Frances E. Willard, 1839-1898

by Jean Baker, Goucher College

Frances WillardBorn in 1839 in Churchville New York, Frances Willard became the successful president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the largest organization of women in the United States by the end of the 19th century. Her father Josiah left farming to study for the ministry at Oberlin College in Ohio when she was two, as religious influences continued to permeate the Willard home. But Josiah suffered from tuberculosis so the family moved again to the purer air in southern Wisconsin. Here, on an isolated farm, Frances Willard lived from 1846 to 1859.

Home schooled by her mother, she later attended the North Western Female College in Evanston where the Willard family had moved. After graduation she taught school, and became the dean and president of the Evanston Ladies College of Northwestern University from 1871-1874. After her resignation in a bitter dispute with the male president of Northwestern, she became an avid member of the burgeoning temperance movement. By 1879 (and for the next twenty years) she was the elected president of the WCTU. Soon, she placed that organization in the forefront of reform efforts that ranged from outlawing drinking to a social purity crusade based on opposition to pornography. Such programs were incorporated into a comprehensive plan Willard dubbed “Home Protection.”

The most controversial of Willard’s reforms was her support for suffrage. As a pragmatist she insisted that votes for women would empower females to vote for local option laws and on the national level for a prohibition amendment. With a deft appreciation for the limits of her support, she encouraged a “Do-Everything” policy that enabled members who thought suffrage too radical to work for another activity in one of the Union’s thirty-nine departments. By the 1880’s her 150,000 followers might chose working on raising the marriage age for girls or building water fountains. Willard’s effective decentralization of the organization permitted her followers—many of whom had never worked for any public campaign—to choose their cause. She died in 1898.

Frances E. Willard: Early Life (1839-1859)

The salient influences on Frances Willard’s life were her mother and her parents’ devotion to their Methodist faith. She was eight years old when the family moved to an isolated farm along the Rock River near Janesville, Wisconsin, more than two miles from the closest neighbor. Unlike her younger sister Mary who accepted traditional domestic roles, Frances was a tomboy who climbed fences, fired guns and chafed at the rule that only her older brother Oliver could ride a horse. Home schooled by a mother who taught her literature along with the Bible, Frances kept a journal to fill the lonely hours on the prairie. Even as a child she acknowledged her ambition to be somebody. She also developed a relationship with her mother that served as the model for her leadership of the WCTU. Mother Willard, an exemplar of sacrifice, hard work, and loving inspiration, became a human incarnation of her daughter’s belief in God and Jesus as spiritual providers. Although they had begun as Congregationalists, the Willards had adopted Methodism in Wisconsin, and this Protestant denomination emphasized the Christian home circle with the pious wife and mother at its center.

Frances E. Willard: Years of Challenge (1859-1874)

In 1858 Frances and her sister Mary attended the Milwaukee Female College for a term and then, after the family’s move to Evanston, the Methodist-run North Western Female College. After graduation she taught school in mostly one-room schools in Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania. During this period she also confronted a series of personal crises: her beloved younger sister Mary died in 1862; her father succumbed to tuberculosis in 1868, and her brother, now an ordained minister, descended into alcoholism. Frances Willard also confronted her sexual identity, falling in love with another woman who eventually married Frances’s brother. For the rest of her life Willard’s erotic intimacies involved other women.

In 1871 the trustees of the Evanston Ladies College of Northwestern University invited Frances Willard to become head of an institution precariously balanced between autonomy as a separate institution for women and domination by the male-controlled Northwestern University. For three years Willard ran the Ladies College until Charles Fowler, the president of Northwestern and a former suitor of Frances Willard’s, challenged the autonomy of the Ladies College. In 1874 as more authority slipped from her hands, she resigned. Soon she found a new endeavor for her ambitions and talents.

Frances E. Willard: Temperance Years (1874-1898)

In 1874 Willard who had been influenced by a spontaneous midwestern Woman’s Crusade against taverns, joined the WCTU. At the time the movement was a loose conglomeration of a few thousand women. By 1879 after a struggle for its leadership the charismatic Willard began the process of shaping the association into a decentralized modern organization with thirty-nine departments. As president Willard initiated her “Home Protection” endeavor in which temperance was linked to protection of the home. Such a tactic made it possible for conservative women to work for a public cause which had implications for their private lives. She also developed her “Do-Everything” strategy which permitted local women to develop programs to improve prisons, to set up temperance teahouses, hotels and drinking fountains, and to raise the marriage age for girls. Under her leadership the movement claimed 500,000 dues-paying members in the 1890’s.

Willard’s most radical program involved her support for women’s suffrage. In the 1890’s her efforts to fuse the temperance movement into a political party with Populists and members of the Prohibition Party as well as suffragists proved unsuccessful. While she traveled to the South several times and intended to use temperance as a post Civil War unifying bridge for northerners and southerners, she never challenged racial segregation. Nor did she support the anti-lynching campaign of Ida Wells, a young black activist working to end the lynching of black males.

Today Willard’s campaign is often characterized as an archaic, cranky crusade against liquor, and her reputation has suffered. While her cause has been diminished in the last century, she nonetheless transformed a Christian organization of conservative women into an international movement that in the United States would culminate in the passage of the prohibition amendment in 1918.