Women’s Suffrage and Temperance in Idaho

The fight for women’s suffrage was closely tied to the temperance movement. Many women in Idaho supported both temperance and women’s suffrage, and although some suffragettes like Abigail Scott Duniway worried that the association between the two would prompt greater opposition from men, the WCTU helped win the right to vote for women in Idaho in 1896.

In Idaho, like most states in the West, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union played an important role in the women’s suffrage movement. The WCTU advocated a variety of social reforms, such as prohibition of alcohol, for the purpose of creating a moral and clean society. Many Idaho women first became involved in the public sphere through participation in the WCTU, and later became suffragettes. The President of the Idaho Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Henrietta Skelton, encouraged local WCTU chapters in Idaho to incorporate women’s suffrage into their cause. The Idaho WCTU also helped push the territorial government to consider women’s suffrage. During Idaho’s Constitutional Convention in 1889, Henrietta Skelton gave a speech to the legislature requesting the following two clauses in the new state constitution: “No discrimination on account of sex shall be made; but citizens of both sexes, possessing the necessary qualifications, shall be equally eligible as electors;’ and “that manufacture, sale, or keeping of intoxicating liquors for use as a beverage is hereby prohibited.” For temperance activists in Idaho, women’s suffrage and prohibition were inseparable.

However, the connection of women’s suffrage to prohibition of alcohol by the WCTU created some problems. Due to this connection, liquor companies became some of the main opponents of female enfranchisement and some men viewed women’s suffrage in a negative light. When Henrietta Skelton argued for both suffrage and prohibition amendments in Idaho’s new state constitution, some suffragettes feared this would endanger the cause of women’s suffrage. One such suffragette was Abigail Scott Duniway. Abigail Scott Duniway had spent decades working for women’s suffrage in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho as a speaker and newspaperwoman, and previously spoke before Idaho’s legislature in 1887 in favor of women’s right to vote. In her autobiography, she recalled her reaction to the WCTU’s speech to the legislature: “I received a message from my Equal Suffrage co-workers in Boise, urging me to come to them at once. “The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is spoiling everything,” the letter said. “They have arranged for a hearing before the convention, in advance of ours, asking for a clause in the new Constitution to prohibit the liquor traffic. They won’t get it, of course, but they will prohibit us from getting a Woman Suffrage plank, if you don’t come!” Duniway gave a speech to the legislature right after Skelton in which she attacked the idea that women’s suffrage and prohibition were connected and instead argued for the adoption of an independent women’s suffrage clause. Idaho did not give women the right to vote in the new state constitution, but Skelton and Duniway’s speeches reveal some of the tension in the relationship between women’s suffrage and temperance.

Despite the misgivings of Abigail Scott Duniway and other suffragettes, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union remained an active part of the women’s suffrage movement in Idaho. The next president of the WCTU in Idaho, Rebecca Mitchell, convinced Lewis E. Workman, a Republican member of the state’s House of Representatives, to introduce another women’s suffrage bill to the legislature in 1893. Although that bill was not successful, the WCTU kept working with Idaho’s Equal Suffrage Association until women’s suffrage was successfully passed in 1896. The WCTU continued its social reform efforts with continued strength after women in Idaho won the right to vote. As public services and symbols of prohibition, they erected temperance water fountains, one of which still stands outside of Boise City Hall. In 1916, the WCTU achieved one of its main goals in Idaho when Governor Moses Alexander approved statewide prohibition.

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