Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Frances E. Willard,
the Women's Temperance Leader

It was in the year 1873 that the women of America first became active in the war against drunkenness, which had been going on in this country, in the hands of men, for half a century before. A "woman's crusade "broke out in Ohio in that year and spread like a consuming fire through the middle West, ardent women advocates of temperance invading the saloons, praying and imploring and doing all in their power to break up the sale of strong drink and the vile habit of intoxication. Their labors led in 1874 to the organization of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which since then has been the strongest force in the fight for this great reform. At its head for twenty years was the notable figure of the woman with whose life history we are now concerned, one of the ablest and noblest in the reform movements of the age.

Frances Elizabeth Willard came from the best New England stock, being a descendant in a direct line from Major-General Simon Willard, who came from England in 1636, was the founder of Concord, Massachusetts, and took a prominent part in early colonial affairs. Born at Churchville, New York, September 23, 1839, Miss Willard was taken by her parents to Oberlin, Ohio, in the following year, and in 1846 to Wisconsin. Here her father became a farmer and her mother was for many years engaged in teaching, and here her own education was obtained, it being completed in the Milwaukee Female College and the Northwestern Female College, from the latter of which she graduated in 1859.

As a girl she was full of vitality and energy, passing a very active outdoor life with her brother and sister, and being fond of riding, fishing, sketching, tree-climbing, and other outing occupations. Her mother encouraged these health-giving pursuits, by the aid of which the young girl laid up a stock of vigor which aided in carrying her through the strenuous duties of her later years. That she did not neglect intellectual pursuits we know from the fact that at the age of sixteen she won a prize from the Illinois Agricultural Society for an essay on "Country Homes," and that in college she was active with pen and voice.

At the time of her graduation Miss Willard was a resident of Evanston, Illinois, the chief suburb of Chicago, which remained her place of residence till her death. Her graduation was quickly followed by a period of teaching in the Northwestern Female College, where she served as Professor of Natural Science from 1861 to 1866, and during part of this time was the college dean. She taught also one year in the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, of Lima, New York, and spent the years 1868 to 1870 in European travel. Her route covered the whole of Europe and parts of Africa and Asia, extending from Helsingfors on the north to Nubia on the south, and eastward as far as Damascus, while much of her time abroad was occupied in the study of language and of the history of the fine arts. Aside from rest and enjoyment, she gained new inspiration and mental development from the extended journey.

In 187, shortly after her return to America, she was made president of the Woman's College of the Northwestern University, at Evanston. Her presidency of this institution is notable for the introduction under her auspices of a system of self-government by the pupils. This important educational experiment, of which she was the originator, proved so successful as an aid in discipline, that other colleges soon began to take it up, and it is now adopted in many of our institutions of learning. In addition to her duties as president, Miss Willard was also Professor of Esthetics in the college during 1873-74 In the latter year she resigned, and shortly afterwards became identified with the temperance movement, to which the remainder of her life was devoted. She had already engaged to some extent in literary work, especially in her "Nineteen Beautiful Years," the story of the brief but inspiring and noble life of her younger sister.

Miss Willard's entrance into the field of labor which became the unresting occupation of her later life was a natural outcome of her sympathy with all movements of reform. She had signed the temperance pledge under her father's and mother's names while still a young child, but did not awaken to the need of entering actively upon temperance work until after the crusade of the women of Ohio in 1873, which she watched with warm approval.

The event which finally enlisted her energies in the cause was the ill-treatment of a band of women crusaders in the streets of Chicago by a rough party of men. Filled with indignation at this outrage, she declared the crusade to be "everybody's war," took part in it as far as her college duties permitted, and began speaking at temperance meetings, in so ardent and effective a manner that her services were soon much in demand.

Shortly after this Miss Willard resigned from the college in consequence of some lack of harmony in the faculty, and at once entered fervently upon temperance work. She made a journey East, conferred with the leaders in the cause, saw the mission temperance work in the slums of New York, became familiar with the extent of the evil and the character of the effort to eradicate it, and determined to give her life to this labor. While in Pittsburg she took part personally in crusade work, going to the saloons with a party of earnest women, kneeling with them on soiled bar-room floors, praying fervently, and pleading earnestly with liquor sellers to give up their soul-destroying business.

One day in 1874 two letters reached her. One was from a school principal in New York, asking her to take charge of a young ladies' department at a salary of $2400 a year; the other was from a friend at home begging her to become president of the Chicago branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, then just organized as an outcome of the crusade movement. It took her no time to choose between the salaried and the non-salaried offer. She at once accepted the latter position, flung herself ardently into the work, and in October, 1874, accepted the position of corresponding secretary of the Illinois section of the Union.

The formation of the Women's Christian Temperance Union was a new move in the temperance cause, a substitution of organized and systematic work, under womanly auspices, for the largely desultory work which had before prevailed, and it had a broad field before it. Miss Willard threw herself, body and soul, into this movement, became its leader and most energetic worker, and was elected president of the National Union in 1879, a post which she held during the remainder of her life.

A ready and pleasing orator, Miss Willard is said to have averaged one speech daily in favor of temperance and other reforms during the first ten years of her work, during which she visited every town of xo,000 and more inhabitants and most of those of 5,000 in the United States. In 1883 alone she is said to have addressed audiences in every State and Territory in the country, travelling thirty thousand miles through the land. Her work was begun without salary, other than such chance contributions as might come in, but as the Union grew more prosperous a regular salary was paid her for her arduous and incessant labors.

As the years went on, Miss Willard's evident ability and incessant activity led to her engaging in other reform movements and being given various positions of leadership. Strongly religious in sentiment, she was occupied in 1877 in aiding the evangelist Moody in his mission work in Boston, and subsequently took active part in other duties. In 1882 she was made a member of the Central Committee of the National Prohibition Party, and in x883 organized a World's Women's Christian Temperance Union, with the purpose of carrying the crusade against strong drink into all parts of the world. Of this body also she was made the president.

Indefatigable in her labors, and constantly seeking for some new opportunity for effective effort, in 1884 she presented, under the auspices of the Union, a memorial to each of the four political conventions for the nomination of Presidential candidates. In the same year she took part in the founding of the Home Protection Party, organized for the protection of the home against the evils of intemperance, and became a member of its executive committee. The petition prepared by it was presented before the legislature of nearly every State.

A new field of labor now entered by her was that of the White Cross and the White Shield, for the promotion of social purity, upon which she spoke widely in the United States and Canada, engaging in it with her usual vital earnestness. She accepted the leadership of this movement in the Unions of which she was president, making this her special department till her death. An active member of the Methodist Church, she was sent as a delegate to its General Conference in 1887, and in 1889 was elected to its Commercial Council, but was refused admittance on some technical plea.

The World's Women's Christian Temperance Union, organized by her in 1883, spread until it had membership in thirty-five different countries, and a huge polyglot petition against the sale of intoxicating liquors and opium was distributed for signature, it eventually receiving the vast number of seven million signatures. Of these about 6,500,000 were in the United States, the remainder being from many countries covered by the World's Union.

The petition was presented to President Cleveland in 1895, and two years afterwards to the government of Canada. Its most effective and picturesque presentation was before a great World's Temperance Convention held in London in 1896, at which the monster petition encircled the entire hall and lay in huge rolls in front of the platform. Delegates from temperance societies of many different countries were present, many of them in their picturesque native costumes. Miss Willard and Lady Henry Somerset were the presiding officers of the meeting, which was a very large and highly enthusiastic one. But as for the vast petition, it need only be said that it proved of no effect, the sale of liquor and opium going on unchecked.

In 1893 Miss Willard was honored with the chairmanship of the World's Temperance Convention at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Recognition of her standing as a worker came to her in the honorary degree of A.M. from Syracuse University in 1871, and of LL.D from the Ohio Wesleyan University in 1894. Her active work on the platform was kept up to the close of her life in all parts of the country, she making among her tours eight journeys through the Southern States, bringing together the women of the two sections of the Union in harmonious association under the white flag of the W.C.T.U., with its famous motto, "For God and Home and Native Land."

In these incessant labors the indefatigable president of the Union was always dignified, earnest, and inspiring, while as a temperance orator her powers were rare and fine. As a presiding officer her excellence was everywhere acknowledged, her grace and graciousness of manner, tact and judgment, quickness at repartee, and intellectual alertness, winning her universal respect and esteem at the meetings of the White Ribbon class.

Miss Willard did not confine herself to the lines of activity here mentioned, but engaged also earnestly in editorial and literary labors. Editorially, her work was done on the Chicago Daily Post, the Boston Our Day, and The Union Signal, the special publication of the W.C.T.U. She was also the director of the Women's Temperance Publishing Association, of Chicago. Her books included Nineteen Beautiful Years, already mentioned; Glimpses of Fifty Years, Women and Temperance, and a number of others. Of these, Glimpses of Fifty Years  was of the character of an autobiography, and had a very large sale, more than fifty thousand copies being called for from all parts of the world.

Her persistent and unceasing labors in time told upon Miss Willard's strength, and for several of her later years she suffered from ill health. Despite this she kept diligently at work, and, though worn out with labor, presided at the convention of 1897. The exertion here required proved too much for her strength, and she died on the 18th of February, 1898.

We may close with an estimate of the character of this indefatigable worker for reform from Lady Henry Somerset, her intimate friend in the presidency of the World's Women's Christian Temperance Union:

"Capacity for work, untiring and unremitting, is one of the great characteristics which close friendship of these years has revealed; and save when sleeping I have never seen her idle. The secret of her success has perhaps lain in this, that she has set herself towards her aim and nothing would tempt her from the goal. 'She is ambitious,' is the worst condemnation of her enemies; but surely if there has been a noble and pure and true ambition it has been that of Frances Willard."