140 Years of the White Ribbon Association (Part Two)

2016 marked the 140th anniversary of the White Ribbon Association – or the British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA) as it was when it was formed in 1876. The BWTA was a part of the temperance movement, which grew in popularity throughout the nineteenth century. (The temperance movement was a popular crusade to reduce the use of alcohol – or, as the movement grew, to eliminate it altogether.) The organisation has taken many twists and turns over the last 140 years to become today’s White Ribbon Association. The last article looked at the early decades of the organisation; and the story continues here…


In 1890, the BWTA elected a new President – Lady Henry Somerset. Her arrival caused conflict amongst the leadership of the BWTA. At the annual meeting in 1893, a vote on making women’s suffrage an explicit part of the BWTA’s mission gained a narrow majority. In the discord following the vote, and after years of friction, many members left the organisation.

An early photograph of Lady Henry Somerset

The women who left formed the Women’s Total Abstinence Union (WTAU) which continued to do much of the same work as the BWTA (newly re-named the National British Women’s Temperance Association). Unfortunately, this split happened just as the temperance movement was reaching its peak. Although both organisations soon returned to their work, it seems likely that they were not able to fully focus their time and energies on this as they re-established themselves.


The NBWTA and Lady Henry


The NBWTA retained many of the women who were the public faces of the women’s temperance movement. These women were often involved in multiple campaigns or movements. They could be highly passionate – none more so than Lady Henry Somerset. After a period of seclusion following her separation from her husband (who was gay) and custody battle for her son, Lady Henry began reappearing in society in the late 1880s, garnering notice for her missionary and anti-poverty work. Although she wasn’t the most respectable of aristocrats, she was determined and demanded respect as she made her voice heard. Her family and marriage also afforded her a respect not bestowed on women from more modest backgrounds, despite her reputation being tarnished by scandal.

Lady Henry soon made her voice heard. She was also extremely enthusiastic about all sorts of causes and new departments for NBWTA sprang up – for promoting rational dress, campaigning against vivisection and even for the provision of flowers to girls working in factories! Lady Henry attracted a lot of press attention, which could be a blessing or a curse. The NBWTA were often reported on in the national newspapers, promoting their cause.

However, Lady Henry continued to attract scandal. She had a great friendship with Frances Willard, who was president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the American counterpart of the NBWTA. Willard also presided over the World Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU); Lady Henry was vice-president. Her close friendship with Willard led to accusations that they were trying to Americanize the British society, or that the world union was being prioritised over the NBWTA.


Willard also attracted criticism that spread to involve Lady Henry and the NBWTA. In the US, Willard had often clashed with a suffragist, civil rights and anti-lynching campaigner named Ida B. Wells. The American WCTU had gone through its own internal conflict about working for suffrage and was now active in campaigning for women’s rights. In the northern states, their unions were united but in the south, they remained segregated by race (if black women were involved at all). Wells encouraged the WCTU to integrate all of their unions, as doing so could positively influence both race and gender inequalities, especially in the south.


The WCTU was a respectable Christian organisation. Wells had been born into slavery; her family was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. She also spoke up unequivocally about racial injustice, and was particularly forthright about the awful practice of lynching. Her investigations put her life in danger more than once and she had to flee the southern states.


Lady Henry Somerset (right) pictured with Francis Willard

The WCTU could have gently influenced opinion – Wells was determined that when women were afforded rights, this would include black women. The WCTU declined to address the geographical imbalance within their unions and Willard inflamed the situation by writing nationally-published articles that defended the segregation of WCTU groups in the south, repeating racist myths about black men in particular and seemingly trying to justify the racial inequality of voting laws and segregation.


As was common at the time, Wells looked to Britain for support in her battle. It wasn’t uncommon for anti-lynching and civil rights activists to visit Britain to amass public support for their work, or to provoke outrage at the awful treatment black people were subjected to. British public opinion could still influence America. A British anti-segregation society and newspaper called Fraternity took up the cause in 1894 and 1895. Their articles about the Willard and Wells controversy stirred national interest. Florence Balgarnie was involved with both the NBWTA and Fraternity. She increasingly put pressure on the NBWTA to condemn lynching and segregation. She gathered significant support but was initially condemned by Lady Henry and others for bringing Willard and the WCTU into disrepute, and involving the NBWTA in such unpleasantness.


The public pressure was too much to resist though. While Willard was staying with Lady Henry, they both publically condemned lynching at a meeting and spoke in favour of more equality. Some of the upper echelons of the NBWTA did not forgive Florence Balgarnie for some time, although she continued to work both within the NBWTA and for civil rights.

Josephine Butler

Things settled down after this for a couple of years until Lady Henry embroiled herself in another national scandal! The NBWTA had worked with and been aligned with Josephine Butler for many years. Butler was an influential and well-known women’s rights and anti-poverty campaigner. She particularly campaigned for women’s increased access to education, for the right of women to own property and for the abolition of prostitution.


Butler did not condemn the women who worked as prostitutes, and cared for many women who had been left dying and poverty-stricken by the profession. (She cared personally for some women, and also set up women’s hostels.) She was particularly indignant that the women were the ones penalised, when they were generally powerless. Butler also condemned the regulation of vice. In England, this took the form of the Contagious Diseases Act. Women suspected of prostitution could be forcibly examined for disease on the word of one police witness, even without proof. From 1897, her attention moved to India, which had not repealed the Contagious Diseases Act when England had. This is what brought Josephine Butler and Lady Henry into conflict.


Women near British army cantonments in India were still victim of forcible examinations for disease. Furthermore, some women who had been declared disease free lived in specially provided houses on the cantonments, so the soldiers could visit them. The NBWTA had previously worked against the regulation of vice, but Lady Henry now wrote a letter to The Times in support of the system in India, seemingly thinking it was the lesser of two evils and the most practical solution.

The resultant uproar was immense, from the women of the NBWTA most of all. Josephine Butler cut off all ties with the organisation. Lady Henry weathered the storm, but retracted her statements in support of vice regulation. She also lost the unquestioning support of many of the women.


In 1898, Frances Willard died and Lady Henry was devastated. This, and years of scandals, took their toll. By 1903, she had resigned from the presidency and began living a quieter life in Surrey. Lady Henry was succeeded in the presidency of the NBWTA by Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle. Although she was involved in fewer scandals, Lady Carlisle was still a strong-willed and authoritarian figure – the women of the NBWTA did not have it easy after Lady Henry had gone!




Meanwhile, the Women’s Total Abstinence Union was establishing itself. With fewer well-known public figures but more organisational knowledge, they soon began to grow. The WTAU had put itself in a strange position, however, by declaring that their organisation should be about only temperance. As with most things, temperance didn’t exist in isolation – it inevitably entwined with other political, social and religious movements. Additionally, while some of the WTAU did not want to be involved with suffrage, others supported the movement but just didn’t think the WTAU should align with suffrage to the exclusion of other viewpoints or movement.

Many of the leadership of the WTAU had personally clashed with Lady Henry. For example, Lady Elizabeth Biddulph had spoken against aligning the BWTA with the suffrage movement as some women’s husbands would not permit them to continue working. Although Lady Henry had laughed derisively at the suggestion, Biddulph had a practical point – some women were far more dependent on their husbands and would have to give up temperance work for their families. Temperance work was also a respectable pastime for women. It was moral and had religious associations. Suffrage was far more radical and explicitly political. Drawing suffrage into temperance work also radicalised temperance work and restricted (again) what some women would be able to do.


The WTAU solved the problem of charismatic leaders having too much influence by rotating the role of president. This meant that a wider variety of women lead the organisation. (The NBWTA was led by titled and/or well-known women.) One of these women was Mary Docwra. She had been a member of the BWTA since its early days. She was from a respectable, but not upper class, Quaker family. Unlike some of the other women, she was politically active but had clashed with Lady Henry repeatedly.


The WTAU also affiliated with many different women’s trade organisations (such as unions). The WTAU is often said to have been the more conservative of the two women’s temperance organisations but in many ways, this reputation is unjustified.

Mary Docwra

As part of our 140th anniversary celebration we held an exhibition at our Headquarters in Solihull, highlighting some of the key moments and women throughout our Organisation’s history. The fascinating information from this exhibition was then made into a booklet, which you are welcome to read here.