Researching Your Female Ancestor: Women in the WCTU

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena shows how you can research your female ancestor by searching old newspapers for articles about the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

Having trouble learning about the lives of your female ancestors? A good place to find their stories is an online collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. Go beyond the obvious articles (birth notices, wedding announcements, obituaries) to find stories about the lives they led, causes they cared about, events they participated in, and groups they supported.

For example, what groups did 19th century women belong to? Their memberships most likely included organizations whose missions they were passionate about. One group that consisted of women who disavowed alcohol was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1873.

photo of WCTU members of the New Hampshire chapter, 1888

Photo: WCTU members of the New Hampshire chapter, 1888. Credit: Keene Public Library; Historical Society of Cheshire County.

According to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union website, the group:

was organized by women who were concerned about the destructive power of alcohol and the problems it was causing their families and society.

Member activities included trying to convince saloon owners to voluntarily close their doors. According to their website, the WCTU is today “the oldest voluntary, non-sectarian woman’s organization in continuous existence in the world.”*

Illustration: Woman’s Christian Temperance Union logo, scanned from a 1920 WCTU temperance flyer

Illustration: Woman’s Christian Temperance Union logo, scanned from a 1920 WCTU temperance flyer. Credit: WCTU; Wikimedia Commons.

Their most well-known leader was their second national president, Frances E. Willard, who led the organization for 19 years (1879-1898). She joined the WCTU shortly after its founding and during her tenure promoted other causes that impacted women such as suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and the eight hour work day.**

photo of Frances E. Willard, taken sometime before 1898

Photo: Frances E. Willard, taken sometime before 1898. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Frances Willard was famous in her day, well-known to all, and so looked up to that a statue in her likeness was presented to Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol by Illinois in 1905. Hers was the first likeness of a woman displayed in the Hall.

obituary for Frances E. Willard, Pawtucket Times newspaper article 18 February 1898

Pawtucket Times (Pawtucket, Rhode Island), 18 February 1898, page 9

The Frances Willard House and Museum in Evanston, Illinois, includes a library and archive with items of interest to genealogists. You can learn more by visiting their website.

The 19th and 20th century WCTU did more than just try to convince saloon owners to stop selling alcohol and men to stop drinking. Some of their efforts are still visible today.

Drinking Fountains

One of the first orders of business for the WCTU was to encourage the installation of drinking fountains in cities across the United States. It was thought that these fountains would provide clean water for everyone and give men a place to get a drink of water – thus avoiding the local saloon.

article about the WCTU installing drinking fountains, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 20 June 1941

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 20 June 1941, page 3

Some of these fountains still exist. A list of currently known fountains is found on the WCTU website.


As mentioned previously, temperance wasn’t the only issue the WCTU was passionate about. The WCTU lent their voices to other social ills they believed victimized women. They joined with other Protestant women to speak against the Mormon practice of polygamy. WCTU’s leader Frances Willard even wrote the introduction to the anti-polygamy tome The Women of Mormonism; or The Story of Polygamy as Told by the Victims Themselves by Jennie Anderson Froiseth (1882). It’s clear what the WCTU leader thought about this “twin relic of barbarism” when she writes:

surely it is time that the Christian women of this nation arouse themselves to organized action against this sum of all curses…***

Although the Mormon Church’s sanctioning of the practice of polygamy ended in 1890, the WCTU was still speaking against polygamy in the early 20th century. This 1906 Massachusetts newspaper article reports on a meeting of the WCTU:

As a result of one of the most startling anti-Mormon addresses ever heard in Boston, the delegates to the World’s convention of the W.C.T.U., assembled in Tremont Temple yesterday afternoon, unanimously passed a resolution placing that body on record to employ every means in its power to force the adoption of an anti-polygamy amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

article about the WCTU and the Sixteenth Amendment, Boston Journal newspaper article 20 October 1906

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 October 1906, page 1

Was Your Ancestor a Teetotaler?

Your 19th and early 20th century Christian female ancestors may have taken up the cause of prohibition. Their devotion to this cause may have included membership in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union – but how do you learn more? The first place to look is their local newspapers. Newspapers listed WCTU events, and members elected to offices and committees – reports in which you may find your ancestors’ names. In some cases, their obituaries may also include mention of their membership in the WCTU, such as this example of Martha Sprague’s obituary in a 1916 New York newspaper.

obituary for Martha Sprague, Watertown Daily Times newspaper article 30 December 1916

Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York), 30 December 1916, page 5

Genealogy Tip: Don’t forget to search for your married female ancestor by her husband’s name, such as in the above example, where Martha Sprague is identified in the headline as “Mrs. C. H. Sprague” (her husband was Charles H. Sprague).

In this article from an 1874 Indiana newspaper, several different WCTU group members are mentioned.

article about members and meetings of the WCTU, Indianapolis Sentinel newspaper article 31 October 1874

Indianapolis Sentinel (Indianapolis, Indiana), 31 October 1874, page 3

Other Resources

A search on ArchiveGrid, an archival collection catalog, can also help you track down your female ancestors who belonged to the WCTU. Use the keyword WCTU to find relevant collections. To get the most of your search, consult their How to Search page.

Another good genealogy resource is community cookbooks. The WCTU used cookbooks to raise funds for their activities, as did other women’s organizations. You can find these cookbooks on digitized book websites like Google Books, and in library and archive collections.

The WCTU Today

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is still in existence and continues to be dedicated to issues that affect families, such as substance abuse. You can learn more at the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union website. Their website also includes links to some affiliate chapters. In the case of the California chapter, an archive page contains images and a history of the WCTU in Southern California.

Was your ancestor a member of the WCTU? Add to her life story by documenting her membership and the events she was a part of, as preserved in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.


* The Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Accessed 16 June 2015.
** Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Frances Willard. Accessed 18 June 2015.
*** Froiseth, Jennie A. The Women of Mormonism, Or, the Story of Polygamy As Told by the Victims Themselves. Chicago: Bryan Bros. Pub. Co, 1883. Available on Google Books.p. xviii. FA902D0%40W.

Related Women’s Genealogy Articles:

The Polygamist’s Wife: The Story of My Favorite Ancestor Mary Ann

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about her favorite ancestor Mary Ann, a Mormon who married a polygamist when she was 15 years old, in 1868.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? Maybe it’s that one ancestor you love to research because of all the great documents you find about his or her life. Or perhaps it’s a more recent ancestor that was alive when you were a child.

old photographs from the author's collection

Old photographs from the author’s collection

When someone asks me about my favorite ancestor it’s hard for me to choose just one. But there is one ancestor that is responsible for me loving family history as a child and my eventual career as a genealogist.

My maternal grandmother’s paternal grandmother, Mary Ann Smith McNeil, has always been important to me. My grandmother told me stories of her grandmother’s life, a life story that rivals any Hollywood movie. Maybe that’s why my grandmother spent time telling me about Mary Ann. Perhaps my grandmother knew that it would ultimately plant a seed that would continue to grow within me and lead me on a genealogical journey.

Let me tell you a little about Mary Ann’s life. She was born on 2 July 1853 in Newton Heath, England, to William Smith and Mary Hibbert Smith. At the age of two years she sailed to America along with her family and other English Mormon converts. When Mary Ann was nine years old they migrated across the United States to Utah. She was married at age 15 years to a polygamist who was 45 years old. At the age of 16 she became a mother.

Polygamy is a controversial subject. My grandmother would tell me about Mary Ann’s life as a polygamist’s wife and suffice it to say it was difficult. The stories of this life (please remember that the Mormon Church ceased practicing polygamy in 1890) captivated me as I thought about what it must have been like to have been so young and married.

But this isn’t a story about polygamy. That’s an article for another time. This is the story of a woman who was just an everyday ancestor. Just like most of your female ancestors, Mary Ann was an everyday person; some would label her “just a housewife.” But she left a great paper trail.

That paper trail starts with the obvious records: marriage records, a death certificate, and birth certificates for children. Like many women, Mary Ann’s work for her church was important, and so her name is found in church histories and records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ female auxiliary, the Relief Society.

But here’s the great thing about living in the modern age of Genealogy 2.0. Digitized genealogy records are always being added online. This means continued, reasonably exhaustive Internet searching is crucial in order to find the latest information available about your ancestor.

One of the family stories I had heard was that during World War II, Mary Ann appeared in newspaper articles touting the large number of descendants she had serving in the war. A biography compiled by her great-grandson Herbert A. Hancock describes newspaper articles that appeared nationwide reporting on her 5 grandsons and 17 great-grandsons serving in the war (later the number of her descendants serving in the military would grow to a total of 25). These newspaper articles about her family’s patriotism started appearing around the celebration of her 90th birthday and were picked up by a number of newspapers nationwide proclaiming her family’s “great contribution to the cause of freedom.”(Legacy of Faith, compiled by Herbert A. Hancock, pg. 364.)

I was always curious about these old newspaper articles. Prior to digitized newspapers being made available online, it was very difficult to find them. However, a search today on GenealogyBank shows some of these articles, one of which appeared in a newspaper not too far from where I, her great-great granddaughter, live.

Nonagenarian 'Ancestor," San Diego Union newspaper article 4 June 1944

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 4 June 1944, page 31

Sometimes it’s the human interest stories that get our seemingly everyday ancestor written up in the newspaper. GenealogyBank’s search engine allows us to search for ancestors whether they are mentioned in a hometown newspaper or in several papers around the country. These articles are something I would miss if I limited my search to where Mary Ann lived in Arizona. Her life is a great reminder that ordinary people, including housewives, had stories written about them and that these stories can provide us wonderfully rich information about our families.

Not too bad for a woman who was “just a housewife.”