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WCTU: Membership, Interest Dwindling

June 5, 1995

DAYTON, Ohio (AP) _ Catherine Price is 92, but the flames of temperance still burn inside.

Even now, legs wrapped in a shawl, slippered feet propped up on a bed at the Catalpa Manor Nursing Center, Price rails against the evils of drink. She hasn’t lost the fervor that propelled her through a 30-year tenure as a Woman’s Christian Temperance Union chapter president.

But zeal alone won’t save the once-powerful international organization of church women who stormed saloons, crusaded for abstinence from spirits and led the movement that ushered in Prohibition.

The WCTU, once 400,000 members strong, is dying.

Fewer than 20,000 women still belong. And its membership isn’t getting any younger, said national President Rachel Kelly, 70. The average age is 55.

What’s more, fewer people seem to be interested in a life of temperance.

``I’m afraid it’ll not exist because there are so many people that want that one little drink to start on,″ Price said.

``And you know the temperance union won’t take that one little drink.″

Since it was founded in Cleveland in 1874, the WCTU has preached abstinence from liquor _ members must make a pledge _ and has dedicated itself to educating the public about the evils of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. The national WCTU now is based in Evanston, Ill.

In Ohio, the WCTU has about 800 members. But age is becoming a problem, said Frances Thompson, 70, Ohio WCTU president. In Ohio alone, 100 WCTU members died last year.

``Unless we get younger members, we cannot keep it going,″ said Mrs. Thompson, who lives just outside Lima. ``Too many of these elderly ladies are in convalescent homes. They just can’t handle the situation anymore.″

The WCTU has targeted church youth groups in hopes of recruiting younger members, but interest is not high. Many younger women are too busy with their jobs and families to get involved, she said.

``And a lot of the young ones have been brought up that alcohol and drugs are OK,″ she said.

The WCTU sprang from the Women’s Temperance Crusade of 1873, when Carry Nation and other women armed with Bibles marched into saloons, prayed, sang and urged barkeepers to stop selling liquor.

The organization also spawned other innovations.

The WCTU founded the first kindergarten, helped organize the first Parent-Teacher Association, and established foster homes, orphanages and homes for prostitutes. It also played a role in enacting child and adult labor laws.

And its legacy will live on, said Bob Anderson of the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors.

``Prohibition may be a failed concept, but temperance and abstention is not a failed concept,″ he said.

The United States has one of the highest rates of abstention in the world. Thirty percent of adult Americans don’t drink.

``Much of that is the influence of the WCTU and some of the various religions,″ said Anderson. ``I would personally hate to see it go out of existence.″

Said Mrs. Kelly: ``We’ll never know how many people the WCTU has been responsible for saving ... because they have not taken a drink.″

The effort to win younger members hasn’t been easy. At first, ``they laughed at us. We were just little, old ladies,″ Mrs. Kelly said.

Kimberly Jackson, 21, of Pittsburgh, a student at the University of Dayton, says she drinks only on occasion. But she said the WCTU is not for her _ the abstinence pledge is ``a little too restrictive for most people.″

But her fellow student, Dawn Harshman, 22, doesn’t drink and believes there is a decline in drinking among people her age.

``There are definitely people who do abstain,″ she said.

That’s just what Mrs. Kelly wants to hear.

``The theory of moderation that’s been taught for the last 50 years _ they know it isn’t working,″ she said. ``It’s wrong to teach people how to drink, how to use a deadly drug. Totally abstaining is the `in’ thing today.″

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