiliated with the much larger Sons of Temperance, the Daughters organized as a mutual benefit and moral reform society, whose members discouraged all use of alcohol in their families and communities. Beginning in 1851 the Daughters showed signs of rejecting the separateness of their contributions to the reform movement. Most notably they drew up and circulated their own petitions to the state legislature demanding that New York adopt the Maine Law.
This was a turning point. The women insisted that because the proposed legislation met their needs too, they had an obligation to enter the political arena. As the texts in this chapter reveal, it was also the start of new conflicts. The New York State Temperance Society, the largest of the men's organizations, objected strenuously to this unfeminine behavior, as did many ministers in towns where women tried to form societies. By the simple act of trying to join men in their crusade, women had raised questions about the rights of women to speak for themselves, organize, and develop their own leadership. Smaller groups of men, like the Carson League, which published a newspaper of the same name, encouraged women to take this new direction. The Women's New York State Temperance Society met with tremendous success among women looking for ways to participate in this reform, but it ran headlong into conflict with a strong element of the male leadership.
That women disagreed among themselves is also revealed in the documents. ECS, SBA, and others from the woman's rights movement, such as Clarina Nichols, brought to the temperance movement their perception that the rights of women were not equal, that state laws imposed unjust disabilities on women. A much larger group of women perceived that the abuse of alcohol in families posed special problems for women that highlighted their lack of legal remedies. Because married women and mothers lacked rights to their homes, wages, and custody of their children, they had little choice but to keep their families together no matter what the cost. To ECS it made perfect sense for the women's temperance movement to ask that drunkenness be grounds for divorce, thus allowing wives and mothers legal protection to leave. To others it made better sense to change the laws regarding a married woman's rights to property and wages, thus allowing them a chance to support their troubled families without breaking them apart.
The Women's New York State Temperance Society celebrated its second anniversary in 1854 and may have survived longer, but by then ECS and SBA had left the organization. At the annual meeting in June 1853, members took issue with the goal of reforming divorce laws, in effect rejecting the program favored by ECS and SBA. A majority of the members also wanted to keep the requirement that officers of the society be women. ECS and SBA sided with woman's rights activists, who argued that it was inconsistent to demand equality in society and at the same time, restrict men's rights in the temperance movement.