Just don't call them little old ladies

August 12, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

FREDERICK -- Images of Carry Nation persist, even after 90-plus years. But the women -- not to mention the men -- behind the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union are far less hostile these days in their decades-old battle against alcohol.

"We are not a group of hatchet-swinging little old ladies, as we were so often pictured," declared Rachel B. Kelly, president of the WCTU, which claims nearly 30,000 members in the U.S. and opened its annual convention here yesterday.

About 400 delegates and visitors from across the country are attending the historic temperance group's 120th convention at the Holiday Inn in Frederick. Their goal -- amid speeches, prayers and hymns -- is to set the organization's course for the next year and work on its image.

"A lot of people think we're a bunch of old ladies," said Beatrice Kruhm, 75, a Gaithersburg member attending the convention, which runs through Sunday. "We're very much a Christian organization. We want to uphold Christ in home and in family life."

The flamboyant Mrs. Nation's saloon-bashing tactics of 1900 notwithstanding, the WCTU works behind the scenes to curtail alcohol use, its leaders say.

"We prefer to do things quietly -- and get things done," Mrs. Kelly said. "We don't go around and pound our Bibles and scream and yell. We don't go out and seek publicity."

The WCTU's members -- 5,000 of whom are men -- still pledge abstinence from alcohol and continue WCTU's campaign against liquor and tobacco, largely through education these days.

Exemplifying the quiet approach, Mrs. Kruhm pointed out the Montgomery County chapter's letter-writing campaign last year that helped defeat a referendum to allow businesses to sell alcoholic beverages in the booming, north-county town of Damascus.

"We kept Damascus dry," she said, proudly.

This is a far cry from the indelible images Mrs. Nation and a few other WCTU women have left on the pages of American history books since the group was founded in 1874 -- actually, decades after the temperance movement began in this country.

When Mrs. Nation's diatribes against alcohol consumption were ignored by her fellow Kansas citizens, she pursued direct action. With bricks and hatchets, Mrs. Nation and others entered saloons and destroyed liquor bottles, bar furniture and risque wall hangings.

Their work gained notoriety for the WCTU, which, however, eventually rejected Mrs. Nation's radical tactics.

Mrs. Kelly -- in an address last night -- urged members to keep writing letters, making phone calls and lobbying lawmakers when "an alcohol bills comes up in your state legislature."

"That takes effort, but it will take much effort to keep our government from falling apart, from keeping our families from disintegrating, and for the future of our nation," she said.

Alcohol isn't the only thing the group is battling these days. For one thing, it's wrestling with ways of overcoming a $140,000 budget deficit.

Perhaps its biggest single fight, though, is declining membership. The group -- which at its peak in the 1920s and 1930s boasted 1.5 million members in the U.S. -- estimates it's losing about 2,000 members a year.

"Our membership is decreasing all the time," Mrs. Kelly said. "It's been decreasing because older people are dying off, and we did not maintain clubs like we should have."

Fearful that its organization might cease to exist by 2000, the WCTU formed a committee last year to propose alternatives for survival. Among the recommendations are conducting membership drives and finding a national service project to focus on each year.

"We're looking for national projects to revitalize the spirit of the organization," Michael C. Vitucci, a WCTU spokesman, said. "A lot of times our work tends to be insular. We want to let people know that we are still around."

Alcohol, tobacco, drugs and a host of social ills, including child abuse, will be topics for discussion before the convention ends Sunday. A youth affiliate is promoting sexual abstinence by teens and has gained recent national publicity.

"Traffic fatalities and injuries, teen-age addiction, crimes, child and spouse abuse, other accidental deaths and even divorce rates, all related to alcoholic beverages, are spiraling all across the nation and they cannot be ignored," Mrs. Kelly said.

Convention workshops cover a range of topics, from dealing positively with teen-agers to public relations to videos available for schools and churches. Members will hear speeches and reports from various states and attend dry receptions.

June Hoffman and Miriam Newman are among the Maryland members attending the convention. Both women belong to the Smithsburg chapter, the "smallest but the most active" in Washington County, they said.

"We do work year round," said Mrs. Hoffman, 69, a senior aide at a local senior center. "We got to the Valley Mall [in Hagerstown] and set up literature. We're looking for literature now to stop people from selling alcohol in bowling alleys."

Mrs. Newman, 76, joined the organization in 1985.

"Oh, I hate drink," she said, explaining her membership. "My parents were Mennonites, and they didn't drink either. I think it's a good organization and they do a lot of good work."

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