Two-year old Charity May Crowder squirmed on her mother's lap as the solemn words were spoken that would make the child a "White Ribbon Recruit" dedicated to a life of abstinence in the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
Charity May, it turned out, had been this route before, at the age of 2 months, and the rerun was merely for show. The ladies of the WCTU wished it were otherwise, but new recruits are not so easy to find these days.
Since Prohibition ended in 1933, it has been mostly downhill for the organization that helped achieve passage of the constitutional amendment banning the sale of alcoholic beverages. But despite their political and numerical decline, the occasional humiliation and frequent indifference, the venerable ladies press on.
In fact, among the three dozen or so members who gathered here last week for the annual convention of the WCTU's Maryland branch, there was a hopeful, almost confident air. With the old morality apparently making a comeback and a renewed awareness of the dangers of alcoholism, these veterans of the war against drinking have a sense that their issues are once again on the nation's agenda.
"Through the years, reporters have taken great delight in ridiculing the WCTU," said Nancy Zabel, a Methodist minister's wife from College Park who heads the Maryland branch. "Now, in 1981, they're beginning to say, 'You know, maybe those little old ladies were right.' "
In the past year, for instance, four members of the only remaining Eastern Shore chapter gathered 306 signatures in favor of raising the drinking age to 21, a measure that passed the House of Delegates but failed in the state Senate. The debate is expected to be renewed during next year's session of the General Assembly.
In addition, the convention delegates were told, "a persuasive letter finally accomplished the removal of a winemaking course from the Montgomery County Adult Education program." (Dr. Frank Snyder, the program director, said the letter arrived after the class had already been canceled, primarily for lack of interest, but said the county's campaign against drug and alcohol abuse had also weighed in the decision.)
For the faithful there were other reasons to celebrate if not their victory over sin then at least their perseverance in battle. The 106th annual state convention was, in fact, held. "There are not many movements that have lasted that long," the Rev. Louis Purkes told them.
By all accounts, everyone had a good time.
A fundraising appeal yielded $72.55, and $76 more came in the form of "thank offerings" and a life membership. Eleven members subscribed to the Union Signal, the WCTU magazine, and two renewed their subscriptions.
The Young Temperance League, for teen-agers and young adults, seemed to be flourishing, Eva Watkins reported, with roughly a hundred members who attend roller skating parties, a summer camp, a mid-year rally and various other social events centered around a fundamentalist Christian life.
The state officers, most in their 50s, are as young as they've ever been.
Esther Bussard, at 42, is the youngest. It has not been easy for her in a sinful world to confront the conspiracy the WCTU calls "the liquor traffic."
Insensitive people who do not understand "think you're some kind of a weirdo, fuddy-duddy or nosey body," she said. "But when you're working for the Lord, you find that all the time. You're looked upon as a total fanatic."
So it was that Bussard's Middletown Union marched, but not under the WCTU banner, to the Frederick County liquor board to protest a Shookstown grocer's request to sell beer. One of the older members had recalled an earlier trip when their colors were showing and "they were really put down."
Posing as ordinary citizens, however, the WCTU women triumphed.
Members of the Virginia Lee Beard Union of Brunswick, meanwhile, had been up front about their affiliation when they went to protest the granting of a tavern license in the old railroad town on the Potomac -- and lost. "They've got more liquor joints in Brunswick than churches," complained Elva Rollins, the state treasurer who lives there.
Although hope springs eternal among the women warriors of the WCTU, they are still faced with some unpleasant facts in the "Free State" of Maryland, nicknamed in the 1920s for its prevalent antitemperance sentiment. No matter how timely their issues, their organization is dying. The ladies are, it seems, almost irreplaceable. Consider these recent developments:
Following its leader's death in her 90s, the Salisbury chapter went from inactive to nonexistent, part of a trend that has seen the number of local "unions" dwindle from more than 50 with 3,000 members in the late 1950s to 15 with just 379 members today. In the last two years alone, 10 unions have disbanded, and last year nine lost membership.
The Hagerstown Union, the state's largest, lost half its hundred or so members when its leader resigned in a dispute with state WCTU officials last November over lines of authority.
On top of all that, the state's three remaining Loyal Temperance Legions, for youngsters 6 through 12, folded this past year. From Snow Hill to Germantown, the torch had gone out without being passed. "It seems like there's nobody cares enough to come in and pick it up," bemoaned Freda Johnson, state promotions secretary.
"It's hard for old people to get out" to meetings, said Zabel. "We have a lot in the 60 to 90 age bracket and we're losing them because they're dying off, and it's difficult to get new people in because a lot of young women use alcohol in their cooking and they don't want to sign the abstinence pledge." Although the WCTU now opposes the Equal Rights Amendment it once supported, Zabel insists its members "have been liberated for a long time."
In general, WCTU members blame their organization's decline on changing morals and changing times -- women working or carpooling kids whose busy schedules preclude anything else.
They also blame the dues. For years, annual dues were 50 cents. The WCTU survived the doubling of the dues to a dollar. But when the tariff rose in 1970 to $3.65 -- "a penny and a prayer a day" -- it hurt. "Some people just couldn't get over that," said Nancy Zabel. "What I think is we had a lot of token members."
Nationally, the WCTU had a million members at its peak. It now counts 200,000 followers, including women, husbands and children. Pennsylvania and Ohio lead the nation, with some 18,000 members each. Maryland is far down the list, but, according to WCTU spokesman Michael Vitucci, has "good workers." Nearly half the state's members are in Frederick and Washington counties.
In convention last week, the Marylanders passed resolutions against television sex and violence, drug paraphernalia and pornography, drunken driving and abortions and for prayer in the public schools and the rights of victims of crime. They have long been on record against wife-beating and tobacco. Believing human bodies are "the living temples of the Lord," they, like many a modern health food faddist, eschew harmful substances.
"We're certainly not ashamed of what we are about," Nancy Zabel said. Doris Christy, who was visiting from West Virginia, noted, however, "We do tend to hang our heads or hide. But we need give no time to those who desire to hinder or heckle us," she told the Marylanders. "Do not be fearful of the outcome for victory shall be ours."
Rhetoric aside, reality kept coming back to money and membership. The Maryland group must increase its rolls threefold or retrench, its president said. Leading the clarion call for more activism by the old guard, Zabel then made the ultimate pitch:
"Before you die, make a lot of money and will it to the WCTU and then we'll be okay. But don't die. We need you. We need you real bad."