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.)
sCC0 chalkboard image from pxhere. https://pxhere.com/en/photo/648777
This is the final chapter from A Good Community that I will be posting on the Squeaking Blog, as I’m moving toward publication. If you’ve taken the time to read this and the previous chapters, I hope you’ve enjoyed them, even though many of them were still in a rather rough form.
In Chapter 6, Maggie and friends visit the unofficial school that operates on Water Street, and immediately become determined to do something to help the children living there.
The plan quickly takes shape and Maggie’s sister-in-law, Abigail, joins the effort, with Maggie, Emily, and Abigail adding their pin money and "nest eggs" to support the creation of a new, private school.
Despite their plans, Maggie knows that the road before them will not be smooth and will include a few bumps, if not a downed tree, major chasm, and other disasters. And yet she is determined to carry through because she believes that this is something they are called to do.
And so they're off.
You’ll have to see how things turn out once the book is published in September – “God willing and the crick don’t rise,” as my mother used to say.
Chapter 6: The Idea
Beginning July 29, I’ll be blogging once a week on Mondays. After all, it is summer, and I have a vacation coming up at the end of August. But before that arrives, my church has a major project. We operate a booth in the food tent at the Somerset County (NJ) 4-H Fair. For twenty years or so, we’ve sold homemade sausage, peppers, and onion sandwiches, which have become rather popular. So popular, in fact, that we have repeat customers who show up and tell us they've been waiting for our sandwiches for a whole year.
The effort takes up most of the first week of August, during which we do the preparations, set up the booth, and do the initial cooking before the fair starts on August 7. So, I'm taking a blogging break.
If you’re in the vicinity and want to see what this author does in her other life, you’re welcome to stop by and say hello – and buy a sandwich. The fair runs August 7-9, from 10 am to 10 pm each day. I’ll be “on duty” from 10 am until about 5 or 6 pm. Just look for the red and white sign that screams “Sausage, Peppers, and Onions.”
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
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.)
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder