Frances Willard organized the first local chapters of the Texas Woman's Christian Temperance Union during a series of three tours of the South between 1881 and 1883. She briefly visited Paris, Denison, and Sherman in May 1881 and organized the state's first union in Paris, at the home of prohibitionist Ebenezer L. Dohoney. Willard returned in February 1882 and spent the month speaking and organizing in sixteen towns. A state organization was formed at Paris on May 9, 1882, but was inactive until Mrs. Jenny Bland Beauchamp took over as president in 1883 and began traveling extensively. Membership was 1,500 by 1887. Black women were organized into a separate chapters, and white women oversaw this "colored work" until black leaders could be found. There were six black unions in 1886, when the first black organizer was appointed, but the number did not grow substantially until after Lucy Thurman became head of the Colored Division of the national WCTU in 1895. Texas "Number 2" or "Thurman" Union formed in Dallas in December 1897, after Mrs. Thurman spent several months in the state organizing fifteen black locals. Mrs. Eliza E. Peterson of Texarkana became president in 1898 and led the "Thurman" Union for years thereafter; membership was probably never more than a few hundred. Among whites, WCTU membership came heavily from the lower-middle and middle-class women with strong ties to evangelical Protestant churches and their missionary societies; black women usually represented the tiny class of black teachers and other professionals. Local unions were federated into district organizations (corresponding geographically to congressional districts), which in turn were subunits of the state union. Youth work was a priority: children of both sexes were organized into Loyal Temperance Legions and adolescent girls into the Young or "Y" WCTU. A state journal, The Texas White Ribbon, was named after the badge of membership and evolved out of a newsletter launched by Jenny Beauchamp in 1885, and the Loyal Temperance Legion issued The Texas Blue Violet. The WCTU did not own property and never had a permanent headquarters building. State presidents were: Mrs. S. B. (Marilda Denton) Maxey (Paris), 1882–83; Jenny Bland Beauchamp (Denton), 1883–88; Sarah C. Acheson (Denison), 1888–91; Helen M. Stoddard (Fort Worth-Indian Gap), 1891–1907; Mattie R. Turner (Dallas), 1907–08; Lelia Barlow Ammerman (Fort Worth), 1908–09; Nannie A. Curtis (Dallas-Waco), 1909–20; Cora B. Megrail (Grand Prairie), 1920–22; Lala Fay Watts (Austin), 1922–62; Ruth Horner Godbey (Houston), 1962–74.
The WCTU was formed to promote total abstinence from alcoholic beverages and put liquor dealers out of business, for the purpose of reducing crime, poverty, and immorality. Temperance women, however, followed the lead of national president Frances Willard in using the organization to structure a public and political role for women. Focusing on the drinking man's neglect and abuse of his wife and children and speaking as "organized motherhood," the WCTU promoted an agenda of social-welfare reforms and asked for woman suffrage in the name of "home protection." State and local unions were free to work for as many or as few of these causes as they chose. In 1888 the Texas WCTU became the first union in the South to take the radical step of endorsing woman suffrage, a decision that alienated the conservative rank and file. Membership dropped to fewer than 600 and did not rebound until the 1890s. As late as 1893 Texas was the only southern union doing even minimal suffrage work. When the state's first suffrage association, the Texas Equal Rights Association, was formed that year, WCTU women filled almost all of the offices. The WCTU operated through departments of work, the number of which fluctuated over the years but averaged two dozen. They included anti-narcotics, medical temperance, evangelism Sunday schools, Christian citizenship, motion pictures, good literature, social purity, prisons and jails, and work among soldiers and sailors. Under the leadership of Jenny Beauchamp the WCTU pressured the legislature into establishing a boys' reformatory at Rusk so that juveniles would cease to be incarcerated with adult prisoners. Helen Stoddard led a successful campaign to raise the age of consent as part of the organization's assault on prostitution and the double standard of morals and worked to have police matrons appointed in municipal jails. Temperance women were able to secure a law requiring alcohol education in the public schools, and Stoddard helped draft the legislation that established Texas Woman's University.
By 1910, however, new women's organizations such as the YWCA and the Texas Congress of Mothers were offering more opportunities for social-welfare voluntarism and drawing women who a generation earlier might have joined the WCTU. Although it voiced support for such reforms as compulsory education and wage and hour legislation for working women, the organization narrowed its focus. Local unions channeled their energy into demonstrations at the polls during local-option elections, and the president lobbied for constitutional prohibition. The WCTU continued to demand suffrage so that women could vote for prohibition, but it worked outside the Texas Equal Suffrage Association, which apparently had few WCTU members. Organizational growth was incremental, and union strength was concentrated in the northern part of the state, where prohibition sentiment was strongest; attempts to establish Hispanic unions in the more southern counties met with little success.
Throughout the 1920s the WCTU was part of the coalition of women's organizations that made up the Joint Legislative Council, but as sentiment mounted in favor of repealing prohibition the women concentrated heavily on antialcohol campaigns. By the 1930s the WCTU, like prohibition, had lost its progressive image: temperance women devoted themselves to polling political candidates for their views on alcohol; campaigning for "drys"; and protesting cigarette advertising, gambling, bathing-beauty contests, and suggestive motion pictures. Membership in 1930 was reported as 3,349 active and 335 honorary members-virtually the same as a decade earlier. Although in later years the WCTU claimed a membership of 10,000, the number of active dues-paying women was probably never more than half that number. As members aged in the 1940s and 1950s younger women did not come forward to replace them, and key officers served for decades in the same positions. By the 1960s the organization was moribund, and its main activity was placing books and literature in educational institutions. The last president, Ruth Horner Godbey, carried on the office until the mid-1970s; she died in 1978 at the age of eighty-six.