PHELPS, LILLIAN MARIETTA (Minnie), temperance reformer; b. 1 June 1859 in Merritton (St Catharines), Upper Canada, daughter of Judson Canfield Phelps, a blacksmith, and Eliza A. Street; d. there unmarried 13 Jan. 1920.
Little is known of the early life of Minnie Phelps, as she was known, except that she was raised in the Methodist faith, became a gifted speaker, and graduated from the Philadelphia School of Oratory. She was a prime example of the young, single, and evangelical woman who was drawn to the fledgling Ontario Woman’s Christian Temperance Union after its founding in 1877 by Letitia Youmans [Creighton*].
Phelps served as its first recording secretary, from 1877 to 1881, and as an organizer and lecturer throughout the 1880s and 1890s. In this role she visited many women’s groups in the hope of founding local WCTU unions; among those that she helped organize were the unions of Lincoln, Welland, and Oxford counties. She herself was president of the WCTU in St Catharines at various times from the 1880s until after the turn of the century. As well, established unions frequently invited her to speak at their meetings; in 1893, for example, she was much admired as a lecturer by the WCTU in London, Ont. That same year, in honour of her service, Phelps was named the WCTU’s dominion commissioner for the Columbian exposition in Chicago. In 1895 she was selected to go to London, England, to attend both the biennial council of the World’s WCTU and the council of the British Women’s Temperance Association.
Phelps was one of the many strong personalities to head the “departments of work” of the Ontario WCTU in its early years; among her colleagues were Mary Wiley [McLellan*] and Huldah S. Rockwell [McMullen*]. A freelance writer on women’s and temperance subjects, in 1881–86 Phelps was superintendent of the press department, which sought to have WCTU concerns and activities reported positively in local newspapers. From 1891 to 1894 she was superintendent of the department of parliamentary usages, through which procedures were implemented to formalize the WCTU’s proceedings and make its resolutions appear legitimate to the public. She founded in 1894 and supervised until 1897 a department of work among blacks, one of the WCTU’s earliest attempts to limit blacks’ consumption of alcohol by enlisting the support of women in Ontario’s black communities. After an enthusiastic beginning under Phelps’s direction, the task proved to be more daunting than the WCTU had expected. Local black departments, notably in the Toronto area, did not survive for more than a few years in the 1890s. Probably the WCTU had been unwilling to provide meaningful roles in leadership for black women, choosing instead to regard them as the victims of alcohol. Such a position would have been ironic since one of the strengths of the WCTU was that it regarded its middle-class members and many working-class women as capable of reforming themselves, their families, and society.
Though temperance was at the centre of her public activism – she belonged as well to the Independent Order of Good Templars – Phelps was also motivated by a strong sense of justice for women. In 1883 she had joined the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association, and in an article published in 1890 she argued persuasively for equity for women in employment, pay, and the vote. Although she identified great disparities between women’s and men’s wages in teaching and in such industries as the garment trades and distilling, Phelps did not call for external controls to correct the abuses. “I do not ask that woman plead protection from these glaring evils. I do not ask that woman may have a chance to protect herself by the same lines as the other fraction of the human whole man – because there are about as many women as men who have to rely upon their energies for bread.” In wanting to free women to search for solutions to injustice through education, and give them an unfettered civic and societal voice, Phelps reflected the evangelical arguments about the ways to improve women’s lot and society in general, as put forward by the Ontario WCTU in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The St Catharines Daily Standard described Phelps in 1894 as a public lecturer whose “oratorical excellence” had “placed her in the first rank among women speakers.” An obituary would note that she had lectured in all parts of the United States. She does not appear in the reports of the WCTU after 1905, and whether she continued to travel or lecture is not known.
Phelps died in 1920 at her family’s home in Merritton and was buried in Victoria Lawn Cemetery; she was survived by her father and brother.
AO, F 885, MU 8379, MU 8404, MU 8407–9; RG 22-235, no.4560; RG 80-8-0-769, no.22941. NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Grantham Township, Ont., div.3: 70. Univ. of Western Ont. Library, Regional Coll. (London), Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, London District records, March 1893. Daily Standard (St Catharines, Ont.), 12 Jan. 1894, 23 May 1895, continued as St. Catharines Standard, 14, 17 Jan. 1920. E. J. Archibald, “The Dominion Womans Christian Temperance Union,” Dominion Illustrated Monthly (Montreal), [2nd ser.], 2 (February–September 1893): 251–59 (photo of Phelps on p.256). C. L. Bacchi, Liberation deferred? The ideas of the English-Canadian suffragists, 1877–1918 (Toronto, 1983). S. G. E[lwood] McKee, Jubilee history of the Ontario Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1877–1927 (Whitby, Ont., [1927?]).