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People & Ideas: Frances Willard

Frances Willard

Source: Library of Congress

"Mother-hearted women are called to be the saviors of the race," wrote Frances Willard in 1888. Born into a devout Methodist family in 1839, Willard believed that women's innate morality could save the nation, and, given the right to vote, women would demand an end to pornography, gambling and other societal vices. Women, she claimed, could cleanse the nation of its sins.

Raised in Wisconsin, Willard studied at Milwaukee Female College and Northwestern Female College where she was selected valedictorian of her class. After her graduation, Willard traveled the world with a friend and, upon returning to the United States, became the first president of the Evanston College for Ladies in 1871. The college opened to offer greater academic opportunities for women's higher education, but financial problems forced it to merge with Northwestern University in 1873.

Rather than settle in academia, Willard became increasingly engaged in social reform, linking two reform movements -- women's suffrage and temperance. In 1874, she became the president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). She traveled across both the United States and Europe speaking about the necessity of temperance reform and women's suffrage. Under Willard's leadership, the WCTU attacked not only alcohol but also a broad range of social issues including prison reform, the care of orphans, homelessness and prostitution. As historian Edward Blum has pointed out, Willard and her followers viewed the WCTU as "a new and holy army in a war for human liberation. To them, religion and politics could not be separated." Willard reassured her followers that "the Bible is the most political of books," adding that that the goal of the WCTU was to "recognize Christ as the great world-force for righteousness and purity, and enthrone him as King."

Frances Willard died in 1898, but her legacy lived on. In 1919, Congress inaugurated the era of prohibition; one year later, women were granted the right to vote.

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Published October 11, 2010

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