In a humble home in Dickinson, five women gathered on Tuesday afternoon in fellowship for a cause. After warm welcomes, some small talk and a devotional, the women stood to salute the American flag, Christian flag and temperance flag. The meeting marked the latest in a line stretching back to Dec. 23, 1873, for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
“At one time, we had 4,000 women as members in North Dakota,” Cleo Kulish, a member since 1960 and retired longtime teacher in Dickinson, said. “Today our numbers are dwindling, but our cause is more important than ever.”
The North Dakota chapter of the WCTU's work extends across a range of efforts to bring about personal and social moral reforms in a state that has spent more than $487,600,000 on alcohol a year, ranks in the top five states for excessive alcohol consumption, first in underage drinking and has seen an increase in vaping use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Prior to the 19th century, the word "temperance" connoted moderation and restraint in appetites and behavior, but early American temperance advocates urged the avoidance of intoxicating liquors, tobacco and, in recent times, vaping.
“In this area, the southwest district, we had members from Belfield, Fryburg, New England, Grassy Butte, New England, Beach, Hettinger, Bowman and Dickinson,” Cleo Kulish said. “The sad part is that young people are growing up in an era where you do what you want to do; you don’t have to comply. It’s sad to think how many of our young people have become hooked to these vices such as drugs and alcohol.”
She continued, “We only want what is good for the body for these children and people, and sadly we aren’t provided the platform we once had.”
Beginning in 1914, the WCTU had a large platform across the state and was instrumental in the women's suffrage movement. It was not until 1920 that women in North Dakota had the right to vote in all elections, thanks in part to the work of the WCTU, who voiced their opinions about social reform such as Prohibition and woman suffrage under the leadership of Linda Slaughter and Elizabeth Anderson.
“Our organization was around before women even had the right to vote,” Carma Kulish, acting president of the Dickinson chapter of the WCTU, said. “This organization offered women an opportunity to vote internally and hold positions of leadership and make a difference in our community and state.”
Today the organization claims 31 women and 17 honorary men as members, a far cry short of the 4,000 members boasted in years past. What remains ever strong however is the devotion to tackling some of the most challenging issues facing the state today — drugs and alcohol addiction.
As the lightly attended meeting continued on Tuesday, local members discussed topics including school programs aimed at presenting children with information and opportunities to understand the negative effects of alcohol, tobacco and vaping; reading program awards for area children; the White Ribbon pins for new members, of which there were none; the results of the National WCTU convention, which included a tour of the Francis Willard House Museum's restoration project; and financial business.
According to the organization, opportunities to interact with the children have dwindled and consist primarily with rural schools and home-schooled children. Dickinson Public Schools’ doors are seldom opened for the organization without heavy burdens placed on who they can speak to, what they can speak about and when they can come, the organization said. For Cleo Kulish, a former Dickinson teacher, the evolution of education on the subject leaves her shaking her head in disgust.
“All the members that are still living, that have children Carma’s age, have done right by them in providing a good upbringing and proper education on the subjects of drugs and alcohol,” Cleo Kulish said. “But just watch what’s in the beat and on the blotter that is going on in our town — it’s sad. Maybe people will realize that ours is the solution to the problem one day, and hopefully before we’re all gone.”