Portsmouth women were active in promoting temperance. There were men in the movement, but much of the work was done by women who had witnessed the evils of alcoholism in their own family. Among the Portsmouth women in leadership roles were Phebe A. Hathaway who worked on the state level and Eunice Greene who organized in our community. ( Eunice’s work locally will be the topic of another blog.)

Phebe A. Hathaway was born on April 14, 1822 in New York. Miss Hathaway spent some time in Portsmouth. The 1870 census lists her as a governess (teacher next to it) residing in Portsmouth in the household of Joseph Macomber. Macomber was President of the Portsmouth Teacher’s Association. From census listings we know she was still in Portsmouth in 1875. The Rhode Island Chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded on January 20,1875. The meeting was held at the Providence Central Baptist Church. Records of the meeting show that there were discussions about whether the word “Christian” in their title might turn some people away. The women voted to keep the word in their title. This may have been the beginning of the WCTU in Rhode Island, but many of the women involved were already involved in temperance efforts. Phebe Hathaway was voted in as one of the two vice presidents. When the group held their annual meeting a few months later, the President of the group resigned and Phebe was elected to that office. Phebe served as President of the state organization for the next two years.

At first members of the WCTU were American born women aged twenty and over. By the end of the century the organization reached out to include foreign born women who believed in the cause. The women took a pledge to abstain from all liquor, wine, beer and hard ciders. They also tried to actively discourage others from either selling or drinking alcohol. They even confronted bar owners and liquor sellers. Alcohol was considered to be at the root of a number of social ills. The Rhode Island WCTU held rallies and distributed temperance pamphlets throughout the state.

In 1874 Rhode Island did pass a state prohibition law against manufacturing or selling liquor except for medicinal purposes. This law only lasted a year and many think it was withdrawn because the state missed the tax revenue alcohol generated. The temperance movement gained popularity in the state and by 1880 the state had fifteen local chapters. At one time the WTCU of Rhode Island had 120 “unions” or branches. There were district conventions and an annual state convention. With the ratification of the 18th Amendment which prohibited liquor nationally in 1919, the reason for the organization no longer existed. Miss Hathaway died in 1886, so she did not see the temperance effort succeed.