Frances E. Willard: A Summary

By Jean Baker, Goucher College


Born in 1839 in Churchville New York, Frances Willard became the successful president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the largest organization of women in the United States by the end of the 19th century. Her father Josiah left farming to study for the ministry at Oberlin College in Ohio when she was two, as religious influences continued to permeate the Willard home. But Josiah suffered from tuberculosis so the family moved again to the purer air in southern Wisconsin. Here, on an isolated farm, Frances Willard lived from 1846 to 1859.

Home schooled by her mother, she later attended the North Western Female College in Evanston where the Willard family had moved. After graduation she taught school, and became the dean and president of the Evanston Ladies College of Northwestern University from 1871-1874. After her resignation in a bitter dispute with the male president of Northwestern, she became an avid member of the burgeoning temperance movement. By 1879 (and for the next twenty years) she was the elected president of the WCTU. Soon, she placed that organization in the forefront of reform efforts that ranged from outlawing drinking to a social purity crusade based on opposition to pornography. Such programs were incorporated into a comprehensive plan Willard dubbed “Home Protection.”

The most controversial of Willard’s reforms was her support for suffrage. As a pragmatist she insisted that votes for women would empower females to vote for local option laws and on the national level for a prohibition amendment. With a deft appreciation for the limits of her support, she encouraged a “Do-Everything” policy that enabled members who thought suffrage too radical to work for another activity in one of the Union’s thirty-nine departments. By the 1880’s her 150,000 followers might chose working on raising the marriage age for girls or building water fountains. Willard’s effective decentralization of the organization permitted her followers—many of whom had never worked for any public campaign—to choose their cause. She died in 1898.