Frances Willard: The WCTU Years
A photo of the WCTU’s General Officers, taken in London, June 1895
Front row, Left to Right: Anna Gordon, Frances Willard, “Mrs. Sanderson”; Back Row, Left to Right: Agnes Slack-Saunders, Isobel ( Lady Henry) Somerset.
From the Frances Willard House and Museum
Like many nineteenth-century women, Frances Willard supported temperance. (Side note: she did abandon the pledge while in Europe, however, because the water there seemed to give her health problems.)
In 1874, when the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded, Willard realized that this organization would be the vehicle through which she would work to help other women. She began by serving as corresponding secretary for the WCTU.
She took a short break from the organization In 1877 to work with Dwight Moody’s revivals. It was there that she met Anna Gordon, who later became her personal secretary and companion. But Willard soon returned to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1879, she campaigned for WCTU president, unseating its president Annie Wittenmeyer and going on to serve in that position until her death in 1898.
Early on, Willard began using her position to address the issue of women’s suffrage. Wrapping her arguments around domesticity, she claimed that if women had the vote, they would be able to protect women’s interests and make America a better. Her key phrase was “Home Protection,” or making the home a safe and healthy place. But she expanded the notion of "home" to mean not only one's family, but one's nation, as well. Willard challenged American women to “Do Everything” to see that the sanctity of the family was not violated and that the moral integrity of the country would be strengthened.
Her organizational skills and interest in everything that touched women’s lives led Willard to expand WCTU programming: “The WCTU began working to reform labor laws, child welfare laws, and age of consent laws. It advocated for prison reform, temperance education in schools, and woman suffrage, while continuing to seek individual commitments to personal abstinence, and legislative mandates for local, state, and national prohibition.” (Frances Willard House Museum & Archives) Eventually, the organization supported nearly 40 different divisions focused on these concerns.
Willard's success in convincing women to broaden their social outlook lay in her ability to expand the domestic world beyond the walls of the family home. She also imbued WCTU meetings with a distinctly religious feel – each was opened with prayer, and featured hymns and inspired preaching. (It seems that Willard had learned a few things during her tenure as director of women’s meetings with Dwight Moody’s organization.)
But not everyone agreed with Willard’s concept of domestic expansion. The participation of women in leadership positions beyond the home frequently was met with roadblocks elsewhere. One place that occured was the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), Willard's church denomination. At the MEC's 1880 General Conference, the uproar that followed her request to speak in favor of female ministerial candidates Anna Howard Shaw and Anna Oliver was so great that Willard declined to speak in order to prevent further disruption. Later, at the 1884 General Conference, Willard and five other female delegates were refused the right to take their seats so they could vote on church legislation.
None of this deterred Willard and, as she grew older, she also grew more radical, something that disturbed other members of the WCTU. Examples of this were her support of socialism (she referred to herself as a “Christian socialist") and third-party politics.
Later in life, Frances Willard began to struggle with “pernicious anemia,” a disease in which a decrease in red blood cells leads to the inability of the intestines to absorb Vitamin B12. At first, she undertook a rigorous health regimen in an attempt to keep the disease under control, and even went so far as to learn to ride a bicycle, another radical activity for a woman in the 1890s. But despite her efforts, her health failed, and she died of influenza in 1898.
After Willard’s death, the WCTU gradually removed some of the more extreme planks in its platform. Just the same, though, Willard had left her mark. She had moved the temperance movement beyond mere anti-drinking into the broader concerns of women’s rights by wrapping her radical programs in the acceptable trappings of domesticity and religion.
Interested in Learning More?
Bordin, Ruth. Frances Willard: A Biography. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.)
“Frances Willard,” National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union
Frances Willard House and Museum, at the Center for Women’s History and Leadership
“Frances Willard: Radical Woman in a Classic Town.” Northwestern University Libraries Exhibits.
Gifford Carolyn deSwarte, ed. Writing Out My Heart: Selections from the Journal of Frances E. Willard, 1855-96. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995.)
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