Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Biography of Frances Willard

Frances Willard

Frances Willard (1839-1898) was born on September 28, 1839, in Churchville, New York. She lived there with her parents until 1841, when the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio. In 1846 the family moved to southeastern Wisconsin to a farm near Janesville, where Willard spent most of her childhood. In 1858, Willard came to Evanston to attend the North Western Female College. She graduated in 1859 and began a teaching career that started in one-room schools. As her reputation grew, she held more prestigious positions in secondary schools in Pennsylvania and New York.

In 1871 Willard became president of the newly formed Evanston College for Ladies. When this college merged with Northwestern University, Willard became the first Dean of Women at Northwestern. For various reasons, Willard resigned this position in 1874 and that summer she began to pursue a new career in the fledgling woman’s temperance movement.

In November 1874 Willard attended the founding convention of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and was elected the first corresponding secretary. She was given the task of communicating with members and traveling to small towns and cities in the United States, forming local Unions and building support for the WCTU. Willard worked hard during these early years to expand the WCTU’s reform efforts to include such issues as woman suffrage, woman’s rights, education reforms, and labor reforms. She coined the slogan "Home Protection" to express the idea that women should have the right to vote in order to defend their homes and families from threats. This approach proved a critical strategy for the suffrage movement and, once Willard persuaded the membership of the WCTU to endorse it, added thousands of women to the suffrage cause.

After Willard was elected President of the WCTU in 1879, the organization gave its support to this broader view of the WCTU’s reform work. Under Willard’s leadership the WCTU grew to be the largest organization of women in the world by 1890. She saw the WCTU both as a means for accomplishing societal reform and for training women to accomplish these and many other reforms, expanding their public role in the world. The WCTU was critical in building the next generation of women leaders.

In late 1897 Willard’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. She died in the Empire Hotel in New York on February 17, 1898, at the age of fifty-eight.

Willard and Race

Willard grew up in a family of abolitionists. At an early age, she was reading abolitionist texts such as The Slave’s Friend, which was written for children. Willard’s parents were involved with the Underground Railroad during the time they lived in Oberlin, Ohio when Willard was a child. There are accounts that they harbored a fugitive slave while residing there.

Willard carried this upbringing into her work in the WCTU. Willard encouraged black membership in the WCTU and spoke to black audiences. She had friendly relationships with a number of black leaders, including Frederick Douglass, who said she was “devoted to the cause of the colored people.”

However, Willard carried with her a middle-class white woman’s background, including a limited perspective on race and class. Willard made comments that were demeaning to black people, immigrants, and Native Americans, reflecting the underlying racism of the late nineteenth century United States. She also believed the racist propaganda of her time and did not speak out against lynching.

Under Willard's leadership, the WCTU established a national Department of Work among the “Colored People,” with African-American women heading the department. Black women were also involved in local WCTU unions throughout the country, which were sometimes integrated with black and white members’ unions. However, unwelcome in many other white local unions, black women also developed and led separate unions commonly known as the WCTU #2 unions (or named for Willard or Sojourner Truth). In Evanston, the local African-American union was named the Frances Willard Union in her honor. Regardless of whether local unions were segregated, black women were welcome at national conventions and at other meetings of WCTU leaders.

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