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Frances Elizabeth Willard 1839 ~ 1898


Frances Elizabeth Willard

In the Capitol at Washington, a statue of Frances E. Willard stands in the great circle of honor to represent the prairie state of Illinois, and in the great circles of reformers gathering through all ages, her place is forever secure. The early home life of Frances Willard was preeminently Christian. Her father, Josiah F. Willard, was a descendant of Major Simon Willard, of Kent, England, who, with Reverend Peter Bulkeley, settled in Concord, Massachusetts, less than fifteen years after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Major Willard was a man of great force of character and of distinguished public service and his descendants included many men and women who inherited his talents with his good name.

Inheriting many of the notable gifts of both parents and of more remote ancestors, Frances Willard grew up in an atmosphere most favorable to the development of her powers. Early in her life her parents moved to Oberlin, Ohio, that the father might carry out a long cherished plan of further study and that the family might have the advantages of intellectual help and stimulus. But in May, 1846, Mr. Willard's health demanded a change of climate and life in the open. He moved his family to Wisconsin, then a territory, and settled on a farm, near the young village of Janesville. Miss Willard wrote many years afterward of their pioneer life here on a farm, half prairie, half forest, on the banks of the Rock River. She says that her career as a reformer had its root and growth in the religious character of the family in this log cabin neighborhood. Their abode was named Forest Home, and in the earlier years without what a Yankee would call "near neighbors" the family were almost entirely dependent upon their own resources for society. Mrs. Willard was poetical in her nature and she made herself at once mentor and companion to her children. The father, too, was near to nature's heart in a real and vivid fashion of his own. And so the children, reared in a home which was to their early years a world's horizon, lived an intellectual and yet a most helpful life. Miss Willard enjoyed entire freedom from fashionable restraint until her seventeenth year, clad during most of the year in simple flannel suits, and spent much of the time in the open air, sharing the occupations and sports of her brothers. Her first teachers were her educated parents; later an accomplished young woman was engaged as family teacher and companion for the children. Her first schoolmaster was a graduate of Yale College.

At the age of seventeen she, with her sister Mary, was sent from home to school, entering Milwaukee Female College, in 1857. She completed her education at the Northwestern Female College, in Evanston, Illinois. After several years of teaching, her soul was stirred by the reports of the temperance crusade in Ohio during the winter of 1874, and in this she felt she heard the divine call of her life work. Of all her friends, no one stood by her in her wish to join the crusade except Mrs. Mary A. Livermore who sent her a letter full of enthusiasm for the new line of work, and predicted her success therein. In the summer of 1874, while in New York City, a letter reached her from Mrs. Louise S. Rounds, of Chicago, who was identified there with the young temperance association. "It has come to me," wrote Mrs. Rounds, "as I believe, from the Lord, that you ought to be our president. We are a little band without money or experience, but with strong faith. If you would come, there will be no doubt of your election."

So it happened that Miss Willard turning from the most attractive offers entered the open door of philanthropy in the West. Within a week she had been made president of the Chicago Woman's Christian Temperance Union. For months she carried on this work without regard to pecuniary compensation, many a time going without her noon-day lunch downtown, because she had no money, and walking miles because she had not five cents to pay for a street car ride. Yet she declared that period the most blessed of her life so far, and that her work baptized in suffering grew first deep and vital, and then began to widen. With the aid of a few women she established a daily gospel meeting in Lower Farwell Hall for the help of the intemperate, and her gospel talks came to be in demand far and wide. Every dollar earned by writing or lecturing not needed for current expenses was devoted to the relief of the needy or to the enlargement of her chosen work. The Chicago Woman's Christian Temperance Union from that day of small things in the eyes of the world, has gone on and prospered until now it is represented by a wide range of established philanthropy.

Miss Willard continued wielding a busy pen, speaking in Chautauqua, addressing summer camps in New England and the Middle States, and in 1876, while engaged in Bible study and prayer, she was led to the conviction that she ought to speak for women's ballot as a protection to the home from the tyranny of drink, and in the autumn, in the national convention in Newark, New Jersey, disregarding the earnest pleadings of conservative friends, she declared her conviction in her first suffrage speech. She originated the motto, "For God and home and native land.' This was first the motto of the Chicago Union. It was then adopted by the Illinois State Union; in 1876 became that of the National Union, and was adapted to the use of the World's Union in Faneuil Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, in 1891, then becoming, "For God, and home and every land,' Miss Willard was one of the founders of the National Woman's Temperance Union Paper, Our Union in New York, and of the Signal, the organ of the Illinois Union. These, in 1882, were merged in the Union Signal which is now one of the most widely circulated papers in the world.

In the autumn of 1877 she declined the nomination of the presidency of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, but she accepted it in 1879, when she was elected in Indianapolis, Ind., as the exponent of a liberal policy including state rights for the state societies, representation on a basis of paid membership and the advocacy of the ballot for women. At that time no Southern state except Maryland was represented in the national society and the total yearly income was only about $12.00. In 1881 Miss Willard made a tour of the Southern states, which reconstructed her views of the situation and conquered conservative prejudice and sectional opposition. Thus was given the initial impetus to the formation of the home protection party which it was desired should unite all good men and women in its ranks. During the following year Miss Willard completed her plan of visiting and organizing every state and territory in the United States, and of presenting her cause in every town and city that had reached a population of ten thousand. She visited the Pacific coast, and California, Oregon, and even British Columbia, were thoroughly organized, and more than twenty-five thousand miles of toilsome travel enabled her to meet the national convention, in Detroit, Michigan, in October, 1883, to celebrate the completion of its first decade with rejoicing over the complete organization of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in each one of the forty-eight sub-divisions of the United States, Alaska not then included. In 1885, national headquarters were removed from New York to Chicago and the White-Cross movement was adopted as a feature of the work of the national union. Because no other woman could be found to stand at the helm of this new movement. Miss Willard did so. No other movement of the work developed so rapidly. A great petition for the better legal protection of women and girls was presented to Congress with thousands of signatures. Mr. Powderly, chief of the Knights of Labor, through Miss Willard's influence, sent out ninety-two thousand petitions to local assemblies of the Knights to be signed, circulated and returned to her. Through the efforts of the temperance workers the same petition was circulated and presented for legislative action in nearly every state and territory.

The sacrifices which Miss Willard has so freely made for this work were repaid to her in abundant measure. She was called by Joseph Cook the most widely known and best-beloved woman in America, and the widespread influence of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, in England, Canada and America is an imperishable monument to her place among the great of the world.

The end of the career of Francis Willard, so far as her earthly life was concerned, was as truly religious as the great days of her power. As she lay upon her last bed of sickness after a hard day, she suddenly gazed intently on a picture of the Christ directly opposite her bed. Her eyes seemed to meet those of the compassionate Saviour and with her old eloquence, in the stillness, she said:

"I am Merlin, and I am dying.
But I'll follow the gleam."

And a little later she said to the friends who gathered about her, ''Oh, let me go away, let me be in peace; I am so safe with Him. He has other worlds, and I want to go." And so still following the Christ gleam with a brave heart and a courageous step, the dauntless soul went on to follow her Lord to all worlds, whithersoever He may lead her.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.


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