Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

The Forgotten Feminist

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     When Frances Willard died, in 1898, she was one of the most famous women in America. As the president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which still has its headquarters in her hometown of Evanston, Willard was one of the leading figures of the temperance movement, then 20 years away from passing a constitutional amendment banning alcohol in the United States. In the 19th Century, women’s suffrage went hand in hand with temperance, because it was assumed women would vote to ban alcohol. Willard encouraged women to become politically active, as a form of “Home Protection.” Every state is entitled to two statues in the U.S. Capitol. Illinois placed Willard there in 1905 -- the first woman so honored, a fact mentioned by Sen. Charles Schumer during January’s inaugural luncheon in Statuary Hall. 

    That’s one of the few public mentions Willard has received in recent years. She was also a figure in Ken Burns’s documentary Prohibition. The ultimate failure of Willard’s lifelong cause diminished her historical reputation. Her home, at 1730 Chicago Avenue, just south of the Northwestern campus, has been preserved as a museum. But it’s a museum whose founders expected their subject to enjoy a much larger fame than posterity has granted her.
    Willard was a daughter of a prominent Methodist family with roots in Upstate New York -- her father, Josiah Willard, was a delegate to the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago. Along with abolition, temperance of one of the greatest causes of Protestant reform -- Abraham Lincoln was a teetotaler. Before modern plumbing and refrigeration, alcohol was often the only safe beverage to drink. As a result, Americans drank three times as much as they do now. Willard saw alcoholism as a women’s issue, since it destroyed families, and her concern for women’s welfare made her a proto-feminist, who also advocated for public education, school lunches, the eight-hour day, and strong laws against rape and child abuse. Willard herself never married, but lived in what was then called a “Boston marriage” with her secretary, Anna Gordon.
    Willard’s house is open for tours every first and third Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Your Ward Room Blogger visited recently. Besides Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Hyde Park, it’s the best-preserved historical residence I’ve seen. Willard’s admirers thought of her as an international figure, and preserved everything she owned: her library, including books signed by compatriot Susan B. Anthony; her Dictaphone; her traveling bag, which she carried on worldwide speaking tours; the bicycle she learned to ride at age 50, as a curative for anemia. 
    Had she lived until the passage of the 19th Amendment, Willard might be remembered as one of the great suffragettes. But today she is known only in her hometown, where Northwestern’s Willard Residential College bears her name. (Before the WCTU, Willard was president of Evanston College for Ladies, which was absorbed by Northwestern.) Her influence over the town’s mores was long-lasting, too: Evanston banned alcohol until the 1970s, when it was finally deemed less of an evil than students driving home drunk from Howard Street.

    Watch Women of PROHIBITION: Frances Willard & Mary Hanchett Hunt on PBS. See more from Prohibition.