"Through Sunshine and Shadow": The Women's Christian Temperance Union, Evangelicalism, and Reform in Ontario, 1874-1930

Article excerpt

"Through Sunshine and Shadow": The Women's Christian Temperance Union, Evangelicalism, and Reform in Ontario, 1874-1930, by Sharon Anne Cook (Montreal: McGill University-Queen's University Press, 1995), 281 pp., illustrated, $39.95 Canadian (cloth only).

Historical writing on Canadian temperance takes an important leap forward with the publication of Through Sunshine and Shadow, a thorough and well-documented history of the Ontario Women's Christian Temperance Union. Cook has written a sympathetic account of her subject. She makes good and critical use of the available range of interpretations of women's temperance offered by Barbara Epstein, Ruth Bordin, Jack Blocker, and even this reviewer. In some cases she takes issue with this body of work, always referring back to the evidence she has discovered and making sensible points about the larger debates-for example, over temperance and feminism, and temperance and evangelicalism. Perhaps Cook's most distinctive contribution is her contention of a growing divergence between the more cosmopolitan Ontario provincial organization-and the Dominion's and the world's WCTUs above it-and the more parochial concerns of the local unions. She suggests that the leadership at the provincial level lost touch with the concerns of local membership. In doing so, it helped seal the fate of the WCTU, which she believes went into decline in the 1920s, despite the increase of membership on the books. (Cook's assessment is a strategic one based on a greater defensiveness and inward-looking of the WCTU as it faced ridicule in the wider community for its attachments to prohibition.)

Cook joins this discussion to one about evangelicalism; from the shared evangelical culture of the founding years in the 1880s, she sees the WCTU splitting between those who moved in more liberal directions and those of more fundamentalist orientation, with the split growing in importance at the local level as Canadian evangelical society changed into the Jazz Age in response to the emergence of a range of modernist tendencies. Partly too, this split referred to divisions between urban (principally Toronto) women and those in small towns and rural places. She also makes the perceptive judgments that although WCTU women did not oppose prohibition, they were in no way the leaders of that movement; that the WCTU turned more to wider educational work because members felt alienated from the focus on law among prohibitionists; and that prohibition itself served to send the WCTU into decline. This point of view serves as an excellent corrective to the opinion-often seen in studies of American temperance women-that the movement narrowed and abandoned its social concerns after 1900. As in other ways, Cook has been attentive to evidence rather than to the logical trajectory of arguments within US women's history.

She also has something to offer readers interested in wider issues of drug control. Cook gives greater attention to the issue of tobacco than do any of the historians who have looked at the WCTU in the United States. I do not think that this difference emerges because tobacco was a more important issue to Ontario temperance women than it was to their American counterparts-it was important in both cases-but rather that historians, faced with the myriad concerns raised by the Do Everything policy of the organization, have sometimes left what they thought might be marginal concerns out of otherwise thorough coverages. …