by Tamera Lynn Kraft
At one time, Frances Willard was the most famous woman in America. When she died in 1898, flags flew at half-mass. In Chicago, 30,000 people lined up to view her casket in one day.
Willard was the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and championed the cause of Prohibition. She died a twenty years before the 18th Amendment was passed, but she is the person most responsible for organizing the movement for Prohibition. She also fought for women’s rights in America including the right to vote.
Nineteenth century feminism was, in the words of Emma Willard, Frances’ cousin, an exercise in “pure practical Christianity.” It was based on Christian principals. It was only in the mid-twentieth century that feminism lost it’s Christian roots.
Although not all nineteenth century feminists shared Willard’s Christian faith, most did. Willard taught women displayed God’s image through reason and intellect. A woman was morally responsible to her Creator to develop her intellect and to use it in God’s service. Willard also believed women were not the only ones responsible for morality. She insisted both sexes were called to righteousness.
Willard rejected marriage and children, but she wasn’t against women who chose to be wives and mothers. Instead she defended them. Her strongest crusades politically were under the title of “home protection.” She fought for laws to protect women who were wives and mothers, but she also fought for women’s rights to choose to have a career if they desired.
She said, “Men have been preaching well nigh two thousand years, and the large majority of the converts have been women. Suppose now that women should share the preaching power, might it not be reasonably expected that a majority of the converts under their administration would be men? Indeed, how else are the latter to have a fair chance at the Gospel? . . . Why, then should the pulpit be shorn of half its power?”
Willard’s mother studied at Oberlin College, one of the first co-ed colleges in the nation. The family was dedicated to the education and advancement of their children. Frances was given the best education that could be offered a young woman at the time. She read abolitionist materials at a young age. Years later she wrote, “That earliest book of all my reading, stamped upon me the purpose to help humanity, the sense of brotherhood of all nations as really one, and of God as the equal Father of all races.”
She was the founding president of Northwestern Ladies’ College and is credited with introducing an innovative approach to women’s education. By Willard’s plan, women could either remain entirely within the structure of the Ladies College or branch out into traditional male fields through classes at Northwestern University. They might even earn a degree from Northwestern; but the women at all times belonged to, and were under the authority of the Ladies College. This affiliate plan, which she set up, was later adopted at Radcliff and Barnard Colleges.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1874 in response to widespread concern about the abuse of alcohol. There were no legal limits on the alcoholic content of whisky, and it was often lethal. Also many men drank away their paycheck at the tavern every night before going home. Then the drunk men would go home and beat their wives. There were no spousal abuse laws nor was there public welfare to support starving women and children.
Carrie Nation and others started a moral campaign appealing to the conscience of tavern owners, but to no avail. As soon as one tavern closed another opened. It was decided only through legislation would any social change take place. A new image and a more educated form of leadership for the WCTU was sought, and Frances Willard proved to be the logical choice. She became president of the WCTU.
The issue was one close to Willard’s heart. Her brother and nephews were alcoholics. After her brother died, she assumed responsibility for her nephews. One of them overcome his addiction, but the other couldn’t. Willard’s brother’s losing battle with alcoholism convinced her eliminating alcohol from society seemed the only reasonable step to take.
The temperance movement was not the only social issue Willard worked for. She campaigned for change in prostitution laws. Prostitution in some lumber camps amounted to child slavery. The age of consent in twenty states was ten years of age, and in one it was seven. Willard believed the men who patronized a prostitute should be equally guilty under the law as the prostitute who served him.
She also fought for stronger laws against rape. She wrote, “When we reflect that in Massachusetts and Vermont it is a greater crime to steal a cow than to abduct and a girl, and that in Illinois is not considered a crime, it is a marvel not to be explained that we go the even tenor of our way, too delicate, too refined, too prudish to make any allusion to these awful facts, much less take up arms against these awful crimes. We have been the victims of conventional cowardice too long.”
Under Willard, the WCTU worked for the development of Traveler Aid to assist women in their attempt to remain pure while searching for work. They also established homes for the reclamation of prostitutes.
One of Willard’s most outstanding achievements was her global arousal of public opinion with regard to the international traffic in narcotics. The WCTU circulated a petition asking governments to stop the sale of opium and other narcotics.
The WCTU did not just push for Prohibition, but instituted small reforms that would enable people to remain sober. Town squares, one by one, became equipped with fresh fountains of healthy drinking water so that thirsty farmers did not have to enter a saloon when they came to town. It worked among immigrant families teaching them English, American cookery, shopping, and to abandon European styles of drinking. It was at WCTU insistence milk was put on sale at Ellis Island. Previously only beer had been available.
Willard was active in prison work. She sought to have men and women quartered separately. She urged that a woman officer be established for every jail or prison where women were housed. By 1894, the police matron was a matter of course in the United States. Willard then proposed a woman police officer patrol the streets.
She fought against corsets deforming women and encouraged sporting and bicycling among women to promote health. She also fought for woman to receive equal pay for equal work.
Willard was outspoken about Christianity. In 1886, she wrote an article for Homiletic Review defending the right of women to preach. In 1888, she published a book, Woman in the Pulpit, which contained an expanded version of the article. In this book, Willard stated the case for women preachers. She used Scripture to prove her case.
Willard combined woman’s rights and Christianity as one of our history’s greatest Christian feminists. She fought injustice wherever she found it and became a true American heroine.