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Unsung Heroes: Carry A. Nation

Standing 6 feet tall, it was difficult to miss Carry A. Nation when she walked into a bar or saloon; add a hatchet, and you have a woman who was impossible to miss.

Published April 1, 2015

Throughout March, in honor of Women’s History Month, we will be featuring unsung heroes and stories of the women’s suffrage movement. You can find more of those well-known and not-so-well-known stories in our EDcollection “Women, Their Rights and Nothing Less,” endorsed by NCSS. To access these resources, you must be signed into NewseumED; registration is free. 

Carry Nation, 1901

Carrie Nation, 1901. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Standing 6 feet tall, Carry A. Nation was an attention-drawing figure when she walked into a bar or saloon. With a hatchet, she was terrifying. Nation knew how to use drama to help her causes: fighting for temperance and woman suffrage.

Born Carrie Amelia Moore in 1846 (she changed her first name to Carry in 1903), her dedication to temperance stemmed in part from her marriage to Charles Gloyd. A physician addicted to alcohol, Gloyd struggled to take care of his pregnant wife. Carrie moved out; Gloyd died soon after.

In 1877, Carrie married David Nation. The family moved to Kansas, where David Nation worked as a preacher and she began a career of religious and charity work. At first, her tactics were peaceful. She joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to fight for limits or a ban on the sale of alcohol. WCTU members assembled outside of bars and sang hymns. The tactics worked; many bars closed.

The Leavenworth Times

The Leavenworth Times – Jan. 22, 1901

Later, Nation and her followers switched to more destructive tactics. Instead of hymns, the group used hatchets. Of the destruction of a bar in Wichita, Kan., The Leavenworth Times reported, “With hatchets concealed under their cloaks they entered the saloon of James Burns on Douglas Avenue and did not leave a complete piece of glass of a working slot machine in the place.” The women demolished two bars that day, for which they were arrested. After release, Nation said told an assembled crowd, “Men of Wichita, this is the right arm of God and is destined to wreck every saloon in your city.”

Over the course of her campaigns, Nation was threatened, jailed and beaten. Her husband filed for divorce in 1901, citing desertion. Nation remained active, went on a speaking tour and sold hatchet paraphernalia. She also used the press to draw attention to the temperance and women’s suffrage campaigns, publishing the short-lived Smasher’s Mail and The Hatchet.

Carry Nation died in 1911, one year before Kansas gave women the right to vote. The 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation” of alcohol. (The 21st Amendment repealed this law in 1933). In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote in the United States.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How are the issues of temperance and women’s suffrage connected?
  2. Compare and contrast the efforts by Carry Nation and Eliza “Mother” Thompson. Which were more effective? Why? (For more on Eliza Thompson, “Women Protest Use of Alcohol”)
  3. Why do you think the WCTU succeeded in its efforts to ban alcohol? Identify similar efforts today. Are they succeeding? Why or why not?

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