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Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Battles Booze, Declining Membership

October 10, 1991

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) _ In the state where prohibition was born, a group of women that sparked and sustained the movement is still meeting each month - 58 years after the taps started flowing again in Maine and across the nation.

But the group acknowledges it no longer wields the clout it did back when Prohibition - the Maine Law - forced drinkers to smuggle booze in hollow canes, oil cans, tin ″books″ and empty porcelain eggs.

″We’re still alive and kicking, although we’re not kicking as strongly as we once were,″ said Mae Billingslea, secretary of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

The Maine WCTU, formed in 1873 and committed to abstinence from alcohol, kicks off its annual state convention Friday in Portland with a sense of urgency amid hopes of reversing its long membership decline.

The group’s influence over legislation has dipped to the point where the chief lobbyist for the Maine Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association expressed surprise when told that the WCTU remained active.

″I didn’t know they were still meeting,″ said Ken MacLeod, who served as Senate president before starting a lobbying firm.

Across the nation, the organization says, it’s ranks have dropped below 40,000 from a peak of 500,000 in the 1940s.

In Maine, the union could do little more than watch and scowl as the number of ″dry″ towns declined, wine sales were extended to supermarkets and the state opened a discount liquor store on the Maine Turnpike to compete with New Hampshire’s cut-rate prices.

Julia Beaumier, president of the Portland chapter, said membership has declined because younger women aren’t interested in taking a vow of abstinence from ″wine, beer and hard cider.″

Meanwhile, organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which promote responsible drinking instead of abstinence, have flourished at the expense of groups like the WCTU, which take an all-or-nothing approach to temperance.

″It was really a great organization in its day. I think people really ignore us now,″ Beaumier said. ″In this day and age, we need to be working together in the same mind: Total abstinence and Christian values.″

In Portland, the women and men, called honorary members, meet once a month in the home that once belonged to Neal Dow, an entrepreneur, former mayor and Union general who became known as the Father of Prohibition.

Dow led the push as Maine became the first state to adopt a prohibition law in 1851 - years before the national prohibition was enacted in 1918.

At Dow’s mansion, donated to the group as its statewide headquarters in the late 1960s, each WCTU meeting begins with prayers, pledges of allegiance and oaths of abstinence.

The group sends out literature, lobbies the Legislature and occasionally gives presentations at schools. But the women aren’t as active as they used to be. In Portland, the youngest member is 43, and most are retired.

Nevertheless, Rep. Mark Lawrence, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Legal Affairs Committee, said the group has proven effective with the combined weight of other groups like the Maine Christian Civic League and MADD.

Betty Stevens, director of the Portland WCTU’s volunteer legislative lobby, said the group’s main concerns are alcohol, drugs, pornography, homosexuality and gambling.

Last year, the WCTU aligned with the Christian Civic League to successfully thwart a gay-rights bill. The WCTU has fought a bill to allow sex education in Maine schools for a decade.

Still, alcohol remains the group’s bread and butter.

Rachel Kelly, the WCTU’s national president in Illinois, contends the alcohol industry is the ″parasite of this country.″

Members say their message is drowned out by the huge sums that brewers, vintners and distillers spend on advertising.

Kelly remains hopeful that changing attitudes across the country will revive a group that in its heyday represented an influential political force.

″We call it the new temperance movement. I tell people that if we lose it this time, then we’ve lost it for good,″ she said.

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