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The Canadian Woman's Christian Temperance Union

For the week of Monday January 2, 2006

On January 3, 1827, Letitia Youmans was born near Cobourg, Ontario. The 19th century was a time of rapid change and deep insecurity. The movement of people and jobs from farms to cities, coupled with an increasingly secular public life, caused uneasiness about the continued existence of the traditional family. Amidst this transformation Youmans campaigned against the social ills of her day.

Letitia Youmans (1827-1896)
© www.heroines.ca
Raised in the Methodist tradition and educated at Burlington Ladies’ Academy, Letitia Creighton worked as a teacher before marrying widower Arthur Youmans in 1850. She became stepmother to his eight children, and was involved in the community through Sunday school. In 1874, she attended the Chautauqua Assembly in the United States and was inspired by American activist Frances Willard to take a leading role in the temperance movement. The movement expressed concerns about changing sexual morality and the "destructive habits" of men which centred on tobacco, gambling and alcohol use. The latter often resulted in violence towards women and children.

Youmans started a local Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in Picton, Ontario, upon her return from Chautauqua and, in 1877, founded the Ontario provincial WCTU. Composed of local unions, the provincial WCTU was a grassroots movement, appealing mostly to middle-class, small-town women. Local unions aided their communities in many ways, sometimes providing the needy with clothes, bedding and food, other times sponsoring missionaries working with Aboriginal groups. They met regularly in local churches, emphasizing change through educational, philanthropic and religious initiatives. Much more political was the Dominion (Canadian) WCTU, founded by Youmans in 1885. Through the group, she encouraged women to vote municipally and to sit on local school boards. In 1896, the Dominion WCTU officially advocated federal suffrage for all adult women, while continuing its support of prohibition and education. 

Ontario WCTU Tapestry
© Textile Museum of Canada

Youmans died in 1896 before realizing the major goals of her group. However the WCTU, boasting 10,000 members at this point, continued to lobby for its many causes. By the end of the First World War, it had helped realize Dominion-wide prohibition. It lent its support to women’s suffrage in Canada, which was granted in the 1918 Women’s Franchise Act. Furthermore, the WCTU created homes for abandoned women and children; helped married women earn property and custody rights; advocated a form of sex education; and increased the role of women in the public forum. For these reasons, the founding of the Canadian Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was designated a National Historic Event.

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