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Publisher Description

Social work's involvement in the temperance movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is largely forgotten, and social workers of today might wonder why this particular historical incident needs revisiting now as the temperance movement of the past is today viewed with a mixture of scorn and ridicule (Aaron & Musto, 1988). Study of this historical episode is important to current social workers for three reasons. First, it was the first time the field was actively engaged as a profession in the promotion of a social reform measure that was universal in scope. Campaigns for reform issues such as women's pensions, labor reform, women's suffrage, immigrant rights, and racial equality all sought to benefit specific groups or minorities. Temperance was seen as a social reform measure that applied equally to all citizens in the name of social justice and public health. Second, the temperance movement for the first time gave social workers experience with the challenges of conducting a national campaign. Until that time most social work reform involvement had occurred on a citywide, community-wide, or at best a state-wide basis. Third, though the campaign for national temperance finally failed, social work's experiences in helping to infuse a more vigorous "moral element" into the public life of that day may provide some valuable lessons for the field today as it struggles to once again introduce moral insights into campaigns for such national social justice issues as health care, welfare reform, and human rights. In concurrence with Specht (1990; Specht & Courtney, 1994), I believe that social work possesses a moral "mission," meaning that it should strive to be in the forefront of those social forces that seek a more just and equitable society both in this country and in other nations where the profession exists as an established presence. However, social work's involvement in the temperance campaign offers an early example of a particularly poignant feature of such campaigns for justice. This is the distinction, often lost in practice, between moral effort and "moralizing," or self-righteous behavior (Kerr, 1973). Although moral effort can lead to the achievement of socially approved and worthwhile goals, the moralizing imperative can lead to moral arrogance, division, and defeat unless properly controlled. As Hofstadter (1955) once famously pointed out, the moralizing imperative was the chief temptation, and possibly the chief sin, of the temperance movement and some of its advocates. The temperance movement offered social work one of its earliest experiences of this temptation and dilemma on a national scale. Therefore, the study of the movement's growth, eventual failure, and the responses of social work to its defeat might help to clarify for the profession some of the risks involved in such campaigns and the parameters that need to be observed if such efforts are to succeed.

January 1
National Association of Social Workers

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