Temperance – 4 October 2021

Here in a rural setting a milkmaid and a farmhand stand together. Behind the figures is a farm, with cows grazing in the hillside. The man carries a hoe, showing he has been tilling the ground. The sun is in the sky, illuminating the woman at the centre of the picture. This seems to depict a rural idyll, but there is more going on in this picture than first meets the eye.

This picture is called ‘A temperance meeting’, by Winslow Homer (1874). Homer’s painting cleverly refers to the rising American temperance movement, a crusade against drinking alcohol. He depicts the milkmaid pausing while a farmhand drinks from her ladle. Swaying under the weight of her pail and squinting into the sun, she presents the ideal of natural womanhood. Her powerful presence, marked by broad shoulders, muscular arms, and sunburned skin, counters the farmhand’s relaxed stance and shaded face, visually reversing traditional gender roles. Far from flirting, the two figures awkwardly avoid each other’s gaze, modelling rural wholesomeness and rectitude.

This picture illustrates the gender roles related to temperance, meaning acceptable and modified behaviour in society, as well as abstinence from alcohol. It was true in the 1870s, and remains true today in many aspects of life (e.g. gender based violence), that it was women who took the lead to influence and modify the behaviour of men. Here it is the milkmaid who carries the solution and alternative to the man’s drinking problem. She is depicted as the stronger of the two, he the follower. This idealised picture is too optimistic, for true temperance in all aspects of life men as well as women need to understand their full moral agency.


And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;

2 Peter 1:5-6


Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

Julia Ward Howe, 1870, on the establishment of a National Mothers’ Day