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Smith, Ida B. Wise
(July 3, 1871–February 16, 1952)

–reformer, minister, educator, and lecturer—was born in Philadelphia. Her father, a sea captain, died when she was two years old. Her mother, Eliza Ann Piper, then moved the family to Hamburg, Iowa, where she married temperance reformer Robert Speakman. Ida accompanied her stepfather as he traveled around Iowa making his "School House" speeches arguing for constitutional prohibition; she usually warmed up the audience by singing temperance songs.

    A member of the Disciples of Christ, Ida began teaching Sunday school in the Hamburg Christian Church at the age of 12. She made it a point to devote a part of every class session to the subject of temperance and required all of her tiny students to sign the total abstinence pledge. At the age of 16, she began teaching school.

    Smith first learned about the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1891 when she was required to take the temperance oath in order to become a Loyal Temperance Legion leader. By 1900 she was district president in the Iowa WCTU, and in 1902 she became statewide corresponding secretary, a position she held until 1913, when she was elected president of the Iowa WCTU.

    As president of the Iowa WCTU, Smith proved to be a fearless and savvy political mover. In 1916 she wrote the Sheppard Bill, which imposed prohibition in the District of Columbia. She also launched an investigation into irregular voting practices that caused the defeat of the woman suffrage bill in the Iowa legislature.

    Smith first became prominent on the WCTU national level in 1923, when she became director of the national WCTU Christian Citizenship Department. In 1925 she was elected Superintendent of Citizenship for the World Women's Christian Temperance Union at its convention in Edinburgh. The next year she was elected Vice President at Large of the national WCTU.

    In 1923 Smith was ordained as a minister in the Disciples of Christ. She never served as a pastor for a congregation, but she became a spiritual and moral leader within the denomination, promoting her favorite causes of temperance, child welfare, and women's rights.

    Upon her election in 1933 as president of the national WCTU, Smith came into her own as the most prominent temperance advocate on the national stage. It was a difficult time to be in the position, with repeal of Prohibition looming (it would pass in 1934), and she met the challenge head-on.

    In a speech to the 1935 International Convention of Disciples of Christ, she advocated "a program the broad aim of which is nothing less than the physical, mental, social, and spiritual liberation of the world from the strangling grip of exploitation by the beverage alcohol trade."

    As WCTU president, Smith challenged the organization's members to a five-year plan of increasing membership and raising $1 million to launch an extensive education program on the dangers of alcohol. This resulted in the most widespread campaign in WCTU history. Publicity condemning alcohol as a deadly narcotic carpeted the nation in the form of radio programs, magazine and newspaper articles, educational films, and billboards.

    Smith was always a strong believer in the power of the ballot and the common sense of the voter. In her far-reaching program, citizenship courses were held in each of the 10,500 local WCTU chapters. Smith had great confidence in her grassroots movement: "When women see again the bleary eyes, the shuffling feet, the desolate faces of children in homes of poverty where the money goes for drink, women will rise again against their enemy. For, though the Prohibition law of the nation and states may be repealed, you cannot repeal the effects of alcohol. Nor can you outlaw that protective instinct with which women guard their homes."

    In 1939 Smith led the celebration of temperance pioneer Frances Willard's centenary by inaugurating a new five-point program promoting a deepening of spiritual life and education in the areas of alcohol, character, citizenship, and peace.

    The WCTU failed to bring back Prohibition, but did secure success in other areas of reform, particularly child welfare. Smith's influence was widespread in improving the lives of disadvantaged children, not only through her work as WCTU leader but also through her appointments to two national initiatives: President Herbert Hoover 's White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, and President Franklin Roosevelt's White House Conference on Children in Democracy.

    Smith received many awards during her lifetime. In 1927 Iowa Governor John Hammill named her the "Most Distinguished Woman in Iowa" for her contributions to child welfare, and she represented Iowa at the "Famous Women's Luncheon" at the Woman's World Fair in Chicago. That same year, John Fletcher College in University Park, Iowa, awarded her an honorary LL.D. "for distinguished service to the state and meritorious service to humanity."

    She married James Wise in 1889, and they had two children, one of whom, Carl Edwin Wise, lived to adulthood. After her husband died in 1902, she moved her extended family, including her children, her parents, and her sister's orphaned children, to Des Moines, where she supported them all by cleaning houses, sewing, and teaching in the Crocker School. In 1912 she married Malcolm Smith, a noted temperance campaigner from Cedar Rapids; he died in 1915.

    When Smith's term as national WCTU president expired in 1944, she declined reelection and returned to Iowa, where she continued to work for the causes of temperance, child welfare, and prison reform. She died at age 80 in Clarinda. A memorial plaque in tribute to her life and service was erected in front of the Hamburg Christian Church.

    In 1977 Ida B. Wise Smith was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame. Two years later the Ida B. Wise Smith historical marker was dedicated in Union Park in Des Moines. Toward the end of her last term as WCTU president, she gave a reporter the philosophy that led her to a lifetime of crusading: "I love God, my country, and little children. I hate the liquor traffic, and abhor all vice."
Sources For more on Smith, see Agnes Dubbs Hays, Heritage of Dedication (1973); and Sarah F. Ward, The White Ribbon Story: 125 Years of Service to Humanity (1999).
Contributor: Sara Harwell