Willard, Frances (1839-1898)

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Frances Willard (1839-1898)

Temperance leader, suffragist


Early Life. Born in September 1839 in Churchville, New York, Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard, the fourth of five children, was the daughter of Mary Hill Willard and Josiah Flint Flint Willard, a farmer and cabinet maker. Willards first ancestor in the New World was Simon Willard, who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634 and made a name for himself as an Indian fighter and as a founder of Concord, Massachusetts. When Frances was two, her family moved to Ohio, where her father enrolled at Oberlin College to study for the ministry. Her unconventional mother also took courses until Josiah Willard was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1845. The following year, on the advice of his doctor, her father moved the family to a large farm in Janesville, Wisconsin. Frances Willard grew up on the western prairie. For years she was a tomboy, preferring the nickname Frank and wearing her hair short like her brothers. She longed for an education and chafed under her fathers strict discipline.

Education. Educated at home while her brothers attended the district school, Frances Willard finally went to school at age fifteen, when a private school opened in Janesville. In spring 1857 she studied for one term at Milwaukee Normal Institute, founded by Catharine Beecher, sister of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe and a pioneer in womens education. The next year she entered North Western Female College in Evanston, Illinois, graduating in 1860. Throughout the 1860s Willard taught in Methodist schools in Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania. After touring Europe and the Middle East with a wealthy friend during 1868-1870, Willard was appointed president of the Evanston Ladies College in 1871. Two years later the college was absorbed by the all-male Northwestern University, becoming the Womans College of Northwestern University, and Willard was made dean of women, with an increase in salary and authority. Willard was one of the first female administrators of a major coeducational university. In 1873 she helped to found the Association for the Advancement of Women.

The WCTU. In 1874, after a year as dean, Willard resigned her post and began what became her true life-work, when she took the position of corresponding secretary for the newly organized Womans Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). She acted as an organizer and traveled the country giving lectures. Willards commitment to woman suffrage did not threaten midwestern supporters of temperance as much as it did easterners, many of whom viewed woman suffrage as a means of achieving full prohibition of alcohol. In 1879 Willard combined her two commitments when she led a campaign in Evanston that lobbied the Illinois legislature for the right of women to vote in local referendums on the sale of liquor. Her efforts in Illinois were unsuccessful, but they gained her a national reputation, and she was elected president of the national WCTU that same year.

Master Politician. Assuming the leadership of the WCTU at the age of forty, Willard headed the organization for the next twenty years. Because she was also linked to the woman suffrage movement, Willard became one of the best known and most influential women of the late nineteenth century. Her energy was renowned. By 1883 she had lectured in every state of the union. She was a master organizer and a speaker with a reputation for wit. A member of many organizationsincluding the International Council of Women, the Universal Peace Union, and the General Federation of Womens ClubsWillard made the WCTU an international organization, becoming president of the World WCTU.

Supporting Woman Suffrage. Willard appreciated the power of the ballot and was a lifelong supporter of suffrage for women. Yet her organization proved more conservative than Willard on this issue, so she moved cautiously by protecting the rights of local WCTU branches to set their own agendas. Thus, southern women, who tended to be skeptical about suffrage, and western women, who tended to support suffrage, could share the same banner. Willard herself continued to favor suffrage, arguing that having the right to vote would further enable women to protect their homes and families. In 1887 she presented to the U.S. Congress a petition for women suffrage signed by two hundred thousand WCTU members. The following year she testified before a Senate committee, presenting herself as a conservative woman devoted to the idea of the ballot.

Later Life. Willard suffered from chronic anemia and other ailments and spent much of the 1890s in England trying to regain her health. After she died on 17 February 1898, at age fifty-eight, more than twenty thousand people paid their last respects at services in New York City and Chicago.


Ruth Bordin, Frances Willard: A Biography (Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 1986);

Bordin, Women and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990).

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Frances Elizabeth Willard

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