The WCTU and WWI

“A Century of Remembering: The Great War” is the theme of Illinois Archives Month (October) 2017. World War I affected every aspect of American society, and is documented in many different ways in archival repositories across the state.  The Frances Willard Memorial Library and Archives offers this brief overview of the role played by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. … Read more

How They Spent Their Summer Vacations

Great minds think alike, it’s said, and that statement was well illustrated last week in the Willard Archives, when faculty members from three different institutions of higher learning descended on the Archives at the same time. The three professors were doing end-of-summer research on very different projects, but, as is so often the case in … Read more

Willard Archives Research Presented at GHI Conference

In late April, 2016, the German Historical Institute (GHI) in Washington D.C. hosted a conference entitled Forging Bonds Across Borders: Mobilizing for Women’s Rights and Social Justice in the 19th Century Transatlantic World. Co-sponsored by the University of Maryland at College Park and the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, the conference brought scholars from around … Read more

Humor in the Archives: Frank’s Facial Hair

When we work in an archive, it is easy to feel like we are treading on hallowed ground—constantly solemn, serious, and afraid to take anything for granted. But during a recent research trip to the Willard Archives, I discovered a surprisingly bizarre, and hilarious, object. This photograph, pasted into the teenage Mary Willard’s unpublished diary … Read more

Research Notes: The Age of Consent and the WCTU

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is best known for its efforts to rid the world of alcohol. But one of its most successful campaigns – one that shapes laws in every state to this day – focused not on “demon rum” but on sex, specifically, the age of consent to sexual intercourse. While conducting research for my dissertation, titled “Purifying the World: Americans and International Sexual Reform,” I visited the Frances E. Willard Memorial Library and Archives to find documents that could help me shed light on the WCTU’s activism to raise the age of consent in the United States and India. In the late 1800s, the age of consent in both countries was set by interpretations of British Common Law, placing it at an age that may seem shockingly low to a modern reader: it was 10-12 years of age in most states in the U.S. (though as low as 7 in Delaware), and 10 in India.

Age of Consent Laws, Willard Archives
Fig. 1, “‘Age of Consent’ Laws in Various States,” Social Morality Folder, Frances Willard Memorial Library and Archives, Evanston, IL.

 Sources at the Willard Archives show that the WCTU provided key financial, organizational, and ideological support for the campaign to raise the age of consent. For instance, the WCTU printed and distributed tens of thousands of leaflets – preserved in the Willard Archives – that detailed the age of consent across the U.S. (Fig. 1), since many WCTU women believed that educating people about the current state of laws was essential to raising the age of consent.

 In addition to their domestic efforts, American WCTU women saw themselves as part of a sisterhood that extended beyond national boundaries. As part of the WCTU’s missionary impulse, it supported the work of a number of female physicians working abroad. For example, at the Willard Archives I discovered an Indian periodical (Fig. 2) with an article by Dr. Emily Brainerd Ryder. Dr. Ryder was an American medical missionary to India, who wrote numerous books and articles that publicized the crusade to raise the age of consent in India for an English-speaking audience. The article provides crucial insight into the development of Dr. Ryder’s thought, which was influential in shaping the international conversation about the age of consent. While firm in her belief that the U.S. was at the pinnacle of civilization, Dr. Ryder nonetheless refuted the then common assumption that women from India reached sexual maturity earlier than white Euro-American women as a result of their racial characteristics and India’s tropical climate. Instead, she argued that a lack of women’s education was to blame for what she perceived to be India’s sexual backwardness. 

Fig. 2, Emily Brainerd Ryder, “Education of the Women of India,” The Temperance and Social Purity Advocate (Bombay, India) October, 1889, India Box, “Temperance and Social Purity Advocate” Folder, Frances Willard Memorial Library and Archives, Evanston, IL.
Fig. 2, Emily Brainerd Ryder, “Education of the Women of India,” The Temperance and Social Purity Advocate (Bombay, India) October, 1889, India Box, “Temperance and Social Purity Advocate” Folder, Frances Willard Memorial Library and Archives, Evanston, IL.

The WCTU’s campaign to raise the age of consent remains one of its most powerful and lasting legacies. By 1920, every state in the union, with the exception of Georgia, had raised the age of consent to 16 or 18 years of age. WCTU women’s activities also contributed to the Government of India’s decision to raise the age of consent in 1891. The collections at the Frances E. Willard Memorial Library and Archives illuminate this significant moment in the history of women’s social and political activism. 

 

-Eva Payne is a Doctoral Candidate in the American Studies Program at Harvard University
Contact: epayne[ATsymbol]fas[DOT]harvard[DOT]edu

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