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How Frances Willard shaped feminism by leading the 19th-century temperance movement

A black and white photograph showing three women, two of whom are seated.
Frances Willard stands behind her mother, at left, and Anna B. Gordon, who worked as a secretary and lived in the Willard household. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

As younger adults opt for “wellness” products, many are practicing alcohol abstinence. Sometimes referred to as “sober curious,” this trend of often forgoing alcohol has forged public conversations on the health benefits of abstinence.

Few, however, reflect on its connections to the temperance movement, one of the major social movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Its leaders not only believed that alcohol abstinence would lead to better health, but they saw it as a way to create a just society. This movement laid a foundation for the successful campaign for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Enacted in 1920, the 18th Amendment barred the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages.

Because of the difficulties of legal enforcement, and following a national campaign waged against Prohibition, the amendment was repealed in 1933. That repeal still casts aspersion on how the temperance movement is remembered today. Many Americans see it as a moralistic crusade dominated by religious zealots. However, temperance became an international movement, with many of its leaders being women.

A historical figure who sheds light on this movement is Frances Willard. In a recent biography, I discuss how Willard came to lead the temperance movement.

Global reach of temperance movement

Born in 1839, Willard wanted to become a Methodist minister. Instead, she became a teacher, as women could rarely be ordained at the time. Ultimately, she became the first dean of the newly founded Woman’s College at Northwestern University.

In 1874, Willard helped found the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, an organization committed to campaigning for prohibition legislation. She was elected its president in 1879, holding that office until her death in 1898. Throughout her presidency, the WCTU ran shelters, medical dispensaries and free kindergartens that reached out to destitute families.

Willard focused on alcohol’s impact on women and children. At a time when women had few legal safeguards compared with men, Willard highlighted how what today is known as alcohol use disorder drained economic resources, while liquor manufacturers made huge profits at the expense of the poor. She argued that money spent on alcohol not only took away resources from families, it led to inebriated men committing domestic violence against women and children.

Emphasizing what the WCTU called “organized mother love” – the belief that women could apply the ideals of motherhood to the social issues of the time – Willard built the WCTU into one of the largest women’s organizations in the world. By the late 19th century, it had over 150,000 members.

The temperance movement was not confined to the U.S. In 1884, Willard inaugurated the World’s WCTU. This organization formed WCTU chapters in over 40 countries including Sweden, Japan and Australia.

Two women lay a wreath at the statue of a woman holding a book in one hand.
This Frances Willard statue is in the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol. Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images

In 1905, when a statue of Willard was unveiled in the National Statuary Hall – a chamber devoted to sculptures of prominent Americans in the U.S. Capitol – she became the first woman to receive that distinction. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, in 2000.

Elevating women’s voices

For Willard, prohibition was one of her many interests. Through her slogan, “Do Everything,” she challenged women to become politically active, encouraging them to embrace any issues they saw as important.

Under her leadership, the WCTU advocated for women’s suffrage, lobbied for prison reform and campaigned for age-of-consent laws that were designed to raise the legal marriage age for women from 10 to 18.

Believing that the best way to ensure prohibition legislation was through giving women the right to vote, Willard mentored WCTU women who became suffrage leaders. These reformers included Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt, who helped lead the campaign to ratify the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

Willard supported third-party political movements that endorsed prohibition, universal suffrage and economic reforms. Always at the center of her message was the belief that overhauling the American political system required women’s voices. “I am glad to live in a day when we are talking about justice,” she wrote in 1892. “What we women want is simply justice.”

Willard was a harsh critic of anyone who stood in the way of women’s achievement. Opposing male physicians of the time, who believed that exercise would damage a woman’s health, she learned how to ride a bicycle. Willard described her mastery of bicycle riding in a popular book published in 1895.

An activist faith

Willard’s Methodist faith shaped her reform commitments. She was influenced by the 18th-century founder of Methodism, John Wesley, who emphasized doing good works in service to the poor. His example influenced later religious-based reform movements, including temperance.

Willard built on this Methodist foundation, believing that reforming society required that one’s faith be put into practice. Motivated by Jesus’ commitment to serve the poor, she pushed WCTU women to work for economic justice and social equality.

Willard supported the fledgling labor movement. She called for women to receive the same pay as men in the workplace, and backed federal legislation to regulate business monopolies.

She also pushed for the ordination of women, believing that increasing women’s voices in churches would facilitate the building of a just society.

Willard’s model of progressive religion is evident today in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Like Willard, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee often discusses how her Methodist faith inspires her political vision.

Complicated legacy

Willard was far from perfect. Her legacy is haunted by an absence of a systemic understanding of racism.

In the 1890s, she became embroiled in a controversy with the African American journalist Ida B. Wells. Wells criticized Willard for not taking a stand against the lynching of African Americans in the South. She noted how Willard’s desire to placate white Southerners blinded her to the atrocities of Jim Crow racism.

Willard’s reluctance to address Wells’ accusations was typical of white reformers of the time. It reflects the historical failure of many white Americans to prioritize issues of racial justice.

Despite her shortcomings, Willard’s leadership not only played a critical role in the temperance movement. She helped shape 21st-century feminism and progressive-based movements associated with today’s religious left.

At the height of her fame, many believed that if women won the right to vote Frances Willard would be the first woman elected president. Oftentimes, she expressed hope that she would live to see a woman elected to that office. This dream of Willard’s remains unfulfilled.

Ever the optimist, however, Willard wrote in 1889, “I have sincerely meant in life, to stand by the great cause of poor, oppressed humanity. There must be explorers along all pathways. … This has been my ‘call’ from the beginning.”

Willard died before the passing of the 18th and 19th Amendments. Yet she played a vital role in molding movements that led to their enactment. Her contributions are a reminder to celebrate the work of many visionary women, like Willard, who did not live to see their dreams become reality.

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