Mary Greenleaf Clement Leavitt

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Mary Clement Leavitt, temperance crusader

Mary Greenleaf Clement Leavitt (1830–1912) was a divorced Boston schoolteacher who became the first round-the-world missionary for the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), of which she was a founding member. Launching herself on virtually non-stop worldwide tours over a decade, she "went to all continents save Antarctica,"[1] including to such far-flung locales as Japan, Australia, India, South America and Turkey, where she crusaded against alcohol and its evils, also speaking out for other feminist causes like women's suffrage.

The Temperance Movement[edit]

In 1810 a well-known series of sermons against distilled spirits, was delivered by Congregational minister Lyman Beecher. These, later published as Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils and Remedy of Intemperance (1826), ignited a growing chorus from church pulpits against alcohol abuse and urging prohibition. Beecher's sermons later informed the WCTU's prophecies of the ill effects of booze: domestic violence; homelessness; and oppression of women.

The temperance movement was born in Ohio and New York State in 1873 when local women, concerned about alcohol's influence on home life, met in churches for prayer and then embarked on visits to saloons to confront those they felt responsible. During the next couple of years, the movement caught fire, with women demanding that saloons cease selling alcohol. The women of Fredonia, New York were the first credited with visiting local saloons under the aegis of their leader Mrs. Esther McNeil and, on December 22, 1873 were the first to call themselves the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Two days later, following a lecture at the Hillsboro, Ohio Music Hall the night before, the Crusade was born when Mrs. Eliza Thompson, a judge's wife and the daughter of a former governor, gathered 70 women in prayer at the Presbyterian Church and marched to the local saloons. Singing hymns as they went, the women demanded the saloons cease selling alcohol.

The movement caught fire. In an age when women were barred from voting, and where domestic violence – short of murder – was rarely addressed by courts, the anti-alcohol crusade hit a tripwire of emotions. In addition to banning alcohol sales, WCTU missionaries were early proponents of women's suffrage, actively campaigning for the right to vote. Among early WCTU activists were women who later came to be identified primarily as suffragettes, including Carrie Nation of Kansas.

Early life[edit]

Mary Leavitt was born Mary Greenleaf Clement in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, the daughter of Baptist minister Rev. Joshua Clement [2] and his wife Eliza (Harvey) Clement.[3] Mary Leavitt was educated at Thetford Academy in Thetford, Vermont and later at the Massachusetts State Normal School at Framingham, Massachusetts, where she was valedictorian.[4]

Early on, the minister's daughter became interested in the emerging women's movement, then starting to embrace temperance and suffrage, and she was among the temperance movement's earliest activists. "Past middle age and granite-faced," writes Patricia Ward D'Itri in Crosscurrents in the International Women's Movement, "she had what biographers described as an unfortunate family resemblance to George Washington".


In 1873 the Boston schoolteacher became interested in the temperance movement after meeting Frances Willard while Leavitt was visiting evangelist Dwight L. Moody, whom she often assisted in worship services. Leavitt subsequently organized the first WCTU chapter in Boston, and served as its president from 1879 until 1880.[5]

The following year Leavitt abandoned the private school she operated and went to work full-time for the WCTU, traveling through New England to promote temperance and women's suffage. She became the first superintendent of the Franchise Department of the national WCTU, and also represented the New England Women's Suffrage Association.[6]

Leavitt's early work brought results, and the WCTU asked in July 1883 that she travel to California, Oregon and Washington to help organize WCTU chapters. Following that trip, Frances Willard requested that Leavitt's talents be used abroad, asking her new emissary to undertake a mission to the Far East to assess what the WCTU could do to organize international temperance efforts. Leavitt was designated the WCTU's "Superintendent of Reconnaissance for World's WCTU". The purpose of her first mission abroad, said the organization's newsletter tentatively, would be visiting Hawaii and the Far East "endeavoring to introduce the W.C.T.U. methods and to provide for a helpful interchange of sympathy."[7]

Leavitt's journey did not begin auspiciously; she left America with no financial backing from the national organization and only $35 in her pocket – from her own funds. "She has no capital save her faith", WCTU founder Frances Willard noted in the group's publication, The Union Signal. Willard told her followers: "Let me affectionately urge you to pray definitely for Mrs. Mary Clement Leavitt and her embassy, the most distant echo of the great Ohio crusade, the farthest outreaching of the gospel temperance wave."[7]

But the times were right for Leavitt's message. Temperance crusaders found willing listeners among women in places like Australia. In 1885, for instance, 45,000 women in Victoria – almost a quarter of Australia's adult females – signed a petition to the government demanding that it introduce local legislation to protect the female sex from the "ill usage" said to sometimes accompany alcohol abuse.[8][9]

On her 1884 trip to Australia, Leavitt founded five branches of the WCTU in Queensland, one in New South Wales, one in South Australia and three in Tasmania.[10] In a trip the following year, when she was still a WCTU freelancer, Leavitt visited the Hawaiian Islands, Madagascar, India, China, Madeira, Mauritius, Ceylon, Siam, the Straits Settlements, Burma, Korea, Japan and Europe. At stops along the way, Leavitt organized more WCTU chapters, often presiding over meetings at YMCAs and other gathering places where WCTU affiliates were formed and officers elected. By the end of her decade of travels, Leavitt had organized over 86 worldwide WCTU international chapters, and some 21 men's temperance societies in over 40 countries.[8]

Leavitt's mission surpassed the wildest aspirations of WCTU's leadership. Eventually, while Leavitt was embarked on her nearly ceaseless international travels, Frances Willard created at WCTU headquarters the Leavitt Fund, designed to finance Leavitt's travels and proselytizing. Eventually, because the chapters Leavitt founded became largely self-sustaining, and because the Boston activist covered her own expenses through individual donations, the Leavitt Fund was applied towards supporting other WCTU foreign missionaries.

As the worldwide temperance movement caught fire, crusaders like Leavitt, who had helped found WCTU chapters in India, found that their reformist ideals led them to other causes as well. Leavitt and others, for instance, began questioning the need for continued British rule in India. And native Indian-born reformers, drawn to the temperance crusade, spread their reformist ideas among the temperance forces. Pandita Ramabai, for instance, who was a leading female crusader in 1880s India against confinement of widows and child brides, joined forces with the WCTU, for whom she acted as an unofficial missionary and lecturer.[11]

But the message of Leavitt and other WCTU reformers were not always received so warmly abroad, where their mingling of temperance and suffrage and emerging women's rights issues were sometimes complicated by cultural differences or long-held taboos. In Japan, for instance, where Leavitt embarked on a campaign which, she wrote, would "work on education, on scientific and Biblical lines, tobacco and chastity at least", her campaign was regarded suspiciously.[12] Shortly after her arrival, the American-born reformer was told by a Japanese government official that "your mission here is doing for Japanese women what Commodore Perry did for the country." In other places, Leavitt's message against tobacco, opium, alcohol and sex outside marriage did not necessarily sit well, not to mention her calls for women's right to vote. In some locales different customs presented the WCTU crusader with unlikely predicaments: in Bangkok, for instance, she met with Thailand's King Chulalongkorn at the palace where he kept his harem. (But Leavitt's attitude towards the polygamist potentate was somewhat muted, thanks to the monarch's large donation towards a home for impoverished elderly women).[13]

Leavitt continued her travels, which eventually encompassed Scandinavia, Turkey, South America, India, Italy, Egypt, South Africa, China, Siam, Burma, Singapore and many other countries. Midway through Leavitt's travels, the WCTU reckoned that their emissary had "traveled over 100,000 miles in 43 different countries; crossed the Equator eight times; held over 1,600 meetings; had the services of 290 different interpreters in 47 languages and formed 130 temperance societies, 86 of them WCTUs, and 23 branches of the White Cross." Left out of the tally were the so-called "Bands of Hope" Leavitt founded for the protection of children.[14]

In 1899, she was one of the speakers at a women's anti-lynching demonstration in Boston's Chickering Hall, along with Julia Ward Howe, Alice Freeman Palmer, Florida Ruffin Ridley, and Mary Evans Wilson.[15][16]


In recognition of Leavitt's service, she was eventually named Honorary Life President of the WCTU, in which capacity she served for 20 years.[17] Her stature within the movement was such that she often addressed the national convention.[18]


Towards the end of her life, Leavitt fell out with WCTU leadership, and ultimately resigned from the organization. Looking back, she told interviewers that her greatest accomplishment was not her temperance efforts, but instead building fellowship among the world's women. "The greatest value of my years of work lies in the impetus the labors of a woman have given to development among women in remote places." Mary Greenleaf Clement Leavitt, born Mary Clement, died at her home at 18 Huntington Avenue in Boston in 1912. The fate of the New England schoolteacher's ex-husband, Thomas H. Leavitt, a Vermont native and Boston real estate broker whom she married in 1857,[19] was not chronicled – nor whether he enjoyed alcoholic beverages. Mrs. Leavitt's daughter Amy, educated at her mother's "Mrs. Mary Clement Leavitt's Private School in Boston", later became a translator and musician after graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music.[20] Mary Leavitt and Thomas H. Leavitt had two other daughters, Agnes and Edith.


  1. ^ Tyrrell, Ian (1991). Woman's World/Woman's Empire: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union in International Perspective, 1880-1930. Chapel Hill and London: The University of Carolina Press. p. 85. ISBN 0-8078-1950-6. 
  2. ^ A History of the Town of New London, Merrimack County, New Hampshire, 1779–1899, Myra Belle Home Lord, Edward Oliver Lord, The Rumford Press, Concord, N.H., 1899
  3. ^ The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, Rossiter Johnson, John Howard Brown, Vol. VI, The Biographical Society, Boston, Mass., 1904
  4. ^ The Granite Monthly: A New Hampshire Magazine, Vol. XLIV, Published by the Granite Monthly Company, Concord, 1912
  5. ^ Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present, Robert McHenry, Published by Courier Dover Publications, 1983 ISBN 0-486-24523-3 ISBN 978-0-486-24523-2
  6. ^ Cross Currents in the International Women's Movement, 1848–1948, Patricia Ward D'Itri, Popular Press, 1999 ISBN 0-87972-782-9 ISBN 978-0-87972-782-6
  7. ^ a b Cross Currents in the International Women's Movement, 1848–1948, p. 50
  8. ^ a b Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia, Jack S. Blocker, David M. Fahey, Ian R. Tyrrell, Published by ABC-CLIO, 2003 ISBN 1-57607-833-7 ISBN 978-1-57607-833-4
  9. ^ Although difficult to imagine today, much of the early temperance message concerned rape and sexual crimes influenced, crusaders felt, by alcohol consumption. But such blunt talk could not be addressed openly, and it was only hinted at. In a speech entitled "Temperance and Purity," for example, Mary Clement Leavitt spoke of her campaign to the 'National Purity Conference'. "'I never should have yielded to him but for the wine he persuaded me to take,' is the wail of thousands of young girls who had no wish to go astray", Leavitt told the delegates.[1]
  10. ^ WCTU history,
  11. ^ Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia, p. 309
  12. ^ Cross Currents in the International Women's Movement 1848–1948, p. 53
  13. ^ Cross Currents in the International Women's Movement 1848–1948, p. 54
  14. ^ Cross Currents in the International Women's Movement 1848–1948, p. 60
  15. ^ "Anti-Lynchers in Boston: White and Colored Women Hold a Meeting and Make Speeches". The New York Times. May 21, 1899. 
  16. ^ Neal, Anthony W. (August 15, 2014). "Mary Evans Wilson was founding member of the Women's Service Club, NAACP Boston Branch". Bay State Banner. 
  17. ^ The Encyclopedia Americana, The Encyclopedia Americana Corporation, New York, 1919
  18. ^ "Foes of Alcohol: World's Convention of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union", The New York Times, November 14, 1891
  19. ^ Who's Who in New England, Albert Nelson Marquis, A. N. Marquis & Co., Chicago, 1909
  20. ^ Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914–1915, John W. Leonard (ed.), The American Commonwealth Company, New York, 1915