Lillian Stevens, born Lillian Marilla (or Marion according to some sources) Nickerson Ames on March 1, 1844, in Dover, was concerned about many of the social issues of her time. Her parents, school teacher Nathaniel Ames and Nancy Fowler (Parsons) Ames, made sure their daughter had the religious and educational foundation to think beyond the traditional roles for women.
Stevens was a graduate of Foxcroft Academy and Westbrook College, then taught at the Spruce Street and Stroudwater Schools in Westbrook. She married Michael Stevens, a wholesaler in Portland, in 1867, according to author Jeff Hollingsworth in his book “Magnificent Mainers.” They had one daughter, Gertrude Rose.
After the Civil War, women around the country were mobilizing against the evils of alcohol, and in 1874, Lillian Stevens was among the leading women who formed the Maine Woman’s Christian Temperance Union after hearing a speech by the national leader, Frances Willard, according to Kate Kennedy’s “More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Maine Women.” Stevens was elected treasurer then, and became president of the Maine group in 1878. She drove her horse, Madge, nearly 50,000 miles all over Maine, visiting nearly every town, to drum up support for the cause, Kennedy wrote.
Stevens’ husband supported her efforts and shared her beliefs about alcohol, according to Hollingsworth.
Lillian Stevens’ concerns about the production and consumption of alcohol led her to other types of social reforms, including helping neglected children and women who were victims of domestic abuse and establishing shelters for homeless women. She visited the jails often to try to help the unfortunate people incarcerated there.
She also lobbied the Legislature in Augusta for a women’s reformatory and for laws that would cure some of the social ills she and others identified.
Stevens was a strong advocate for women’s rights and became involved in the suffrage movement, although the National Woman’s Suffrage Association asked her to withdraw, which she did. Stevens had some powerful enemies and the voting rights group didn’t want their association to become muddied with temperance, according to Kennedy.
All of Stevens’ work caught the attention of Willard, president of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, who took Stevens under her wing and elevated her influence well beyond Maine. Willard made Stevens vice president at large. Stevens became president of the national organization in 1898, after Willard’s death. She later became vice president at large of the World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
By 1900, the temperance union had chapters in every state and territory and in 58 other countries, totaling more than 500,000 members, according to Hollingsworth. The National WCTU, under Stevens’ leadership, lobbied the U.S. Congress to ban alcohol production and consumption after several individual states passed prohibition laws. Congress approved a prohibition amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. It was repealed in 1933.
At the height of the battle to win national prohibition, Stevens died of kidney failure on April 6, 1914. Her body was cremated and she was buried in Stroudwater Cemetery in Portland near her home, now located in the Stroudwater National Historic District.
The national WCTU still exists in Evanston, Ill., and has a Web site, www.wctu.org.
Sources: Maine Historical Society’s digital museum Maine Memory Network (www.mainememory.net); “Magnificent Mainers” by Jeff Hollingsworth, Covered Bridge Press, North Attleborough, Mass., 1995; “More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Maine Women” by Kate Kennedy, TwoDot, The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Conn., 2005.
Maine’s history is full of female pioneers who blazed a path for the women of today. The Bangor Daily News, in cooperation with the Maine Historical Society’s online museum Maine Memory Network, the Maine FolkLife Center and others, will highlight a different woman each day throughout March. If you are just joining us for this series, you may find the installments you have missed at www.bangordailynews.com. This postcard (circa 1900) shows Hilltop, which was the home of Lillian M.N. and Michael Stevens in Portland. A photo of Lillian Stevens, president of the Maine Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in 1878, is inset in the upper righthand corner of the postcard.