Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells: A Conversation Waiting to Happen

Christopher H. Evans

Professor of the History of Christianity
Boston University

Frances Willard’s contemporaries observed that the secret of her public appeal was her enormous charisma. Susan B. Anthony wrote that Willard “was a bunch of magnetism, possessing that occult force which all leaders must have. I never approached her but what I felt my nerves tingle from her magnetism." Anthony speaks to Willard’s ability as President of the WCTU to enlist women into a range of social reform initiatives. Using late nineteenth-century language that stressed women’s innate piety and Christian virtue, Willard championed suffrage, work equality, and economic justice. Her legacy speaks to an arc of progressive-based social reform that carries down to our era. However, her feud with Ida B. Wells dogged Willard for the remainder of her life—and in many ways haunts her legacy.

When Wells first accused Willard of being indifferent to the lynching of African Americans in the spring of 1893, Willard was at the height of her popularity. However, it also reflected a period when her ability to shape the political direction of the WCTU was starting to wane. In 1892, she suffered the most crushing defeat of her career when her efforts to mold a unified third-party coalition under the banner of prohibition, economic justice and woman’s suffrage fell apart. The death of Willard’s mother a few months later and her subsequent relocation to England where she spent the majority of her time over the next several years left control of the WCTU to associates who increasingly challenged Willard’s vision. Willard was a master tactician whose effectiveness often revolved around her ability to use her charisma to get would-be opponents to see issues from her point of view. Yet she could also fight back fiercely against anyone she believed was challenging her authority.

In Ida B. Wells, Willard encountered an individual who was not willing to be charmed or placated by anyone. The fact that Wells, a young African-American woman, was not interested in presenting herself as a “well-behaved” woman to Willard and her WCTU comrades angered Willard and contributed to her paternalistic attitude toward Wells. In fact, Willard often cast herself in the press as the true victim in the feud. She often portrayed Wells as a “nervous” or “overly excitable” young woman who refused to conform to the “ladylike” standards of late Victorian womanhood. In short, Willard never viewed Wells as her equal.  

One of Willard’s greatest assets as a leader was her ability to offer followers compelling visions of America’s future. Her speeches brimmed with hope that the coming twentieth century would open new vistas of opportunity for all Americans, regardless of gender. “I am glad to live in a day when we are talking about justice,” she noted in an 1892 speech. “What we women want is simply justice.” However, like other white feminists of the time such as Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Willard’s vision often failed to take into account the experiences of persons whose racial-ethnic and class backgrounds were different from hers. As has typified many movements of white-dominated political progressivism in American history, Willard cast herself as an individual who believed she was in a position to tell oppressed people how they should behave. In 1894, Frederick Douglass, often a strong supporter of Willard’s, castigated her and other well-intentioned whites for blaming African Americans for their suffering. “We are called a problem—a tremendous problem… a disturbing social force, threatening destruction to the holiest and best interests of society. I declare this statement concerning the Negro, whether by good Miss Willard … or by any and all others, as false and deeply injurious to the colored citizens of the United States.”

How might we interpret the Willard-Wells feud today, especially in light of the deep political divides that exist in contemporary America? A quick read of the controversy tells a story of Willard’s inability to engage Wells’ accusations. However, as Douglass’ comments indicate, the feud tells a much deeper story into the long-standing divides in American history caused by racism.

Frances Willard deserves to be seen as one of the most important and visionary leaders of the late nineteenth century. The causes that she fought, such as equal pay for equal work, are still contested in America today. However, her feud with Ida B. Wells illustrates a broader history of white progressivism’s failure to listen to the voices of historically marginalized groups.  Today, in a nation that faces widening political division, it falls upon us to find ways to hold the difficult conversations on issues such as racism and social equality that Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells were not able to accomplish.

Christopher H. Evans is Professor of the History of Christianity at Boston University. He is the author of several books on American religious history, including The Social Gospel in American Religion, a History (New York University Press, 2017). He is currently writing a biography on Frances Willard to be published by Oxford University Press.

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