BORN NEAR ROCHESTER, N.Y., in 1839, to a politically active father and a well-educated, deeply supportive mother, Frances Willard absorbed their ambition and learned about social responsibility. In 1871, she committed herself to the women’s movement and to education of women as the vehicle of progress. Willard became president of the women’s college associated with Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. She was frustrated by the obstacles male administrators placed in her way, however, and went to work full-time for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Years later, she would become its president.
The WCTU was the largest and arguably most effective force for women’s rights in the United States, and many early feminists were first involved in activism through temperance reform. They saw alcohol as a substance that caused men to rape, commit domestic violence, abuse their children, be financially irresponsible and abandon their families.
Willard promoted temperance through both education and prohibition. Her aim was to bring women into the political arena through their natural concern for the home. She advocated suffrage because women had a “rightful and natural interest” in the denying or granting of saloon licenses for the sake of their children and home life.
Her involvement in the temperance movement enabled her to become politically involved in a variety of issues, including: infant mortality, dress reform, opening co-educational schools, prison reform, vocational training, labor reform, retirement programs, and child support.
Willard had the reputation of speaking eloquently, “with a fluent tongue, vivid imagination, and fervid utterance,” inspiring audiences across the nation. For the 10 years between 1879-89, Frances Willard spoke at an average rate of one meeting per day, encouraging the “White Ribbon”-wearing WCTU women to join hands with those working to heal various other social ills. During 1882-83 she visited every state and territory, bearing the message “Do Everything” to indicate how temperance was related to other reforms. She spoke forthrightly: “I do not wish to know what the country does for the rich, they can take care of themselves; but what it does for the poor determines the decency, not to say the civilization, of a government.” Willard produced many influential writings, including a vocational guidance manual for women, a reference book on 1,400 prominent women and a reinterpretation of the Bible that contended that women deserved a place in ministry and church government.
WCTU lobbied for legislation to raise the age of sexual consent for women, prosecute rapists and customers of prostitutes and fight child abuse. As with many feminists of the time, Willard and her organization opposed involuntary motherhood (which, at the time, referred to the right of women to refuse to have sex with their husbands) and addressed the lack of support and resources for single women, particularly pregnant ones, whom she referred to as “deceived and defrauded.”
Financially and through speaking engagements, she supported Chicago’s Florence Crittendon home which helped young women who came to big cities find jobs, shelter and other forms of support so they would not be forced to turn to prostitution. The WCTU began a tradition of social service agencies which recognized the victimization of women, while encouraging them to take responsibility for their and their children’s lives.
After 13 years of intense activism, she limited her public speaking for health reasons, although she continued to work in the position of National WCTU president from her home in Evanston. Temperance was a popular movement; her organizational and philosophical approaches were in the mainstream of societal thought. Her annual address to the WCTU, a summary of the country’s strengths and weaknesses and an assessment of the current status of American women, had been read alongside the president’s yearly State of the Union address. Frances Willard additionally assumed the role of World WCTU president in 1891, and held both leadership offices till her death in 1898.
At her death, flags were flown at half-staff in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Thousands of mourners—30,000 in one day—filed past her coffin to pay homage to Frances Willard, widely hailed in the 19th century as America’s “heroine.” She was the first woman to be honored with a statue in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol building.
Lisa M. Bellecci-St. Romain is an FFL member, author of three books and a public high school social worker who teaches psychology at the high school and college levels.