“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

What We Mean When We Say Feminism

There has been a lot of debate and discussion about the meaning of the word feminism in recent years. Women today take various stands for or against it – and generally its true meaning is lost in the fray. Feminism is a loaded word in our culture with some wearing the term proudly and others … 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

Agitate, Educate, Organize: Women’s Advocacy

Following the 2016 Presidential Election, there was a call to action for women, inspired by the historic first female presidential candidate, to get involved in politics and fight for policies that would be best for women and their communities. This uniting of women (and men) with such fervor for politics and policy seemed unprecedented, but … Read more

How They Spent Their Summer Vacations

Great minds think alike, it’s said, and that statement was well illustrated last week in the Willard Archives, when faculty members from three different institutions of higher learning descended on the Archives at the same time. The three professors were doing end-of-summer research on very different projects, but, as is so often the case in … Read more

The “Woman’s Fourth of July” in Evanston, 1871

Independence Day in Evanston in 1871 was marked by parades, bands, fireworks, a baseball game, and many speeches. Not an unusual way to celebrate the 4th—except that these activities were organized by local women and were a fundraising event for the nascent Evanston College for Ladies—with the highlight of the day being the placement of the … Read more

Willard Archives Research Presented at GHI Conference

In late April, 2016, the German Historical Institute (GHI) in Washington D.C. hosted a conference entitled Forging Bonds Across Borders: Mobilizing for Women’s Rights and Social Justice in the 19th Century Transatlantic World. Co-sponsored by the University of Maryland at College Park and the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, the conference brought scholars from around … 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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