Willing, Jennie Fowler (1834–1916)

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Willing, Jennie Fowler (1834–1916)

Canadian-born American preacher and temperance reformer . Born on January 22, 1834, in Burford, Canada; died on October 6, 1916, in New York City; daughter of Horatio Fowler and Harriet (Ryan) Fowler; self-educated; married William C. Willing (an attorney), in 1853 (died 1894); no children.

Involved in the founding of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU, 1874); served as editor of the WCTU's newspaper Our Union (1875–76); founded the New York Evangelistic Training School to create settlement projects in New York City (1895).

Jennie Fowler Willing was born in 1834 in Burford, Canada, and raised in farm country, first in western Canada and then in Newark, Illinois. Jennie had little exposure to formal schooling due to poor health. Her studies were instead fueled by her natural curiosity and the example of her mother, a devout reader and self-improvement advocate. By age 15, Jennie had been so successful in her own program of self-education that she was able to get a job at the local schoolhouse. Married to lawyer-turned-Methodist pastor William C. Willing by age 19, she moved with her husband to various pastorates in his home state of New York before returning to Illinois.

Encouraged by her husband, Willing obtained a preacher's license and presided over a number of services and revival meetings. More influential than her speaking, however, was Willing's writing—both fiction and nonfiction—which appeared in church pamphlets, books, and magazines. In her work she stressed the uplifting aspects of religion, calling upon her readers to live by Christian means and trust in their individual abilities. Well written and persuasive, if sometimes criticized for being "unladylike," her writing won Willing the respect of the Evanston College for Ladies, which awarded the 38-year-old author an honorary A.M. degree in 1872. Two years later both Willing and her husband were granted professorships at Illinois Wesleyan University, Willing to teach English language and literature and her husband to instruct students in the law.

While writing and literature occupied Willing's academic life, she pursued many other interests, most of which involved social causes. An early participant in the region's suffrage movement, Willing believed strongly in advancing the equality of women. One barrier to that equality was liquor, which Willing felt was at the root of many of the family-related problems then faced by women and children. In 1874, with the support of the national Women's Crusade, she helped the cause of temperance by lobbying for stricter liquor licensing laws in her adopted hometown of Bloomington, Illinois. That year, with the help of temperance reformer Martha McClellan Brown and others, she organized a national women's temperance meeting that was held on November 18, 1874. The result of that meeting was the formation of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which became one of the movement's most active organizations. Willing was elected to serve as the editor of the WCTU's newspaper, Our Union, a post she held from mid-1875 to early the following year.

Reform efforts stemming from her church involvement also competed for Willing's time, and after leaving Our Union she refocused her energies on the cause of home missions and settlements, particularly those to benefit immigrant girls. An active writer throughout her career, she now focused many of her articles on this area. After Willing and her husband relocated to New York City in 1889, she saw, firsthand, the hardships encountered by young working women in the inner city, where jobs were scarce and safe places to stay were even scarcer. A year after her husband's death in 1894, Willing founded the New York Evangelistic Training School, which, with the support of the Methodist Church, created settlement projects in the city. Upon her death in 1916, at age 82, half of Willing's estate was left to the Training School; the remainder was bequeathed to the WCTU.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut

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Willing, Jennie Fowler (1834–1916)

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