Buffalo, N.Y. This does not look like a revolutionary movement. The members -- most of them gray, many of them halting, all of them relentlessly kindly -- gather in a meeting room at a Marriott in the suburbs. The national convention opens with a rousing hymn. The leaders peddle crocheted knickknacks at folding tables. There isn't a hatchet in sight.
The Woman's Christian Temperance Union is 125 years old this year and not particularly robust. Its great cause, the banning of alcohol, was won and then lost three generations ago. Its membership is a fraction of the 150,000 the group boasted in 1892, when the WCTU was one of the most feared, most powerful and most important social movements of the age.
These days one of its favorite anthems begins, "Don't give up on the brink of a miracle." And so the women still fight on, against hopeless odds. "The culture doesn't really celebrate abstinence, but we need to be out there with our voices, against alcohol," said June Beal, president of the New Hampshire chapter. The state membership: fewer than a dozen.
The WCTU's fight may be antiquated, but the movement is more than an antiquarian interest. The group was the first mass movement of American women, making inroads urban and rural, terrifying saloon keepers, threatening the social peace, upending the social order.
But the WCTU is also the forgotten cousin of two powerful modern forces that are battling over the shape of American society and culture: the religious conservative movement and the women's movement.
Mobilizing through churches instead of normal political channels, challenging the established political order and armed with specific policy goals, the WCTU provided the model for the modern Christian right movement. But it also pressed for shelters for abused women, stiffer fines for sexual crimes, the right of women to work as police officers -- and the women's vote.
"Many of these things have been accepted or some other segment of society has taken them up, so we've returned to our original passion: fighting alcohol," said Sarah F. Ward, the group's current president, at last weekend's conclave.
The movement began like many insurgencies, with a speech delivered by a silver-tongued crusader from Boston. Dr. Dio Lewis was lecturing on temperance in Fredonia, west of Buffalo on Lake Erie on land that has turned out to be especially fertile wine territory, as fate would have it. His message was so powerful that he was asked to speak again the next night at a church service. On the spot 50 women volunteered to act "in the name of God and humanity" to fight liquor, "the parent of every misery, prolific of all woe in this life and the next, potent alone in evil, blighting every fair hope, desolating families."
Thus began what is known as the Women's Crusade, a mass movement unlike any other in history. At a time when Ohio had one saloon for every 200 people, when 800 of the 1,002 political meetings in New York City were held in taverns, these women converged on the unholy temples of liquor, slashing casks of liquor with their hatchets and pouring the amber contents down the streets, praying on sawdust floors, kneeling on snowy saloon entranceways. Within three months, they drove liquor out of 250 villages and towns.
And not just saloons. In 1878, a WCTU official crowed that "the amount of alcohol used in cookery has been decreased within the last five years at least three-fourths." More good news: The use of alcohol as a medicinal was also down. Soon the targets spread. By 1894, the group's president focused on "substances glutinous or saccharine." She meant gum.
That president was Frances E. Willard -- messianic reformer, educator, author, and truly one of the giants of the 19th century, in part because she was so full of helpful advice. "The simplest of foods should be eaten. Water and milk should be the only beverages and never taken at meal time. Never should ice-water be drunk. A sponge bath and exercises should be daily practices. No brain work should occur after tea time," she said. Today a stained-glass window in Marsh Chapel at Boston University depicts Willard presenting a petition to President Grover Cleveland.
One of the several reasons men opposed the female vote was the fear that women would vote for prohibition. In one of history's many ironies, the nation banned the sale of liquor by passing the 18th Amendment, which went into effect Jan. 16, 1920. The female vote came with the 19th Amendment, which went into effect seven months later. Prohibition was repealed in 1933. And this week, in a Buffalo suburb, the women of the WCTU sang the New Crusade March:
Do you hear the tramping of the New Crusade,
Trying to repair the wreck Repeal has made?
"We haven't disappeared," said Betty Norris of Harrisburg, Pa., who has been a WCTU member for 79 years. "We've just been silenced a little bit." This is their grandmothers' revolution. The cause may not have endured, but the effect has.
-- David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.