Curtis, Nannie Austin (1861–1920)

By: Judith N. McArthur

Type: Biography

Published: December 1, 1994

Updated: April 19, 2021

Nannie Curtis, lecturer and temperance reformer, was born on June 22, 1861, in Hardin County, Tennessee (one source claims Texas), the daughter of Rev. D. J. and Julia Ann (Couch) Austin. She was a distant relative of Moses and Stephen F. Austin. Her early education was acquired in Tennessee according to one source, and Mississippi according to another. She reportedly moved to Texas with her family as a young girl.

When Frances Willard organized the first Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Texas in Paris in May 1881, Nannie Austin was among the women participating in the founding. On June 12, 1881, she married W. J. Webb in Mississippi. The couple had four sons, one of whom died in infancy. Nannie Webb was elected secretary of the Texas WCTU at the first state convention in 1882, but she later resigned the office, as she said, "on account of numerous and persistent babies." Her husband died in 1891 in California, where the family had moved for his health. Nannie Webb returned to Texas in 1892 and spent a year in Bivins (Cass County) and the next two years teaching in Queen City (Cass County). She married I. S. Curtis of Texarkana in June of 1893 or 1894. In 1895 she taught at Central College in Sulphur Springs (Hopkins County) and then entered North Texas Female College (later Kidd-Key College) in Sherman for a two-year course in oratory.

Nannie Curtis began a long and successful career on the lecture platform after completing her training in public speaking. She became a renowned Chautauqua lecturer, known as the "Queen of the Southern Platform." Her crusade for prohibition in local elections attracted the attention of the national WCTU, and in 1900 she became WCTU state organizer for Texas. In 1906 or 1907 she was elected to the board of national lecturers and became a national organizer. She was also a member of the national executive committee and the official board, the lawmaking arm of the organization. She took over the presidency of the state branch of the Texas Woman's Christian Temperance Union in 1909 and served until her death in 1920. She also served at one time as editor of the Texas White Ribbon, the state WCTU paper. In addition, she contributed articles to numerous periodicals around the country and collaborated on a Texas medical journal known as the "Red Back."

Like most WCTU members, Nannie Curtis believed that putting the ballot in women's hands would bring national prohibition closer to actuality, and she campaigned across the South for both causes, earning the nicknames "Henry Clay of her sex" and "silver-tongued orator of Dixie." Firmly committed to the progressive coalition in Texas politics, she celebrated passage of legislation permitting women to vote in the state primary by founding the Texas Woman's Democratic League in 1918. As chairwoman, she urged women to do their part toward cleaning up state politics by paying their poll taxes and voting and supporting lobbying efforts for woman suffrage and constitutional statewide prohibition. As president of the Texas WCTU, she joined the leaders of other women's organizations in 1918 in organizing the female vote behind Governor William Hobby's successful primary campaign against James Ferguson. Ferguson, the antireform candidate and an old enemy of the prohibitionists, had been denounced by Curtis's WCTU earlier, during his fight with the University of Texas.

Curtis undertook speaking tours for liberty bonds during World War I, led the Armenian Relief Commission in Texas, and was an annual delegate to the Southern Sociological Congress. As a member of the Child Welfare Conference, she was one of 250 women called to discuss national welfare in Washington, D.C., in 1920. After many years as a Baptist, she joined the Methodist Church after her marriage to I. S. Curtis. She was a member of both the Lincoln and the International Lyceum lecture bureaus. She died in Dallas on March 29, 1920, and was buried in Oakland Cemetery. She was survived by three sons. On June 15, 1920, the Texas Senate recognized her contribution to social reform in a resolution of appreciation.

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Austin American, March 30, 1920. May Baines, A Story of Texas White Ribboners (1935?). Minnie Fisher Cunningham Papers, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library. Dallas Morning News, March 30, 1920. Alexander Caswell Ellis Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Lewis L. Gould, Progressives and Prohibitionists: Texas Democrats in the Wilson Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1992). Home and State, April 15, 1920. Sinclair Moreland, The Texas Women's Hall of Fame (Austin: Biographical Press, 1917). Texas Woman's Christian Temperance Union Scrapbook, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Woman's Who's Who of America (New York: American Commonwealth, 1914).

  • Education
  • Educators
  • General Education
  • Women
  • Suffragists and Antisuffragists
  • Temperance
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • East Texas
  • Northeast Texas
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Judith N. McArthur, “Curtis, Nannie Austin,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 17, 2022,

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December 1, 1994
April 19, 2021

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