Willard, Frances E. (1839–1898)

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Willard, Frances E. (1839–1898)

American president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, who actively advocated for the prohibition of alcohol and other reforms affecting women, including the "home protection ballot." Born Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard on September 28, 1839, in Churchville, near Rochester, New York; died in New York City on February 17, 1898, of pernicious anemia; daughter of Josiah Willard (a farmer and businessman) and Mary (Hill) Willard (a teacher); educated at a district school near Janesville, Wisconsin; attended private school in Janesville (one winter), Milwaukee Normal Institute (one term), North Western Female College (three terms, Laureate of Science, 1860); never married; lived with Anna Adams Gordon (1853–1931); no children.

Moved with family to Oberlin, Ohio (1841–46); moved with family to a farm near Janesville on Wisconsin frontier (1846–58); moved to Evanston, Illinois, when she enrolled at North Western, where she lived for the rest of her life; taught school and published occasional articles (1862–66); traveled in Europe and Middle East (1868–70); served as president, Northwestern University's Ladies College (1871–74); served as president, Chicago Woman's Christian Temperance Union (1874–76); was secretary, NationalWCTU (1874–77); served as president, Illinois WCTU (1878); served as president, National WCTU (1879–98); served as president, World WCTU (1891–97); inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York (autumn 2000).

Selected writings:

Nineteen Beautiful Years (1863); Woman and Temperance (1883); How to Win: A Book for Girls (1886); Woman in the Pulpit (1888); Glimpses of Fifty Years: The Autobiography of an American Woman (1889); Evanston: A Classic Town: The Story of Evanston by an Old-Timer (1891); A Great Mother (1894); A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle (1895); (ed. with Mary Livermore) A Woman of the Century (1893); (ed. with Helen Winslow and Sallie White) Occupations for Women (1897).

"Do everything," said Frances Willard to her thousands of followers in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and throughout America. And everything is what she herself tried to do, as leader of the first great organization of American women. When Willard initially used the phrase in an 1881 presidential address to the WCTU, she was referring to tactics rather than goals: lobbying, petition, moral suasion, gospel temperance, and publicity. Over the next decade, however, the term came to mean that the social issues of her day were all interrelated and must be attacked simultaneously. She expanded the WCTU, founded just five years before she became president, into a national and international political force. She tried to bring together various third party and reform groups into a strong coalition. She not only campaigned for a federal amendment for prohibition of alcohol but urged the adoption of a "home protection ballot" so that women could vote against the establishment of saloons in their neighborhoods, and eventually supported women's right to the full franchise. She argued for women to be ordained as ministers in churches and included in church government. She embraced diet and exercise fads as well as dress reform and schemes for easing the drudgery of housework. She worked with the WCTU to establish day nurseries for poor working women, and endorsed the free kindergarten movement, federal aid to education to compel Southern states to educate blacks, and a department of hygiene to study municipal sanitation. She lobbied for "social evil reform," to raise the age of consent, hold men equally guilty in prostitution offenses, and strengthen and enforce laws against rape. She personally supported the labor movement and Christian socialism. And at the end of her life, with her health in decline, she still summoned energy to work for the relief of Armenian refugees. In addition, she wrote ten books, on everything from family biography to bicycle riding.

Frances Willard was a "welcome child," according to her own account. Her brother Oliver was four at the time of her birth in 1839, but her parents had lost their next two babies, including a 14-month-old daughter the year before Frances was born. Their mother remembered that child as having "a disposition without a flaw," and Willard's biographer Ruth Bordin suggests that Frances may have worked especially hard all her life trying to make up for the loss to her mother. Mary Hill Willard was a teacher for 11 years before her marriage and continued to teach her children and other pupils at home. In 1841, when the Willards moved to Oberlin where Josiah Willard intended to study for the ministry, Mary enrolled as well in the country's first co-educational college.

In 1846, Josiah gave up his ambition for the ministry, and moved to a farm on the Wisconsin frontier near Janesville, where he became a gentleman farmer. Oliver was sent to school, but Frances and her sister Mary , three years younger, were educated by their mother, who urged them to keep journals, and did not require them to do housework. "Frank" (a common nickname for Frances) enjoyed carpentry and outdoor activities shared with her brother; she also published occasional pieces in local farm journals. Josiah joined the Free Soil Party, was elected to the Wisconsin legislature in 1848, and was also active in the Washingtonians, a prewar organization that worked with recovering alcoholics. Although he could be authoritarian, he also cooked meals and tended babies. He made no secret of his preference for Frances' sister Mary, a docile and lovely girl, but he accompanied Frances to publish her first book and go to her first jobs.

Frances' formal education was limited to a short spell in 1857 at the Milwaukee Normal Institute (her father brought her and Mary back home after one term) and then at the North Western Female College in Evanston, where Frances quickly earned a reputation as "the wildest girl in the school" for pranks like climbing the college steeple during study hours. Perhaps for that reason, the Willards rented out their farm and moved to Evanston so Frances could live at home.

After leaving North Western, Willard tried a number of different career paths. During the next eight years, she taught for short periods of time at a Cook County one-room public school, an academy at Kankakee, as "preceptress" of natural sciences at North Western, at the Pittsburgh Female College, and a final two-year assignment at the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, New York. She considered it a "hedged up life," however, and after the death from tuberculosis of her sister Mary in 1862, she spent the summer of 1863 writing a biography of her sister, Nineteen Beautiful Years. Her father sold the Evanston house which reminded him too powerfully of Mary and built a new one, "Rest Cottage," where Frances Willard would live for the rest of her life.

Do everything.

—Frances Willard

During her time at Genesee, Willard became corresponding secretary for the Methodist Ladies Centenary Association, to raise money for the Garrett Theological Seminary. Her signature on the acknowledgments which went out all over the country gave her great name recognition. At Genesee, Willard met Katharine Jackson , and traveled with her to Europe and the Middle East from 1868 to 1870, visiting European universities and studying foreign languages. Although Willard had become engaged in 1861 to Charles Fowler, later president of Northwestern University, she broke off the engagement because she was reluctant to give up her independence. Kate Jackson was the first of several close female friends who, along with her mother, provided Willard with emotional support throughout her life.

When Willard and Jackson returned to Evanston, they found that a new Ladies College had been chartered and Northwestern University had proposed a union. Willard, well educated after her stint in Europe and experienced in fund-raising through her work at Garrett, was named president of the new college. A number of problems, including the succession to the presidency of her former fiancé Fowler, harassment from male students, and financing problems with their building after the Chicago fire led to Willard's resignation in 1874.

Willard was at a crossroads. Her experiences in Europe had intensified her resolve to do something for women, but she was unsure of whether to continue as an educator or an administrator. An anti-saloon crusade, characterized as the "woman's war" in the press, began in December 1873 and lasted until the fall of 1874. Women marched by the hundreds, invaded bars with opened Bibles, or knelt in the streets outside. Temperance became the most important women's issue of the day, leading to the organization of the Woman's Christian Temperance Organization.

Willard was eager to work for the temperance movement. As a Methodist, she had been brought up to abstain from alcohol, although in Europe she had, on doctor's advice, taken wine instead of potentially contaminated water. She was, however, concerned that she could not earn a living through temperance work. On a visit to Maine to attend a temperance meeting, she opened a Bible in her hotel to the passage: "Trust in the Lord and do good. So shalt thou dwell in the land and verily thou shalt be fed." This technique was not unusual among her contemporaries, and throughout her life Frances Willard would be open to psychic investigations. She accepted a position as president of the Chicago Woman's Temperance organization and found she was good at preaching to men and boys whom she hoped to lure away from the temptation of drink. In the fall of 1874, she was elected secretary of the Illinois WCTU, and she represented Chicago at the first national convention of the WCTU, where she was elected corresponding secretary of the national organization, a position she held until 1877.

"Do everything" could have been her motto at this time in her life as well. In 1875, while she was president of the Chicago union and secretary of the Illinois WCTU, she took on the massive correspondence of the national group and yet still found time to work as before with derelicts in the Chicago Loop and to speak in the Chicago area. During 80 days over the summer, she wrote 2,000 letters and delivered 40 speeches.

Willard threw herself into the work she felt called to do, though not without sidelong glances at other possibilities over the next few years. In the spring of 1875, Willard met Anna E. Dickinson , a celebrity on the lecture circuit. Willard tried to interest Dickinson in temperance work, but Dickinson preferred the podium. Willard had given many talks to temperance and church audiences and had even taken voice lessons; after she met Dickinson, she realized she could be a professional lecturer. In 1876, Willard spoke before ever larger forums, including the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and at Chautauqua. The following year, she was asked by evangelist Dwight Moody to join his lecture circuit, and although she was unable to work with him for long due to a number of differences, she earned a nationwide reputation from the association. On tour with him, she also met Anna Adams Gordon , a young woman who would be her companion and private secretary for the rest of her life.

Frances' brother Oliver died in the spring of 1878, and for a few months she took over his position as editor of the Chicago Post. She could not save the financially troubled paper, and it was sold in the early summer. After that, Willard worked exclusively within the temperance movement.

In 1876, she began to call for woman suffrage, as a "home protection ballot." It was part of Willard's political genius to start with the non-controversial belief that a woman had a duty to her home, and then to extend the implications gradually from voting on local liquor licenses, to universal suffrage, to involvement in other social issues which affect the family, such as education, economics and crime. In 1876, the WCTU convention voted against the suffrage resolution, as many women were horrified at the notion of "trail[ing] our skirts through the mire of politics." But by 1892, the WCTU's official publication would call for woman suffrage as a right, not merely as a means to an end.

Gordon, Anna Adams (1853–1931)

American social reformer . Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 21, 1853; died in Castile, New York, on June 15, 1931; fourth daughter and fourth of seven children of James Monroe Gordon (a bank cashier and treasurer of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions) and Mary Elizabeth (Clarkson) Gordon; attended public schools in Newton, Massachusetts; attended Mt. Holyoke Seminary, 1871–72, and Lasell Seminary, Auburndale, Massachusetts; never married; no children; lived with Frances Willard.

Became secretary to Frances E. Willard (1877); joined Woman's Christian Temperance Union (1879), serving as vice president (1898–1925); appointed superintendent of juvenile work, World Woman's Christian Temperance Union (1891), and advanced to president (1922); author of several books, including The Beautiful Life of Frances E. Willard (1898), and song collections, among them Young People's Temperance Chorus Book (1911), Marching Songs for Young Crusaders (1916), and Jubilee Songs (1923).

Anna Adams Gordon was born in 1853 in Boston, Massachusetts, and attended college at both Mt. Holyoke Seminary (later to become Mt. Holyoke College) and Lasell Seminary. A studious young woman with a strong interest in music, Gordon found her life changed forever when she attended a revival program held by evangelist Dwight L. Moody that was held in Boston in 1877. There she met Frances E. Willard , a young social idealist, and a lifelong friendship was formed. Gordon became Willard's secretary, moving from New England to Willard's native Midwest, where she resided with her friend and shared her interest in social change.

When Willard became active in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1879, Gordon followed her lead, supporting Willard's term as president with her clerical and organizational skills. Both with Willard and on her own, Gordon traveled throughout the United States on behalf of the WCTU, speaking out on the evils of strong drink and aiding in the organization of local branches and children's auxiliary units. Her work with young people particularly inspired Gordon, and she wrote several marching songs for use by the WCTU branch dealing directly with children. In 1891, at age 38, Gordon became supervisor of juvenile work for the World Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU), a new incarnation of the WCTU.

After Willard's death in 1898, Gordon became vice president of the U.S. branch of the WWCTU, and helped that organization expand its agenda to address the growing grassroots movement to urge the passage of legislation prohibiting the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages within the United States. Lobbying efforts by Gordon convinced President Woodrow Wilson to curtail the commercial use of foods specifically used in the manufacture of alcoholic beverages, and after the 18th Amendment was passed, she pushed the WWCTU to aid in the enforcement of the government's new Prohibition legislation. President of the international organization by the early 1920s, Gordon resigned her vice-presidency with the national affiliate in 1925, devoting the remainder of her life to expanding the WWCTU's focus to include the Americanization of immigrants, child-welfare legislation, and improving the condition of working women throughout the industrialized world.

In addition to her dedication to social reform, Gordon remained dedicated to her friend even after Willard's death, publishing The Beautiful Life of Frances E. Willard (1898) and What Frances E. Willard Said (1905). Other books by Gordon include Marching Songs for Young Crusaders (1916) and Everybody Sing (1924), collections of many of the songs she wrote during her early years with the WCTU. Gordon died in Castile, New York, in 1931, age 78.


McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut

In 1877, Willard resigned as secretary of the national WCTU, and challenged the leadership of president Annie Wittenmyer , one of those opposed to suffrage. Willard's support meant much to suffrage leaders like Susan B. Anthony , because the WCTU, which almost doubled its 1876 membership of 13,000 in one year, was much larger than the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1878, Willard became president of the Illinois WCTU and led the first campaign for the home protection ballot. Although their petition to the state legislature failed, Willard received a great deal of publicity for her leadership. At the 1879 convention, Willard, 40, was elected president of the WCTU, a post she would hold for nearly 20 years. By 1881, the WCTU accepted the home protection ballot as part of its program.

During the 1880s, Willard became the most famous woman of her time. The WCTU expanded from 27,000 members to almost 200,000. During those ten years, she was away from home nearly continuously, averaging a meeting a day, and visiting 1,000 American cities and towns at least once. She supported her household, including herself, her mother and Anna Gordon, with lecture fees, even after she began to receive a salary from the WCTU in 1886.

Among Willard's most ambitious undertakings were her tours of the South, where women had little history of volunteer organizations or politics. There as elsewhere, her ability to reassure suspicious audiences by her gracious and womanly demeanor, and to lead them slowly toward her goal, were successful. The time was right, too, being after Reconstruction but before the repressive Jim Crow laws of the 1890s. She was invited to address not only white audiences but African-American ones as well.

During the 1880s, Willard published four more books. Due to her celebrity, they were all popular, even though they were hastily written and more propaganda than literature. Her autobiography, Glimpses of Fifty Years, published in 1889, was a bestseller. Her annual speech to the WCTU fall convention was the occasion for her principal message to the public at large, and she made a ritual of going into seclusion for some time beforehand to compose each one. The halls where she delivered the addresses were packed, and the press coverage she received was greater than that accorded to any other contemporary woman, according to Bordin.

Frances Willard customarily put in a long day, writing between 40 and 60 letters, often with the help of one or more secretaries. She liked domestic comforts but knew her surroundings would have to be made "wholesome and delightful by other hands than mine." Anna Gordon functioned as Willard's capable chief of staff. After her brother's death, Frances Willard's two nephews had continuing problems with alcohol, which could have proved embarrassing to her as a temperance worker. She took much responsibility for their welfare.

As president of the first large women's organization, Willard was in a position to exert political force. This she was prepared to do, although she preferred to call it "influence." Her first move away from a narrow focus on prohibition and the home protection ballot was her support in 1883 of the free kindergarten movement. The WCTU also pledged to work for sexual purity laws, lobbying to raise the legal age of consent for females, which was ten years of age in twenty states and seven in one. By the middle of the decade, Willard became active in the American Social Science Association, joining those who believed that problems of alcohol abuse could not be solved solely by appeals to personal morality.

She broadened not only her agenda but her power base. Although she had Republican inclinations, bolstered by her admiration for Lucy Webb Hayes , a temperance supporter, the Republican Party did not welcome women members. The Prohibition Party did. The largest third party from 1884 until 1892, it also supported the direct election of senators, an income tax, and votes for women. Willard served on the party's executive committee for ten years, from 1882 until 1891, and in 1888 campaigned for its presidential candidate. In 1886, WCTU delegates attended the national convention of the Knights of Labor, America's first mass labor organization, a union for skilled workers. They did not admit to membership anyone in the liquor trade; they were also women's rights advocates, demanding equal pay for equal work.

The publication in 1887 of Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward provided a model for the national reform impulses of all these groups. Willard read the book soon after its release, and in her 1888 WCTU convention address, she urged all her listeners to read it. Bellamy, with whom she began corresponding, had a profound effect on the development of her idea that social reform must proceed on a wide front.

Frances Willard's political influence was at its peak in the early years of the 1890s. Even without the vote, WCTU members had successfully lobbied for local option and age of consent laws in numerous communities. Education on alcohol was part of the curriculum in nearly all

public schools. They had worked to establish institutions for disabled and "delinquent" women.

A second reform movement had grown up in the 1880s. Farmers' alliances grew steadily throughout the decade, while the Prohibition Party's appeal was waning. The alliances came together as the People's Party (also known as the Populists) in 1892, surpassing the Prohibition Party in size. The two groups had much in common: a Midwestern and Western constituency composed of alienated citizens—farmers and women—interested in basic reforms. It seemed logical for the two groups to unite in the cause of change. Willard invited a number of leading reformers to an informal meeting in Chicago in 1891, to position themselves for the 1892 election. It is a measure of her political stature that 28 of them accepted her invitation, including James B. Weaver, the first presidential candidate of the People's Party, and Samuel Dickie, Prohibition Party chair. The gap between the two parties was too wide, however. Even this small group was unable to reach agreement. Although Willard was made a member of the Populists' platform committee at their convention, the People's Party would not support either prohibition or woman suffrage, and the Prohibitionists could not support a group which ignored their two most basic tenets.

At the pivotal moment when her efforts at fusion were failing, two events shifted Willard's life in a new direction. In the fall of 1891, she met Isabella Somerset , then known as Lady Henry Somerset, president of the British Woman's Temperance Association, and the two became friends and allies. And Willard's mother, long her mainstay, died. Shortly thereafter, in the summer of 1892, Willard and Gordon visited Lady Henry in England, where they spent much of the next four years. Willard came to terms with her loss by writing A Great Mother, Mary Hill Willard's biography.

The WCTU had, through missionary programs, already established an international presence. In 1884, they had begun to collect signatures on a "polyglot petition," a plea for world leaders to adopt prohibition. In 1891, Willard gathered 17 delegates from overseas to form the World WCTU and was elected president. As such, she had a reason for her protracted visits overseas, although her absence sometimes weakened her position at home. While in England, she met Sidney Webb, the socialist and husband of Beatrice Webb , and in her 1893 address called for "Gospel Socialism" to bring about economic justice.

In the fall of 1892, Willard began to suffer from unaccustomed fatigue, and in the spring of 1893, she was diagnosed with pernicious anemia. She had always been interested in food fads and had given up tea and coffee in the late 1880s. By the 1890s, she was nearly a vegetarian, living on whole-wheat bread, vegetables and fruit, milk and a little fish. Her diet probably worsened her condition. Red meat, especially liver, was recommended at the time in the absence of iron supplements. Willard was too ill to travel back to the United States and missed the opening of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, even though she was on its Board of Lady Managers. She tried to improve her health by exercise, and took up the new activity of bicycle riding, producing, characteristically, a book on the subject, Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle. She regretted her loss of energy. "I'm like a dog that has lost its bone," she lamented. "Work was my bone and a meaty one it has been."

Despite declining health, Willard was still the best-known woman in America and continued to influence WCTU policy. However, she was not unchallenged. In 1894, as the organization celebrated its 20th anniversary, she faced a number of difficult issues. At the annual convention, after a struggle, she was able to amend the constitution to appoint her successor. But back in England, she came under attack by Ida Wells-Barnett , an African-American from Chicago who was critical of Willard's position on the controversial issue of the lynchings which were increasing throughout the South. Willard had made an ambiguous speech in 1893 condemning lynching, while seeming also to assume that accusations of black men raping white women were true.

In February 1895, Willard was on hand to present the Polyglot Petition to President Grover Cleveland, representing a demand by women for foreign policy influence. That same year, women in England and the United States took up another international cause, the plight of Armenian Christians in eastern Turkey who had become the victims of systematic mass murder. Willard and Lady Henry set up a refugee relief program in France in the summer of 1896, but the effort left Willard exhausted. A slight estrangement had begun between the two women—"Will we still be two cherries on a single stem?" Willard had worried before traveling to England that year—and the following year they disagreed over an English law proposing to license and regulate prostitution in order to control venereal disease. Lady Henry supported the law, while Willard held with those who saw it as governmental consent to the degradation of women.

After the WCTU national convention in 1896, Frances Willard retired to Dr. Cordelia Green 's sanatorium for women in Castile, New York, where she would spend most of the remainder of her life. She presided over one more meeting of the WCTU, where she promised to raise money for the WCTU's Temple office building, in financial difficulty ever since the depression of 1893. While in New York City for that purpose, her health worsened. She invited a New York Tribune reporter for a final interview, and gathered her family and friends for a sentimental Victorian deathbed scene. She died at midnight on February 17, 1898.

"No woman before or since was so clearly on the day of her death this country's most honored woman," Bordin wrote. Alcohol abuse was greater in the 19th century than in the 20th, and prohibition or severe regulation, Bordin said, was supported by most Protestant churchgoers, the business community, and the aspiring middle class. Willard, her biographer concludes, was more prominent than other 19th-century woman because her cause was more urgent. She attributes the fact that Frances Willard is little known today to the decline in popularity of prohibition, the cause with which she was most identified.


Bordin, Ruth. Frances Willard: A Biography. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.


Woman's Christian Temperance Union Papers, Willard Memorial Library, The National Headquarters of the WCTU, Evanston, Illinois; and Frances Willard papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

suggested reading:

Leeman, Richard W. Do Everything Reform. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.

Kristie Miller , author of Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880–1944, University of New Mexico Press, 1992

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Willard, Frances E. (1839–1898)

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