THH Episode 10: Zerelda G. Wallace: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Good Book

Transcript of Zerelda G. Wallace: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Good Book

Jump to Show Notes

Written by Lindsey Beckley

Produced by Lindsey Beckley and Jill Weiss Simins

[Gospel music]

Lindsey Beckley: Zerelda Wallace, described as “the sweet-tonged apostle of temperance,” The “Rarest, noblest woman of her generation,” and “Indiana’s Best Loved Woman,” arrived on the national political stage rather late in her life. She had been married and widowed, raised nearly a dozen children, and attended the same church for 41 years, all before becoming one of Indiana’s most distinguished and respected social reformers of the 19th century. During the 14 years she was active in local and national reform movements, Wallace co-founded the Indiana Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Association. She spoke at conferences and conventions across the nation. And affected change in the Disciples of Christ church on a national level. During her time on the lecture circuit, she developed an approach which enabled her to address and influence people with vastly different political ideas than her own. With these methods, she personally brought many people to the causes of suffrage and temperance, proving once and for all that it’s never too late to become politically engaged and effect change.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Beckley: Hello, and welcome to Talking Hoosier History, brought to you by the Indiana Historical Bureau. For over a century, we’ve been marking Hoosier History. Now, it’s time to start talking Hoosier history. I’m Lindsey Beckley and I’ll be your host.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Beckley: Born Zerelda Grey Sanders on August 6, 1817 in Millersburg, Kentucky, Zerelda was raised in an environment that fostered intelligence and a deep commitment to faith. She attended boarding school in nearby Versailles, Kentucky, before the family moved to the newly established city of Indianapolis in 1830. Her father, John Sanders, was a physician, a profession in high demand in Indiana as the young state wouldn’t have its own medical college for over a decade. Dr. Sanders took his eldest daughter along on some of his more serious cases to act as his nurse, and soon Zerelda found herself acquainted with prominent citizens of the city who encouraged her to study works by great thinkers such as philosopher John Locke and writer Harriet Martineau.

The most important book in the household, though, was always the Bible. The early 19th century was a time of religious revival in the United States. Often referred to as the Second Great Awakening, this religious resurgence reflected the sentiments of romanticism – it emphasized emotion and feeling over logic and reasoning. One popular tenet of the Second Great Awakening was the pursuit of Christian perfection. Zerelda grew up right in the midst of this movement – both in time and place. Stretching from around 1790 to the early 20th century, it had several hot spots, one of which was just 10 miles from Zerelda’s hometown, in Cane Ridge Kentucky.

Eventually, the ideals expressed in the movement would be central to her social reform activities. From a young age, she was encouraged to memorize bible passages and some sources say that she had memorized the first 14 books of the bible by age twelve. In 1833, when Zerelda was 16, she and her parents were among the 20 charter members of the Church of Christ in Indianapolis. Zerelda’s faith was the foundation upon which her social activism rested…but that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves in the story.

[Transition music]

Beckley: In December 1836, at just 19 years old, Zerelda Sanders married lieutenant governor of Indiana David Wallace, a widower 15 years her senior with 3 children. One of those children would grow up to be the bestselling author of Ben-Hur, General Lew Wallace, who wrote of the first time the three boys met their new step-mother,

Voice actor reading from General Wallace: I was inclined…to have nothing to do with this mother which our father was giving us. We were not given time enough to wash our hands and to put on clean clothing, which probably had something to do with our ruffled feelings. Our stepmother was then very young, but she seemed to know exactly what to do under the circumstances and just how to talk to us. She showed us infinite gentleness and tact and made us feel that she was interested in us for our own sakes.

Beckley: The next year, David Wallace became the governor of Indiana. He later served a term in the US House of Representatives and as a judge in the Marion County court of common pleas. While not much has been written about this time in Zerelda Wallace’s life, it is said that she advised her husband on political issues and reviewed and critiqued his speeches and writings, something which almost certainly helped to hone her rhetoric. Pair that experience with the fact that she glimpsed the inner workings of government at the state, and national level during these years and there is little doubt that this time in her life facilitated her later political activism.

In 1859, 42 year old Zerelda Wallace was widowed and left with few financial assets. Even with young children to care for, she declined her family’s offer of financial help and relied instead upon her own initiative and resources by taking in boarders to make ends meet. Eventually, children were out of the house and she began turning her attention to improving society.

Wallace’s adherence to the ideals of her faith – in particular the aspiration to Christian perfection – made the church the ideal place to make her first forays into social reform. In her mind, and in the mind of many reformers, a root of many societal ills was intemperance, making it the perfect problem for her to tackle. On March 3, 1874, Wallace and other reformers organized the Indiana branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, or WCTU, in Indianapolis. Wallace served as the first president of the Indiana chapter and held the position for 7 years. The constitution of the association stated their goals – to provide support for victims of intemperance and to educate the public about the “evils” of alcohol sales, distribution, and especially, consumption. In pursuit of these objectives, they declared that they would “religiously employ all the means which God has placed within our reach, and constantly invoke His aid and guidance.” In conclusion, they called “upon all good men to join hands with us in our work, and with each other in the endeavor to secure temperance laws thoroughly enforced.”

In comparison to more…radical…figures like Carrie Nation, the members of the Indiana WCTU were fairly reserved. While Nation would gain wide spread fame through her rather violent tactics, such as using rocks, bricks, and (most famously) hatchets, to destroy the liquor supplies in saloons and put an end to drinking, Indiana’s WCTU used literature, missionary outreach, and petitions to reach that same goal.

It was during this time of growing activism in Wallace’s life that, at the age of 57, she delivered her first public address.


Beckley: One source claims that “her first attempt to speak in public…was a fiasco when she managed only to choke and then sit down, overcome.” While this may have been true, she very quickly found her courage; after one of her earliest forays into lecturing, she said:

Voice actor reading from Wallace:  the moment I began to speak all terror left me, and the devotion I felt for my theme gave me an almost superhuman confidence.

Beckley: Almost at once, Wallace became widely known as a powerful and eloquent public speaker. One Washington D.C. Newspaper described her during a speech given at the National Suffrage Convention of 1887:

Voice actor reading from newspaper: As she stood upon the platform, holding her hearers as in her hand, she looked a veritable queen in Israel in the personification of womanly dignity and lofty bearing. The line of her argument was irresistible, and her eloquence and pathos perfectly bewildering. Round after round of applause greeted her as she poured out her words with telling effect upon the great congregation before her…

[Transition music]

Beckley: Wallace did not live to see the prohibition era. However, through her temperance work, she became the catalyst of a similar outcome, on a much smaller scale, within her own church. Years into her temperance crusade, Zerelda Wallace stood up in her Disciples of Christ church service and announced that she found it inconsistent with the congregation’s beliefs to use wine for communion and that she would no longer take communion unless unfermented grape juice was substituted. The church council, which Wallace was a member of, met and it was decided that the Indianapolis church would no longer use fermented wine for communion. In short order, all Disciples of Christ churches in America followed suit.

Temperance wasn’t the only cause Zerelda Wallace dedicated the later years of her life to. We’ll get to Wallace’s work in woman’s suffrage after we take a quick break.

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Beckley: When first reading about Zerelda Wallace, one thing that really stuck in my mind was her dramatic transformation from temperance worker to suffragist. This “conversion story,” as it’s called in some sources, depicts the one moment when she shifted from a temperance leader to a suffrage leader. In doing more research on her life, I’ve found that it wasn’t so much a conversion; that word implies that she left one cause behind when she took up the next. In reality, her suffrage work developed out of her temperance work, just as her temperance work developed out of her faith. Nevertheless, suffragists discussed this watershed moment in Wallace’s political involvement even many years after her death.

Her “great awakening” as some have called it, took place in 1875 in the Indiana State House. Wallace and other Indiana WCTU leaders presented a petition signed by 10,000 women from around the state. Wallace took the floor and delivered what was by many accounts a very persuasive and moving argument for temperance. She was met with open contempt and derision from the senators; one senator rose and declared that her petition “might as well have been signed by ten thousand mice.” He went on, saying that the lawmakers were there “not to represent their consciences, but to represent their constituents.” Wallace walked away from the experience changed. She later described it as a light breaking over her…Why wasn’t she a constituent? She was an adult citizen of Indiana. She was affected by the laws these men were making. So why did she not have the right to influence those laws? She later summed up these thoughts beautifully,

Voice actor reading from Wallace: If we women are citizens, if we are governed, if we are a part of the people, according to the plain declarations of the fundamental principles which underlie this nation, we are as much entitled to vote as you, and you cannot make an argument against us that would not disfranchise yourselves.

Beckley: So, on that day, she added suffrage to her agenda, as she saw that temperance wouldn’t be achieved if women didn’t have the vote. Before leaving the State House, she found the offending senator and thanked him for making her a suffragist.

[Modern music]

Wallace’s suffrage work, much like her Temperance advocacy, was very moderate. To modern ears, some of her speeches are maddening. She often massaged the egos of the men she was speaking to, expounding on their accomplishments and expressing gratitude to them for building the great world around her. But it’s important not to bring a modern bias into analysis of a 19th century figure. Wallace’s views may best be understood through the lens of republican motherhood.

[Transitional music]

Beckley: Republican motherhood is a term used by historians to describe ideas that go back to 18th century philosophers, including John Locke, whose work, as previously mentioned, Wallace was familiar with. Simply put, republican motherhood turned woman’s domestic and moral roles into an argument for political power. The thinking went like this: Women raise boys into men and so presumably have a hand in shaping their political and moral identities. Surely, then, women who are able to participate in the political system not only raise more politically savvy men, but also introduce into politics that same morality that they instill into their children. It was a way for women to gain more political power without threatening the existing patriarchal system. Wallace’s background fit perfectly into this school of thought; it was only after she fulfilled her duties as wife and mother that she began devoting her time to social reform. She didn’t shirk her domestic responsibilities to take up politics. And it was only for moral betterment that she took up the cause at all. In short, she was a perfect picture of republican motherhood.

[Transition music]

Beckley: We can see many of these ideas reflected clearly in speech she delivered in 1890:

Voice actor reading Wallace: …pre-eminently woman is the teacher of the race; in virtue of her motherhood she is the character builder; she forms the soul life; she rears the generations. It is not part of woman’s work to contend with man for supremacy over the material forces. It was never told to woman that she should earn her bread by the sweat of her brow.

Beckley: Using these sentiments, Wallace attempted to steer Indiana and the nation towards greater equality. In May 1875, just months after she had stood in front of the Indiana senate with her temperance petition, Wallace began to incorporate suffrage sentiments into her temperance speeches. She presented a resolution at the second temperance convention in Cincinnati calling for a national vote of men and women on the issue of prohibition, subtly calling for universal suffrage. Due in large part to her astute manner of speaking on the issue, the measure passed, and even gained support from anti-suffragists. From there, Wallace began traveling the country stumping for the cause of universal suffrage. These activities both increased her prominence within the movement and provided her with a much needed income.

Wallace was by no means a pioneer in the fight for suffrage equality. As far back as 1851, there was enough interest in the cause to warrant the formation of the Indiana Woman’s Rights Association. Unfortunately, though, the movement had stagnated due to the Civil War. In March 1878, May Wright Sewell, probably Indiana’s most prominent suffragist, discreetly circulated a summons to Hoosiers with “advanced ideas” about women’s rights to a meeting where a new organization would be formed. Ten people, including Zerelda Wallace attended that first, rather secretive meeting. The only matter decided, though, was the name; The Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Association, a name which the group agonized over, debating whether to state their goal openly in the name or to mask their intentions. Obviously, they decided on the first option and set another meeting for April, in Wallace’s living room.

That second meeting was much more fruitful; the 26 attendees drafted a constitution and elected Zerelda Wallace president. Unsurprisingly, this new organization shunned the more radical approaches taken by other entities, such as open protest and rabble-rousing speeches. Rather, they worked within the established system, one which Wallace became familiar with through her late husband. The Association turned to lobbying, organized letter-writing campaigns, well-reasoned speeches, and projected an overall reserved version of the suffrage movement in order to achieve their goals.

In 1881, their calm determination paid off; The Indiana General Assembly voted in favor of woman’s suffrage. However, the proposed amendment required the resolution to pass in the next General Assembly and by 1883, the close connection between suffrage and temperance swayed enough assembly members away from the cause that the measure failed to pass. With that great disappointment behind her, Wallace kept at her work on both the state and national level.

In the late 1880s, the national suffrage movement was split over ideology. On one side, there was the National Woman Suffrage Association, or NWSA, which sought a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. The NWSA also campaigned for other issues, not directly related to suffrage. On the other side was the American Woman’s Suffrage Association, or AWSA, which fought solely for suffrage on a state to state basis. Until this point, Wallace and the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Association had stayed apart from any other suffrage group but, perhaps due to the continued failure of the group, despite monumental effort, to get suffrage passed in Indiana, it was decided that The Association would join the NWSA in the fight for a constitutional amendment in 1887. Soon after, Wallace was elected the vice-president of the NWSA. In a speech at the National Suffrage Convention of 1887, Wallace made quite the impression, saying:

Voice actor reading from Wallace: It took a hundred years and a Civil War to evolve the principle in our nation that all men were created free and equal. Will it require another century and another Civil War before there is secured to humanity the God-given inalienable right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?’” “Men say women are not fit to govern because they cannot fight. When men live upon a very low plane so there is only one way to manage them and that is to knock them on the head that is true. It probably was true of government in the beginning, but we are able to grow up out of this low state.” “I have nothing but pity for that woman who can fold her hands and say she has all the rights she wants.

Beckley: Wallace continued to travel the US speaking in favor of universal suffrage until she was forced to retire to her daughter’s home near Cloverdale, in Putnam County after collapsing on-stage in 1888.

Unfortunately, Wallace did not live long enough to see the actualization of the two causes she had dedicated her life to as she died on March 19, 1901. On January 1, 1920, the United States of America went dry after the passage of the 18th amendment. Less than a year later, on November 2, 1920, the first presidential election in which all Americans, regardless of gender, could legally vote, was held.

Wallace’s republican motherhood-esqe take on the suffrage issue may not fit well into today’s views of women’s roles in politics, but her measured, thoughtful, and principled approach to the subject is what made her such an effective advocate. She could, and did, go into a room full of anti-suffragists and give a speech appealing to their hearts, to their minds, and, most importantly, to their morality and leave some changed opinions in her wake. Someone more radical, who pushed more boundaries, may not have had such success.

After Wallace’s 1901 death, a “meeting of women” was organized to pay tribute to the respected reformer. One speaker explained how she was able to accomplish so much: “This woman, with her wonderful clearness of vision, was able to see the end from the beginning. She organized, encouraged, and inspired her comrades. She infused loyalty into the ranks by her own loyalty – loyalty to husband, children, loyalty to the thing she believed…loyalty in Christ.”

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been talking Hoosier History. As always, thanks to Jill Weiss, our sound engineer extraordinaire, in this episode, she had her voice acting debut as Zerelda Wallace. And thanks to Justin Clark, the voice of all newspapers here on the podcast. Remember you have a chance to win a FREE book by taking our survey. You can find the survey at Stay connected on by liking us on facebook or following us at @TalkHoosierHist and if you like what you hear, subscribe, rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts! Thanks for listening.

Show Notes for Zerelda G. Wallace: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Good Book


Barrows, Robert and Bodenhamer, David. Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. Pg. 1708-1409

Cady, Elizabeth and Anthony, Susan. History of Woman Suffrage, Volumes I-V. Rochester: Anthony, 1887-1902.

James, Edward. Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume III. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. Pg 535-536.

Riker, Dorothy. Messages and Papers of David Wallace. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1963.

Rudolph, L.C. Hoosier Faiths: A History of Indiana’s Churches and Religious Groups. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Pg 61-106.


Kerber, Linda. “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment: An American Perspective.” American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Summer, 1976): 187-205

Vogelgesang, Susan. “Zerelda Wallace: Indiana’s Conservative Radical.” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Vol4 No. 3 (Summer 1992): 34-41


Zerelda G. Wallace Historical Marker File, Indiana Historical Bureau

Special Thanks

                Jill Weiss

                                Jill is the sound engineer for Talking Hoosier History. She does everything from set up the recording equipment to selecting the music featured in each episode as well as actually mixing. In this episode, Jill also played the part of Zerelda Wallace, making her voice acting debut.

Justin Clark

                                Justin is a project assistant with the Hoosier State Chronicles newspaper digitization project who was recently awarded a two year grant for further work in newspaper digitization! He is also the voice of newspapers here on Talking Hoosier History. If you’re interested in reading historical newspaper articles or the many wonderful blog posts Justin has researched and written using those newspapers, visit Hoosier State Chronicles online.

Music Notes

Featured Historical Songs:

Edwin Christie, “Daughters of Freedom,” performed by Music for the Nation Singers, Library of Congress, accessed

Jimmie Rodger and Andrew Jenkins, “A Drunkard’s Child,” Victor Records, Discography of American Historical Recordings, accessed

Other Audio:

Hyde, “Acoustically Driven Instrumental,” Music for Creators, accessed YouTube

Joakim Harud, “Say Good Night,” Audio Library – No Copyright Music, accessed YouTube

Myuu, “You,” Music for Creators, accessed YouTube

Crimson Mourn, “Your Heart Beats Like Mine,” Music for Creators, accessed YouTube

OrangeHead, “Acoustic Inspiring,” No Copyright Music, Royalty Free Music, accessed YouTube

AShamaluevMusic, “Cinematic Background Music,” No Copyright Music, accessed Soundcloud

Roby Ardiyansah, “Cinematic Film Scores” Framelens AudioVisual, accessed YouTube

Huma-Huma, “Clouds,” Audio Library, No Copyright Music, accessed YouTube

Jingle Punks, “The Story Unfolds,” Audio Library, No Copyright Music, accessed YouTube

Kevin MacLeod, “Americana,” Free Music Library, No Copyright Music, accessed YouTube