Frances E. Willard: Years of Challenge (1859-1874)

By Jean Baker, Goucher College

In 1858 Frances and her sister Mary attended the Milwaukee Female College for a term and then, after the family’s move to Evanston, the Methodist-run North Western Female College. After graduation she taught school in mostly one-room schools in Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania. During this period she also confronted a series of personal crises: her beloved younger sister Mary died in 1862; her father succumbed to tuberculosis in 1868, and her brother, now an ordained minister, descended into alcoholism. Frances Willard also confronted her sexual identity, falling in love with another woman who eventually married Frances’s brother. For the rest of her life Willard’s erotic intimacies involved other women.

In 1871 the trustees of the Evanston Ladies College of Northwestern University invited Frances Willard to become head of an institution precariously balanced between autonomy as a separate institution for women and domination by the male-controlled Northwestern University. For three years Willard ran the Ladies College until Charles Fowler, the president of Northwestern and a former suitor of Frances Willard’s, challenged the autonomy of the Ladies College. In 1874 as more authority slipped from her hands, she resigned. Soon she found a new endeavor for her ambitions and talents.