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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 974

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This is the grave of Frances Willard.

Born in 1839 outside of Rochester, New York, Willard was the daughter of Josiah and Mary Willard. Josiah was an abolitionist and farmer who ended up in the Wisconsin State Legislature in the 1840s after moving his family out there. Mary, who is also buried here, was an active reformer who strongly believed in women’s education. In fact, because of that, the family moved to Illinois as Francis and her sisters got older so that they would have access to real education. That happened in 1858 and Francis enrolled at the North Western Female College, one of the early higher education institutions for women. She was a big supporter of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, as was her family.

Upon graduation, Willard went into teaching. In fact, she rose quickly in the world of women’s higher education. She started at the Pittsburgh Female College and then went to the precursor of modern Syracuse University. In 1871. a new women’s college opened just outside of Chicago–the Evanston College for Ladies. Two years later, it merged with Northwestern University and Willard was named Dean of Women. But she and Northwestern’s president did not like each other at all and she left in 1874. There’s another side of this dislike. See, she and the university president were engaged to be married for a bit in 1861 and one of them broke off the relationship. So let’s just say this was not a university situation that was going to work out.

By this time, Willard was already moving toward her real interest–temperance. That year, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded and Willard was part of the initial convention. Now, a minute about temperance. There’s no question that it was a disastrous movement when it moved into full-fledged prohibition. But Americans really did drink too much. This had already declined a lot by the 1870s compared with a half-century earlier. It’s certainly true enough that Willard and the WCTU were as much about reformist but still conservative Victorian values as much as they were about alcohol but you can’t really take social movements out of their time and place.

Willard became president of the WCTU in 1879 and remains nearly synonymous with the movement today. She already basically gave her life to the cause, traveling for years around the nation giving temperance speeches and helping local groups begin and grow. Between 1874 and 1884, she traveled an average of 30,000 miles a year giving 400 speeches each year. Some years, she visited every state in the union. That’s a lot of work. She had taken a bit of time off in there to work for the evangelical minister Dwight Moody, but soon came back to it.

Willard didn’t just want to expand the WCTU. She wanted to build women’s moral power to purify American life. The contradiction of Victorian gender norms is that women were supposed to stay at home and purify the men from the rough and tumble streets. But how could they do so when men brought the filth, literal and figurative, into the house every day? So for Willard and other women’s activists of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the solution became leaving the home to bring the purifying project into the public. They swatted away ideas that they were defiling the natural order of gender because they did not want to become men. They wanted men to submit to their values. So temperance, as critical as it was to this project given how many men got drunk and beat their wives or wasted the family’s money, was not enough. Willard also became a strong suffrage activist. For her, this was “the movement … the object of which is to secure for all women above the age of twenty-one years the ballot as one means for the protection of their homes from the devastation caused by the legalized traffic in strong drink.” That quote really does a lot to sum up the ideology behind a lot of women’s suffrage activists at this time.

Willard expanded the WCTU into one of the largest organization in the country, with about 150,000 members by the time of her death. She did not live to see the movement become successful and turn into national prohibition. But she certainly saw many victories at the local and state level. She also continued to experiment in other reform movements, which is not surprising for someone of her class, age, and ilk. She was a supporter of the Populists and attended the 1892 convention, though the Populists did not endorse women’s suffrage there. She also experimented in the Fabian Society that was a Christian socialist offshoot that sought to tame socialist toward a Christian gradualism that would bring peaceful change. Essentially, like the work of Edward Bellamy and other Gilded Age reformers, this was an early form of political change without politics, which never works. But to her credit, she was also big in passing labor reforms such as the 8-hour day and raising the age of consent for relationships. A strong club woman, Willard helped organize the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1889. That year, she published a memoir titled Glimpses of Fifty Years.

Naturally for the time, none of her reform efforts got in the way of her being a complete racist. She actually claimed that she was not racist, as so many white liberals like to do. But….let’s just say that she was in fact a racist. After the WCTU convention in Atlanta in 1890, the great Ida B. Wells, never fearful and always speaking the truth, went double barrel after Willard’s racism. She compared Black men to a “swarm of locusts” and refused to denounce lynching, which was the reason for Wells’ attention. There’s a good website here with pictures of old newspapers to get at this more. For Willard, regardless of what she actually thought, it was far more important to get support from southern white woman for temperance than it was to fight racism, so she happily went along with racial stereotypes like so many reformist white women of this time. She did this while also praising Lincoln her whole life as “the emancipator.” But for many whites, abolitionists included, once slavery itself was gone, then Black Americans need to be controlled. She told a British paper, The Anglo-Saxon race will never submit to be dominated by the Negro so long as his altitude reaches no higher than the personal liberty of the saloon and the power of appreciating the amount of liquor that a dollar will buy.” She also said that Better whiskey and more of it’ has been the rallying cry of great dark-faced mobs in the Southern localities where Local Option was snowed under by the colored vote.” So that’s Francis Willard and most of the white abolitionist class by the late 19th century.

Willard kept working until the day she died. But that wasn’t all that long. She was preparing for a trip to Europe in 1898, working on the international side of the anti-alcohol and anti-drug campaigns, when she came down with influenza, which killed her. She was 58 years old.

Francis Willard is buried in Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit other temperance activists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Annie Turner Wittenmyer, the first WCTU president, is in Pottstown, Pennsylvania and Lillian Stevens, who replaced Willard after her death, is in Portland, Maine. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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