Annie Wittenmyer, an experienced wartime fund-raiser and administrator, was elected president at the WCTU’s founding in 1874. During her five-year tenure the WCTU developed a network of more than 1,000 local affiliates and began publishing the journal Our Union. Dissension, however, arose as a segment of the WCTU led by Frances Willard called for the addition of suffrage to the group’s platform enjoining abstinence from alcohol. In 1879 Wittenmyer, who opposed such a move, was replaced by Willard.
For the next two decades Willard led the temperance movement as the WCTU became one of the largest and most influential women’s groups of the 19th century. She expanded the organization’s platform to include such issues as labour laws and prison reform, and in 1891 she became president of the World WCTU (founded 1883). The WCTU also campaigned for women’s right to vote, though its support posed problems for suffragists as the alcohol industry became a powerful opponent of the movement.
With Willard’s death in 1898, the WCTU began to distance itself from feminist groups, instead focusing primarily on prohibition. Though its membership steadily declined following the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition) in 1919, the WCTU continued to operate through the 20th century. Opposed to the use of tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs, it ran a publishing house and was active in schools.