Frances E. Willard: Temperance Years (1874-1898)

By Jean Baker, Goucher College


In 1874 Willard who had been influenced by a spontaneous midwestern Woman’s Crusade against taverns, joined the WCTU. At the time the movement was a loose conglomeration of a few thousand women. By 1879 after a struggle for its leadership the charismatic Willard began the process of shaping the association into a decentralized modern organization with thirty-nine departments. As president Willard initiated her “Home Protection” endeavor in which temperance was linked to protection of the home. Such a tactic made it possible for conservative women to work for a public cause which had implications for their private lives. She also developed her “Do-Everything” strategy which permitted local women to develop programs to improve prisons, to set up temperance teahouses, hotels and drinking fountains, and to raise the marriage age for girls. Under her leadership the movement claimed 500,000 dues-paying members in the 1890’s.

Willard’s most radical program involved her support for women’s suffrage. In the 1890’s her efforts to fuse the temperance movement into a political party with Populists and members of the Prohibition Party as well as suffragists proved unsuccessful. While she traveled to the South several times and intended to use temperance as a post Civil War unifying bridge for northerners and southerners, she never challenged racial segregation. Nor did she support the anti-lynching campaign of Ida Wells, a young black activist working to end the lynching of black males.

Today Willard’s campaign is often characterized as an archaic, cranky crusade against liquor, and her reputation has suffered. While her cause has been diminished in the last century, she nonetheless transformed a Christian organization of conservative women into an international movement that in the United States would culminate in the passage of the prohibition amendment in 1918.