Suffragist of the Month, September 2017

Frances Willard – 1839 – 1898

When historians hear the name Frances Willard they immediately associate her with the temperance movement, and with good reason. Temperance was her first passion; she was President of the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) for almost twenty years, and during her tenure shaped the group into a well-organized entity, able to conduct successful campaigns of public education and political pressure. But she was also an avid suffragist and was convinced that victory in both movements was not mutually exclusive, could share the same path and could employ many of the same tactics. She set out to prove that the accomplishments of either could benefit both.

Frances Elizabeth Willard was born September 28,1839 in Churchville, New York. Her family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, and later to Janesville in the Wisconsin Territory. She was educated first at home and later in private schools. In 1859 she graduated from the Northwestern Female College in Evanston, Illinois and like many young women of her time began a career as a teacher. In 1871 she became president of the Evanston College for Ladies, and when that college merged with Northwestern University in 1873, became the first Dean of Women of the Women’s College.

The evils of alcohol abuse were well known in 1873, and much the same as they are today. Alcoholism impacted heavily on families and often led to physical abuse as well as extreme poverty from loss of wages. Impressed with the need to fight this scourge, Frances resigned her post at Evanston College for Ladies in 1874, and began her career in the temperance movement. Rising quickly through the ranks of the fledgling organization, in 1879 she was elected as President of the WCTU, a position she held for the rest of her life.

In an age where political activism by women was frowned upon, the campaign for temperance offered a platform where such activism by women was both accepted and encouraged. Additionally, Frances believed the WCTU was not just about dealing with the social problems of alcoholism, as dire as they might be. She encouraged members to use the temperance platform to deal with all programs of social reform, from social health and hygiene to prison reform and international peace, and inevitably came to realize that the tool needed for to achieve these reforms was the vote. Until they got the vote women could write letters, make speeches, circulate petitions – but their influence would be limited by their lack of the elective franchise. Under Willard’s leadership the WCTU grew to be the largest organization of women in the nineteenth century, claiming over 150,000 members, and exerting influence on many fronts, including suffrage.

Unfortunately, Frances Willard did not live to see many of her goals achieved. She died in 1898 after a lengthy illness. But her influence on 19th century America was not forgotten, and today hers is the first statue honoring a woman in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol building.(Photo, left)

Happy Birthday, Frances Willard!

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