“The Girls: Past, Present, Future”

By Fiona Maxwell
Director of Museum Operations and Communications, Frances Willard House Museum
History PhD candidate, University of Chicago

In recognition of the 150th anniversary of Frances Willard’s role as President of the Evanston College for Ladies (1871-1873) and Dean of Women at Northwestern University (1873-1874), the Frances Willard House Museum and WCTU Archives is exploring the story of women’s higher education in Evanston.

            On July 4, 1871, ten thousand people flocked to Evanston, Illinois to “celebrate the old day in a new way” at the “Woman’s Fourth of July.” Organized by Frances Willard and her fellow supporters of women’s higher education, the event’s proceeds were to be used to construct a building for Willard’s students at the newly established Evanston College for Ladies – students who would shortly join young men in the classrooms, literary society halls, and assembly rooms of Northwestern University. Following a long string of addresses given by distinguished male speakers, an ensemble of young women took “possession” of the university chapel and unveiled a vision of their future roles in a series of “comic representations” titled, The Girls: Past, Present, Future.

Ticket to The Girls: Past, Present, Future.

            Foregrounding the obstacles faced by earlier generations of knowledge-hungry young women, the play began by emphasizing the novelty of what the Evanston College for Ladies represented. The curtain opened upon a farmhouse “fifty or a hundred years ago,” during the colonial era or Early Republic. Mehitable Powers was stuck working at a spinning wheel, with an insurmountable list of domestic tasks preventing her from pursuing her real goal: studying her brother Joshua’s Latin textbook. Eager to prove “that a girl is as good as a boy,” Mehitable shocked her neighbors – who believed that “readin’, writin’, an’ a little ‘rithmetic is enough for a woman” – by opining: “If it wasn’t for the scandalousness of it, I believe I’d like to go to college with Joshua.” 

            Moving from the “girl of the past” to the “girl of the present,” the audience next met Arabella Stubbs, a Gilded Age parlor hostess with plenty of vexations of her own. She longed to cast off her restrictive clothing – so she could “straighten up once in a while” – and escape an endless round of superficial and snobbish callers. Yearning to break free of “this everlasting twiddle twaddle… and the whole of woman’s miserable, blank existence,” Arabella declared, “I am smart, and I’d like to throw my soul into something grand.” She finally resolved: “I’ll be a reformer! I’ll rave and rant and preach and stamp, and wear a short dress.”

            The play ended with a prophecy. A dignified woman, “attired with healthful simplicity,” ascended the stage. She instructed an “Old Fogy” how to spot the “Coming Woman”: as a beneficiary of college education and dress reform, “her eyes will sparkle with cheerfulness and intelligence… the spinal column erect; the vital organs untrammeled; the blood coursing joyously through her veins.” The prophetess optimistically called on her mixed-gender audience to imagine a transformation in gender relations, predicting that the woman and man of the future “together will seek the various founts of knowledge… Brother and sister, hand in hand, will go forth into the various avenues of life.”

A copy of script is included in the WCTU Archives scrapbook collection. The handwritten annotation reads: “First acted at the ‘Women’s 4th of July,’ Evanston, 1871.”

The Northwestern students who attended the Woman’s Fourth of July deemed it a “day of triumph” for the “girls of the Northwest.” In the coming months, years, and decades, the women students of Evanston would build on that triumph by using their educational opportunities and speaking skills to envision and embody the “Coming Woman,” as well as to encourage their male classmates to “go forth hand in hand,” first into classrooms, and then into public life.

For more information about the Woman’s Fourth of July, see this blogpost from 2016 by Archivist Janet Olson.