Frances E. Willard: Early Life (1839-1859)

By Jean Baker, Goucher College


The salient influences on Frances Willard’s life were her mother and her parents’ devotion to their Methodist faith. She was eight years old when the family moved to an isolated farm along the Rock River near Janesville, Wisconsin, more than two miles from the closest neighbor. Unlike her younger sister Mary who accepted traditional domestic roles, Frances was a tomboy who climbed fences, fired guns and chafed at the rule that only her older brother Oliver could ride a horse. Home schooled by a mother who taught her literature along with the Bible, Frances kept a journal to fill the lonely hours on the prairie. Even as a child she acknowledged her ambition to be somebody. She also developed a relationship with her mother that served as the model for her leadership of the WCTU. Mother Willard, an exemplar of sacrifice, hard work, and loving inspiration, became a human incarnation of her daughter’s belief in God and Jesus as spiritual providers. Although they had begun as Congregationalists, the Willards had adopted Methodism in Wisconsin, and this Protestant denomination emphasized the Christian home circle with the pious wife and mother at its center.