Becoming the “Frances Willard of China”: The Life of Liu-Wang Liming

By Janet Olson, Archivist Feminist, social reformer, writer, and WCTU leader Liu-Wang Liming (1898-1970) was born and raised in rural China. As a child, with her father’s support, she resisted the sexist custom of foot-binding. She attended an American mission school for girls many miles from her home. Upon graduation in 1916, she came to … Read more

The WCTU Administration Building is 100 Years Old!

One hundred years ago today, May 20, 1922, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Administration Building opened, signaling a full and final shift of the organization’s headquarters to Evanston. Located directly behind the Willard House at 1730 Chicago Avenue, this significant building hides in plain sight. Though no longer functioning as the WCTU’s national headquarters building, … Read more

Making History in Southern California: The Women of the WCTU

By Kristin Jacobsen, Assistant Archivist, Frances Willard House Museum and WCTU Archives Men may have dominated the California Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century, but the women of the state were energized by a longer-lasting undertaking – the temperance movement. A newly available collection of historical records tells the story of some of these women, the … Read more

“Look Up and Off, and On and Out”: Frances Willard and Women’s Oratory

By Fiona Maxwell, Director of Museum Operations and Communications; PhD candidate in History at the University of Chicago “Look up and off, and on and out; it is the curse of life that nearly everyone looks down.”  – Frances Willard By 1874, Frances Willard had acquired a local reputation as a public speaker. Yet, when … Read more

The WCTU and WWI

“A Century of Remembering: The Great War” is the theme of Illinois Archives Month (October) 2017. World War I affected every aspect of American society, and is documented in many different ways in archival repositories across the state.  The Frances Willard Memorial Library and Archives offers this brief overview of the role played by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. … Read more

“I’ve Been to Dwight!”

Time was when this statement meant that the speaker was a recovering alcoholic making a triumphal return from Dwight, Illinois, after undergoing the famous “Keeley Gold Cure” in that small but bustling town. For me, it means I’m back from a conference of the Alcohol & Drugs History Society (ADHS), held in Dwight from July … Read more

Research Notes: A Visitor from Japan

The Frances Willard Memorial Library and Archives was happy to welcome Professor Rui Kohiyama to our Reading Room earlier this month. Professor Kohiyama teaches American and Gender Studies at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, and has done much research on missionaries and the WCTU in Japan. She has been in email contact with the Archives for … Read more

Research Notes: The Age of Consent and the WCTU

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is best known for its efforts to rid the world of alcohol. But one of its most successful campaigns – one that shapes laws in every state to this day – focused not on “demon rum” but on sex, specifically, the age of consent to sexual intercourse. While conducting research for my dissertation, titled “Purifying the World: Americans and International Sexual Reform,” I visited the Frances E. Willard Memorial Library and Archives to find documents that could help me shed light on the WCTU’s activism to raise the age of consent in the United States and India. In the late 1800s, the age of consent in both countries was set by interpretations of British Common Law, placing it at an age that may seem shockingly low to a modern reader: it was 10-12 years of age in most states in the U.S. (though as low as 7 in Delaware), and 10 in India.

Age of Consent Laws, Willard Archives
Fig. 1, “‘Age of Consent’ Laws in Various States,” Social Morality Folder, Frances Willard Memorial Library and Archives, Evanston, IL.

 Sources at the Willard Archives show that the WCTU provided key financial, organizational, and ideological support for the campaign to raise the age of consent. For instance, the WCTU printed and distributed tens of thousands of leaflets – preserved in the Willard Archives – that detailed the age of consent across the U.S. (Fig. 1), since many WCTU women believed that educating people about the current state of laws was essential to raising the age of consent.

 In addition to their domestic efforts, American WCTU women saw themselves as part of a sisterhood that extended beyond national boundaries. As part of the WCTU’s missionary impulse, it supported the work of a number of female physicians working abroad. For example, at the Willard Archives I discovered an Indian periodical (Fig. 2) with an article by Dr. Emily Brainerd Ryder. Dr. Ryder was an American medical missionary to India, who wrote numerous books and articles that publicized the crusade to raise the age of consent in India for an English-speaking audience. The article provides crucial insight into the development of Dr. Ryder’s thought, which was influential in shaping the international conversation about the age of consent. While firm in her belief that the U.S. was at the pinnacle of civilization, Dr. Ryder nonetheless refuted the then common assumption that women from India reached sexual maturity earlier than white Euro-American women as a result of their racial characteristics and India’s tropical climate. Instead, she argued that a lack of women’s education was to blame for what she perceived to be India’s sexual backwardness. 

Fig. 2, Emily Brainerd Ryder, “Education of the Women of India,” The Temperance and Social Purity Advocate (Bombay, India) October, 1889, India Box, “Temperance and Social Purity Advocate” Folder, Frances Willard Memorial Library and Archives, Evanston, IL.
Fig. 2, Emily Brainerd Ryder, “Education of the Women of India,” The Temperance and Social Purity Advocate (Bombay, India) October, 1889, India Box, “Temperance and Social Purity Advocate” Folder, Frances Willard Memorial Library and Archives, Evanston, IL.

The WCTU’s campaign to raise the age of consent remains one of its most powerful and lasting legacies. By 1920, every state in the union, with the exception of Georgia, had raised the age of consent to 16 or 18 years of age. WCTU women’s activities also contributed to the Government of India’s decision to raise the age of consent in 1891. The collections at the Frances E. Willard Memorial Library and Archives illuminate this significant moment in the history of women’s social and political activism. 


-Eva Payne is a Doctoral Candidate in the American Studies Program at Harvard University
Contact: epayne[ATsymbol]fas[DOT]harvard[DOT]edu

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