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president of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1879 to 1898
Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard was born in Churchville, New York, on September 28, 1839, the second of three children born to Josiah Flint Willard, a businessman, and Mary Thompson Hill Willard, a schoolteacher (she had an older brother and a younger sister). Her family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, when she was three, and to to Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1846. When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, her father became one of its first state legislators.
Educated by her mother at home until Janesville built its first school in 1853, Frances preferred active play to learning about "woman's work" and longed for a more well-rounded education. She got her wish when she was accepted into Milwaukee Seminary, where her mother's sister taught, in 1857. Her father wanted her to receive a "Methodist education," however, and she transferred to Evanston College for Ladies the following year. She graduated from Evanston with a "Laureate of Science" and as class valedictorian in 1859, and her family joined her in Evanston that same year. She spent the next several years working as a science teacher in various institutions and schools, including Pittsburgh Fenale College and Genesee Wesleyan Seminary. She became engaged to Charles H. Fowler, a divinity student, in 1861, but broke off the engagement the following year.
In 1868 Frances gave up her teaching career and embarked on a tour of the world with Anna Jackson, a close friend. The two travelled throughout Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa before finally returning to Evanston in 1870.
In 1871 Frances became preceptress (dean) of Northwestern Female College. When that college was merged into Northwestern University in 1873 she became that university's Dean of Women, as well as a professor of esthetics. At Northwestern Frances found herself subject to sexual harassment and was frequently in conflict with her former fiancÚ, who was president of the institution. In March of 1874, she decided she'd had enough and resigned and accepted the presidency of the Chicago Woman's Christian Temperance Union. She became corresponding secretary of the Illinois Woman's Christian Temperance Union in October of that same year, corresponding secretary of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union (NWCTU) that November, and by 1876 she was heading the NWCTU publications committee.
Although she was a devout believer in the temperance movement, Willard also believed that the NWCTU should devote some of its efforts to other social issues involving women, including woman suffrage. This belief put her in direct conflict with NWCTU President Annie Wittenmyer, and she resigned from her national positions in 1877. In 1878, she was elected president of the Illinois Woman's Christian Temperance Union. She succeeded Wittenmyer as president of the NWCTU in 1879, and served in that capacity until her death. Under her leadership, the NWCTU expanded its mission to include woman suffrage, the raising of the age of consent, the establishment of strict rape laws, the right of women to become ministers and preachers, and many other women's issues. She helped found the World Woman's Christian Temperance Union in 1883, and the National Council of Women in 1888. Her work took her across the country, and across the Atlantic many times, but did not provide her with a salary until 1886; she supported herself with lecture fees and book royalties until then.
Willard's busy work and travel schedule took its toll on her health. She was sidelined by influenza during a speaking engagement in New York City, and died in that city on February 7, 1898. She is buried in Rosehill Cemetery, in Chicago. Frances Willard never married, but she enjoyed a 22-year-long friendship with Anna Gordon.
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This page was last updated on June 11, 2018.