Frances Willard was a radical social progressive who stood out against gender inequality and fought to give a voice to society’s disenfranchised. She exposed the inherent hypocrisies of the status quo and forever changed accepted societal norms.
Alcohol consumption in the 19th century was far greater than it is today, and fueled endemic domestic violence. Willard called attention to the abuse of women and children and galvanized the attention of the world.
She was a well-known author and public speaker (by 1890, she was the second most well-known and influential woman in the world after Queen Victoria), able to captivate the imaginations and mobilize the feet of countless women to support her causes. Much of her genius lay in appealing to the women of the time – she was a “feminine feminist”. For example, she linked the issue of Home Protection (the main concern of women regarding alcohol and its abuse) and Suffrage thereby motivating women of all walks of life into civic and political engagement, previously unheard of.
Willard recognized, developed, and implemented the use of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) as a political organizing force. Under her leadership, the Union increasingly saw its role as an organization advocating for broad social as well as political change. Willard called this wide program of reform her “Do Everything” policy, reflecting her advocacy not just of temperance but of women’s rights, social justice, and world peace. Willard also recognized the need not to just advocate for women’s empowerment, but to provide women with the skills they would need in this new version of society. She often called the organization the “WCTUniversity” providing training for women to think on their feet, to speak in public, and to run an organization.
Under her leadership, the WCTU grew to be the largest non-secular organization of women in the 19th century. She spread its movement worldwide as the founder and first president of the World Woman's Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU has proposed, supported, and helped establish protection of women and children at home and work, stiffer penalties for sexual crimes against girls and women, traveler’s aid, police matrons, pure food and drug laws, legal aid, passive demonstrations, among many others.
Prior to her involvement with the WCTU, she was successful in her brief career in education. She first held a number of teaching positions, and then became the first female president of a college granting degrees to women, the Evanston College for Ladies which later merged with Northwestern University. Following that merger, she became the first Dean of Women both at Northwestern and in the United States.
Frances Willard forged a prototype for community organization and social reform that transformed our cultural landscape. The basis of our modern social welfare policies can be found in the lifework of Frances Willard.
Frances Willard’s life’s work is an example of what can be done when one is devoted to a cause. Her ability to work hard and to mobilize others to work hard is a model of personal determination and amazing leadership skills. To this day, Frances Willard continues to be “re-discovered” as the prototype of the modern, forward-thinking woman.
For a list of sources about Frances E. Willard, and the larger issues of her time, click here.
The Frances Willard Historical Association
1730 Chicago Avenue Evanston, IL 60201