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Frances Willard


Frances Willard

Frances Willard

Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Modifications © 2003 Jone Johnson Lewis. Licensed to About.com.

About Frances Willard:

Dates: September 28, 1839 - February 7, 1898

Occupation: educator, temperance activist, reformer, suffragist, speaker

Known for: heading the Women's Christian Temperance Union, 1879-1898; first dean of women, Northwestern University; appeared on a 1940 postage stamp; first woman represented in Statuary Hall, U.S. Capitol Building

Also known as: Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard

Religion: Methodist


  • Father: Josiah Flint Willard (farmer, businessman)
  • Mother: Mary Thompson Hill Willard (schoolteacher)
  • Brother: Oliver (5 years older)
  • Sister: Mary (5 years younger)
  • Cousin: educator Emma Willard


  • taught at home by her mother until 1853
  • Janesville public school, from 1853
  • Milwaukee Seminary (her mother's sister taught there)
  • Evanston College for Ladies (later Northwestern Female College, Evanston, Illinois): "Laureatte of Science" 1859, valedictorian


  • Pittsburgh Female College: taught science
  • Genesee Wesleyan Seminary: taught science
  • various other teaching assignments
  • Northwestern Female College (1871: appointed as "preceptress" or head of the college)
  • Northwestern University, after Northwestern Female College merged with the university: college dean, professor of aesthetics

Marriage, Children:

  • never married
  • Anna Gordon was her living and traveling companion and private secretary for 22 years

Key Writings:

  • Woman and temperance, or the work and workers of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. 1883.
  • Glimpses of fifty years: the autobiography of an American woman. 1889.
  • Do everything: a handbook for the world's white ribboners. About 1895.
  • How to Win: A Book for Girls. 1886.
  • Woman in the Pulpit. 1888.
  • briefly, editor of the Chicago Daily Post
  • 1892: founded a magazine, The Union Signal; she was editor until her death.
  • A Wheel within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, 1895, 1991.

Places: Janesville, Wisconsin; Evanston, Illinois

Frances Willard Biography

Frances Willard was born on September 28, 1839, in Churchville, New York. When she was three, the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio. In 1846 the family moved again, this time to Janesville, Wisconsin. Wisconsin became a state in 1848, and Josiah Flint Willard, Frances' father, was a member of the legislator. In "the West," her brother was her playmate and companion, and Frances Willard dressed as a boy and was known to friends as "Frank." She preferred to avoid "women's work" including housework, preferring more active play.

Frances Willard's mother had been educated at Oberlin College, in a time when few women studied at the college level. Frances' mother educated her children at home until the town of Janesville established its own schoolhouse in 1883. Frances in her turn enrolled in the Milwaukee Seminary, a respected school for women teachers, but her father wanted her to transfer to a Methodist school, so she and her sister Mary went to Evanston College for Ladies in Illinois. Frances graduated in 1859 as valedictorian. Her entire family moved at that time to Evanston.

Teaching Career:

Frances Willard taught at a variety of institutions for ten years. In 1861, she became engaged to Charles H. Fowler, then a divinity student, but she broke off the engagement the next year.

Frances Willard went on a world tour with her friend Kate Jackson in 1868, and returned to Evanston to become head of Northwestern Female College, her alma mater under its new name. When that school merged into Northwestern University as the Woman's College of that university, in 1871, Frances Willard was appointed Dean of Women of the Woman's College, and Professor of Aesthetics in the University's Liberal Arts college.

Women's Christian Temperance Union:

By 1874, Willard's ideas had clashed with those of the university president, Charles H. Fowler, the same man to whom she had been engaged in 1861. The conflicts escalated, and in March of 1874, Frances Willard chose to leave the University and accepted the presidency of the Chicago Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

In October she became corresponding secretary of the Illinois WCTU, and in November, corresponding secretary of the national WCTU, a position which required frequent travel and speaking. From 1876, she also headed up the WCTU publications committee.

Willard was also associated briefly with evangalist Dwight Moody, disappointed when she realized he only wanted her to speak to women.

In 1877, she resigned as president of the Chicago organization. Willard had come into some conflict with Annie Wittenmyer, national WCTU president, over Willard's push to get the organization to endorse woman suffrage as well as temperance, and so Willard also resigned from her positions with the national WCTU. Willard began lecturing for woman suffrage.

In 1878, Willard won the presidency of the Illinois WCTU, and the next year, Frances Willard became president of the national WCTU, following Annie Wittenmyer. Willard remained president of the national WCTU until her death. In 1883, Frances Willard was one of the founders of the World's WCTU. She supported herself with lecturing until 1886 when the WCTU granted her a salary.

Frances Willard also participated in the founding of the National Council of Women in 1888, and served one year as its first president.

Organizing Women:

As head of the first national organization in America for women, Frances Willard endorsed the idea that the organization should "do everything": work not only for temperance, but also for woman suffrage, "social purity" (protecting young girls and other women sexually by raising the age of consent, establishing rape laws, holding male customers equally responsible for prostitution violations, etc.), and other social reforms. In fighting for temperance, she depicted the liquor industry as ridden with crime and corruption, men who drank alcohol as victims for succumbing to the temptations of liquor, and women, who had few legal rights to divorce, child custody, and financial stability, as ultimate victims of liquor.

But Willard did not see women primarily as victims. While coming from a "separate spheres" vision of society, and valuing women's contributions as homemakers and child educators as equal to men's in the public sphere, she also promoted women's right to choose to participate in the public sphere. She endorsed women's right to become ministers and preachers, as well.

Frances Willard remained a staunch Christian, rooting her reform ideas in her faith. She disagreed with the criticism of religion and the Bible by other suffragists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, though Willard continued to work with such critics on other issues.

Significant Friendships:

Lady Somerset of England was a close friend of Frances Willard, and Willard spent time at her home resting from her work. Willard's private secretary and her living and traveling companion for her last 22 years was Anna Gordon, who succeeded to the presidency of the World's WCTU when Frances died. In her diaries she mentions a secret love, but who this person was, was never revealed.


When in New York City, preparing to leave for England, Willard contracted influenza and died on February 17, 1898. (Some sources point to pernicious anemia, the source of several years' ill health.) Her death was met with national mourning: flags in New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago were flown at half-staff, and thousands attended services where the train with her remains stopped on its way back to Chicago and her burial in Rosehill Cemetery.

Organizations: Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Northwestern University

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