The Making of “Influences of a Self-Made Woman: The Early Journals of Frances Willard”

By Hannah Lahti, Remote Summer Intern

            The social and political reformer Frances Willard remains notable throughout history as a champion of women’s rights and a leader of the nineteenth century’s national reform movement.  Historians study the impact of her work to understand the role of women and women’s movements in the fight for women’s suffrage.  Much of the scholarly work on Willard analyzes the height of her career, when Willard became recognizable on a national and global scale.  Few historians look to her life before her career to understand the woman that Willard was before growing into the nearly sainted “Saint Frances” [1].  The digital exhibit, Influences of a Self-Made Woman: The Early Journals of Frances Willard of the Frances Willard House and curator Hannah Lahti, explores the early life and experiences of Frances Willard in order to understand the lasting impacts of people, places, and ideas on the young reformer.

Frances Willard’s Journal Volume 33, Frances Willard House, 1869. [2]

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, museums around the world face challenges in the decisions that they are forced to make regarding access to their historic sites, community engagement, and ongoing success of their programs.  Many historical institutions began evaluating the ways in which they could share their history and resources with the public digitally.  The Influences of a Self-Made Woman digital exhibit stemmed from my remote internship opportunity at the Frances Willard House in Evanston, Illinois where I designed, researched, and implemented a digital project on the early life of Frances Willard.  Work on the project occurred completely remotely, relying on the choreographed communication and resource sharing between the museum director and archivist at the museum and myself.  The museum staff and I experienced this completely remote project for the first time, balancing the research demands of the project with the various external challenges of doing history in a pandemic.

The topic for the project stemmed from the availability of researchable materials that were accessible to the intern and the professionals at the Frances Willard House.  Using the already digitized transcriptions of Frances Willard’s journals, the project aimed to further contextualize the popularized celebrity into her origins as a young girl, devoted to learning and supported by a network of familial and professional female relationships [3].  The journals provided this context to more deeply understand the most pivotal people, places, and ideas throughout Willard’s early life and explain their impact in the career that she later enjoyed.  The digitized journals remained the most central feature of the Influences of a Self-Made Woman exhibit, drawing attention to the new and existing resources of Willard’s legacy.

Frances Willard at Work, Frances Willard House in Evanston, Illinois. [4]

            The Influences of a Self-Made Woman exhibit premiered on September 28, 2020, in honor of Frances Willard’s 181st birthday.  The project celebrates and historicizes the entire life of Willard, from her earliest reflections in her journals to their connections and influences throughout her impressive career.  Students, researchers, and museum visitors may access the site to explore and learn more about the person that Frances Willard was before she became the woman that everyone knew.  Its digital format allows the public to enjoy the history of Willard and the resources of the Frances Willard House Museum and Archives virtually, providing a window to Frances Willard’s past in exciting new ways.

View the exhibit: Influences of a Self-Made Woman: The Early Journals of Frances Willard

Endnotes

[1] Bordin, Ruth. Frances Willard: a Biography Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

[2] “Frances Willard’s Journal, Volume 33,” Influences of a Self-Made Woman: The Early Journals of Frances Willard, accessed October 11, 2020, https://franceswillardhouse.omeka.net/items/show/33.

[3]  Frances E. Willard, Journal Transcriptions (transcribed by Carolyn DeSwarte Gifford); online resource at http://willard.archivestree.com.

[4]  “Frances Willard at Work,” Influences of a Self-Made Woman: The Early Journals of Frances Willard, accessed October 11, 2020, https://franceswillardhouse.omeka.net/items/show/27.

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