Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard (1839-1898)


Frances Willard promoted the cause of women and reform as a pioneer educator and especially as the most prominent leader of the nineteenth century movement to end alcohol abuse.

One of the most influential women of the nineteenth century, Frances Willard’s name is inseparable from that of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), but her life embodied little of the conservatism that came to be associated with the WCTU after her death.

Instead, Willard’s upbringing encouraged fresh ideas. Her mother set the precedent for unconventionality, for Mary Willard had taken college courses at Oberlin College when both that institution and her daughter were only a few years old. Frances’ father, who was a full-time Oberlin student, tended her while his wife went to classes in the early 1840s. Both parents thus exhibited a very unusual willingness to experiment with new roles, for married men in this era seldom took care of children, while female college students of any marital status were a rarity. Indeed, Mary Thompson Willard may have been the first college student who was also a young mother. 

In 1845, this intrepid young couple pioneered in Wisconsin. There Frances lived an outdoor life, joining in her brothers’ activities and even referring to herself as “Frank.” The children were educated largely by their mother until their father, who had become a state legislator, finally succeeded in getting a school for their area when Frances was fifteen. At seventeen, she traveled to Milwaukee Female College, and the following year, went to Illinois, where she studied at Northwestern Female College, from which she graduated in 1859.

She taught for the next few years before traveling to Europe from 1868 to 1870.. Upon her return, Willard was named president of the Evanston College for Ladies, a new school founded in 1871 with links to Northwestern, which it soon absorbed.  Willard then was named dean of women, one of the first female administrators to hold a high position at a major co-educational university. After less than a year as dean of women, Willard ended her career as a college administrator in June 1874 to begin what became her true life’s work with the newly organized Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

As head of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) from 1879 until her death, Willard changed the WCTU from a conservative temperance organization into a broader woman’s rights movement with a range of social concerns, including the right to vote. She coined the phrase “Home Protection” to encourage women to expand their influence beyond the family circle, including fighting prostitution and venereal disease. 

In 1884, Willard wrote the “polyglot petition,” which urged world leaders to enact total prohibition, not only of alcohol, but also opium and other addictives. She led the WCTU in gathering signatures from 7,500,000 men and women from 50 countries. The petition was unveiled in 1891, the same year in which Willard was able to extend WCTU into an international organization, becoming president of the World’s WCTU at a Boston meeting. Willard’s health began to deteriorate from chronic anemia and she passed away in 1898 at the age of fifty-eight. Two thousand people attended her funeral at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City, and an estimated twenty thousand more viewed her casket at the Women’s Temple in Chicago.


Works Cited:

  • PHOTO: Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (LC-DIG-ggbain-02864)