Meet Frances Willard
Frances Willard at age 23. Image from Frances Willard House Museum and Archives, at the Center for Women’s History and Leadership, Evanston, IL
Reformer Frances Willard (1839-1898) was president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement from 1879 to her death in 1898. At first glance, one might think that a woman who was head of the biggest temperance organization in the United States has to have been a real party pooper and major prig. Right?
Wrong. Willard was a lively, intelligent woman who rode the tide of social change in the nineteenth century.
She also remained single all her life, finding family with other women. In addition, she appears to have been a lesbian, or put in more nineteenth century terms, she loved women, rather than men.
Writing Out My Heart: Selections from the Journal of Frances E. Willard, 1855-’96, ably edited and with commentary by Carollyn DeSwarthe Gifford, begins with a scenario that feels rather familiar. Like Anne Lister’s journals, the 49 volumes of Willard’s journal had been hidden, too. Whether that happened purposely or accidentally is unknown. Regardless, the notebooks were discovered in 1982 in a cupboard located at the Frances E. Willard Memorial Library at the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union headquarters (Evanston, Illinois).
Gifford notes that “Scholars had long been aware of the journal’s existence since Willard included portions of it in her autobiography, as did her earliest biographers in their works.” But for nearly 50 years, the journal had been missing and much of it and other of her writings were thought to have been destroyed by Willard’s companion and secretary, Anna Gordon. (Gifford, 1.) Given that information, it is possible that Gordon might have hidden the journals, but that probably will always be an "unknown" in the story.
The discovery, however, helped round out our understanding of who Frances Willard was from age 16-31 years and from age 54-57, as the journal describes not just her public life, but her interior life as well.
Gifford apparently had a little struggle over whether or not she should reveal the reason Willard had ended her engagement to Charles Fowler and her attraction to women. However, Gifford was comforted by a curious comment in Willard made in her autobiography about her one true love: “Of the real romance of my life, unguessed save by a trio of close friends, these pages may not tell. When I have passed from sight I would be glad to have it known, for I believe it might contribute to a better understanding between good men and women.” (Gifford, xii.)
Gifford’s work had been newly published when I was pursuing my Ph.D., and so I used it when preparing from my “Status and Role of Women in the Nineteenth Century” comprehensive exam (a requirement for my Ph.D. in American Religion and Culture).
As I was writing the first draft of this blog, I once again went in search of that “something” I had written on Frances Willard. You see, I have a memory of discussing her with (most likely) the professor who wrote my exam on women in the nineteenth century. During our chat, the question of whether or not Willard was a lesbian came up. I remember telling him that, yes, it was evident that she was. She fell in love with other women and found herself unable to feel that depth of affection for men. But, I added that I wasn’t sure Willard engaged in sexual relations with women. To support my argument, I used something I had found in Writing Out My Heart. Then I suggested that although her sexuality was a significant part of her personal life, it should not eclipse the important work she did as a reformer.
Danged if I can find that part in the book about sexual relations with other women now. Maybe it will surface as I spend a bit more time with Gifford's book this weekend.
On the upside, I had better luck digging through my two boxes of research papers. I found a file containing my comprehensive exams. And, yes, one of the questions for the “Statues and Role” exam was indeed about Frances Willard.
As I reread the document, I was astounded that I was able to write a convincing argument with so much detail without any sources on hand to help. All I had in the exam room were a computer, a dictionary, a blank yellow writing pad, and a pen. Even more amazing, the exam seems to be devoid of typos. Apparently, at the age of 43, not only was I a better typist, but I rose to the occasion and managed to pass all my exams. It was a great achievement. Most of my fellow students were in their 20s, brilliant, and quicker on the draw. But I did it, although I still can't believe that I did. For all that sweat and effort, my reward to do research and write a dissertation. That work was on the Vacation Bible School Movement, something that had its roots in the nineteenth century. But that's another story for another time.
Long story short, what I’m going to do is edit the exam and use it as Monday’s blog post to give background into Willard’s history. And then on Wednesday, I’ll talk more about her relationship with other women in general and with Mary Bannister in particular.
Have a good weekend, all!
Carolyn DeSwarte Gifford. 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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