A young Frances Willard. Image from Frances Willard House Museum & Archives at the Center for Women's History and Leadership
Sorry for the bit of a delay getting this up, but sometimes blogging has to take a back seat. For one thing: our church is starting Vacation Bible School tonight, so I've been busy with that. For another, my grandsons and Dan's daughter came over to his house last night to play in his pool and have dinner. I do not say no to family! So there you are. Now, on to our topic. P.S. please forgive any typos and general weirdness. No time to check things over.
Frances E. Willard, one of the best known and probably best loved women of the nineteenth century, was born in Churchville, NY in 1839 to Josiah Willard and Mary Thompson Hill Willard.
In 1846, Willard’s family became part of the westward migration, like many other families, and settled in the Midwest. Her father had ministerial ambitions and even went so far as to move to Ohio so he could attend Oberlin College, founded by evangelist Charles Grandison Finney. However, due to health issues, Josiah Willard never followed through on this plan.
Frances Willard’s early years were spent on a farm. While her journals show her to have been impatient with the routine of farm life, she later recalled those days as happy and carefree. Her later years were spent involved in the town life of Evanston.
The Willard family – Josiah, mother Mary, Frances, sister Mary, and Oliver – were close. Frances had especially close ties with her mother and sister. Her mother taught both girls at home, but she also was a disciple of Catharine Beecher and the idea of educating girls in preparation for vocations like motherhood and teaching. So, she arranged to send both Frances and Mary away for a year to attend Beecher’s school, the Milwaukee Female College. In total, Willard received only three years of formal schooling, the Beecher school in Wisconsin and North Western Female College, a Methodist-affiliated academy in Evanston, Illinois.
A product of the evangelical Protestant emphasis upon home, church, and school, Willard’s world was comprised of a webbing of family and Methodist institutions. It was within that webbing that she struggled with religious matters, wrestled with societal expectations of women as well as the feeling that she was called to some great work. Willard first learned organizational skills by volunteering in church and school groups.
As a young woman, Willard did what so many other young women did – she fell in the love with another woman. Carroll Rosenberg-Smith, Disorderly Conduct, points out that intense female bonding was considered normal in the nineteenth century. Women lived within a homosocial world and depended upon one another for emotional support. Women developed networks of friends, which were kept alive through visiting and correspondence. Nineteenth-century Americans believed that women could maintain both intense female friendships and marriage to a man. The only time trouble might arise was when a woman’s friendship interfered with her marriage to her husband.
Willard’s great love undoubtedly was Mary Bannister. The two exchanged warm, even passionate letters, sent one another their journals when parted by their careers as teachers, and spent time together when home. It seemed to Frances that she would have ben best of both world when her beloved Mary became engaged to Oliver Willard. At the same time, Willard found herself being courted by young minister Charles Fowler.
Eventually, though, Willard realized that she was either unable or unwilling to shift her relationship with Mary from a romantic one to a sisterly one. It felt to Frances as if once Mary became her sister-in-law, a wall would go up between the two because Mary’s prime allegiance and love would be for Oliver.
To add to Willard’s inner struggle, she was having trouble seeing Charles Fowler as anything other than a good, platonic friend. She realized that she simply did not feel the level of physical passion for him that she experienced with Mary. After a terrible internal struggle, something which disrupted Willard’s entire family, Frances decided to reject her suitor. Her journals indicate that she wanted to fit in with societal expectations but knew that she was different. Other young women would end their romantic relationships with close friends as soon as a young man entered the picture. It was painful for Willard to change her relationship with Mary, and she simply did not love Charles with the same intensity and depth. And so that she concluded that she loved women. Men could be colleagues and friends but would never have her heart.
I believe that it was Willard’s love of and for women that led her to dedicate her life to the service of women and women’s concerns.
Frances Willard struggled with living a holy life, despite having undergone a conversion after a serious illness and possibly experiencing a “second blessing” while listening to Phoebe Palmer preach. Her journal indicates that there were times when she was dedicated and focused on religion, and others when she berated herself for her lack of attention to Christian life. It may be that the death of her sister Mary, followed by a deep mourning period exacerbated her questioning and inability to through herself into a “holy life.” But her journal was the place where she expressed her wrestling. Publicly, she appeared to live a life of Christian devotion.
As a teacher, Willard worked at both secondary schools and colleges. Eventually, she served as the President of Northwestern Female College and was the first woman to confer degrees. In addition, she was a faithful daughter, spending months by her father’s side as he died to consumption.
Once she had her mother settled in Evanston, Willard and companion Kate Jackson traveled to Europe. During this time, Willard learned all she could about Europe and studied the state of women there. Frances became convinced that she needed to work to improve the condition of her sex at home. The question was: what work would she do?
On Friday: Frances Willard and the WCTU Years
On Wednesday: Chapter 6 of A Good Community
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder