Well-Tempered Women: Nineteenth-Century Temperance Rhetoric

By Carol Mattingly | Go to book overview

Introduction: Silenced Voices

TEMPERANCE WOMEN MADE up the largest movement of women in the nineteenth century, and the largest group of women orators and rhetors as well. The quantity of material they produced alone justifies critical attention. However, their claim for critical study is by no means solely quantitative. Nineteenth-century temperance women, despite their lack of formal rhetorical training, exhibit an exceptional understanding of language use within the cultural context of their time in that they demonstrate remarkably effective rhetorical strategies in relation to their own purposes and the audiences they addressed.

Twentieth-century feminists often more comfortably identify with leaders of the suffrage associations, even though temperance women were enormously effective in creating change for nineteenth-century women. Such identification has been problematic. Lori D. Ginzberg, in recent efforts to contribute more broadly to our understanding of women's activism in the nineteenth century, has noted that "The historical focus on the radical demand for the vote as women's only significant political act . . . has had the effect of both foreshortening and distorting the history of women's participation in the political process" (29).

Perhaps because of my roots in a rural, poor community, I find it easy to understand and appreciate temperance women. I do not see them as conservative and complicit in their own oppression, charges often leveled against them. Instead, temperance women seem much like women I knew during childhood--strong, sensible women who recognized the real circumstances of their existence and strove, pragmatically, to improve life for themselves and for others.

Temperance women were remarkably effective for the very reasons they are often criticized. They presented arguments in comfortable, familiar language that made both women and men amenable to new ideas and evidence. Words are most effective when an audience admires its

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