Frances Willard, raised in Janesville, changed the world

Share on Facebook Comments Comments Print Print
Marcia Nelesen
July 13, 2015

Frances Willard grew up in a home along the Rock River in the mid-1800s, and some residents today might recognize her name because it is attached to the one-room schoolhouse on the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds.

But when Willard was alive, everybody in the U.S. knew who she was: one of the most prominent social reformers of the 19th century.

She was the first woman to have a statue in the U.S. Congress Statuary Hall, submitted by the state of Illinois.

One biographer suggests she was a more effective politician in the suffrage movement than either Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony.

Willard, president of the influential Women's Christian Temperance Union, used the powerful organization to advance more than just temperance. Many of the farsighted reforms she fought for were only realized long after her death on Feb. 17, 1898.

Her causes included housing for poor working women and safety of women in industry; suffrage; labor and prison reforms; religious rights; labor reforms such as children's labor laws and the eight-hour workday, and even world peace, according to information on the website of a museum in her honor in Evanston, Illinois.

Under her leadership, the WCTU grew to be the largest organization of women in 19th-century America.

A successful lobbyist, she wielded considerable political power at a time when she couldn't even vote.

Willard was born in Churchville, New York, in 1839. The family moved to Janesville in the Wisconsin Territory when she was 6, and they lived there for the next 12 years.

A rebellious youth, Willard felt the sting of female constraints early. She was a tomboy and insisted on being called “Frank,” thrived out of doors, liked to hunt and was a good shot. In 1853, she convinced her father, Josiah, a member of the state Legislature, to build the one-room schoolhouse that has become a Wisconsin landmark.

According to information at the Rock County Historical Society, Willard was 17 years old when her brother Oliver cast his first vote. She angrily wondered why she could not take part in what “was taught to be a sacred time at our house.” Turning to her sister, Mary, she exclaimed: “Don't you and I love the country as well as Oliver, and doesn't the country need our ballots?”

She wrote in her diary that her 17th birthday was the worst day of her life.

“This is the date of my martyrdom. My back … is twisted up like a corkscrew; I carry 18 hairpins, my head aches; my feet are entangled in the skirt of my new gown. I can never jump over the fence again … (or) chase the sheep in the shady pasture. It's out of the question to climb the old burr oak tree to my 'Eagle's Nest' to write.”

Willard graduated as valedictorian from the North Western Female College in Evanston, Illinois, in 1859 and then taught in rural schools, including one term in her own Janesville school.

In 1871, she was named president of the new Evanston College for Ladies, a Methodist institution associated with Northwestern University. When the Evanston College for Ladies was absorbed by Northwestern in 1873, Willard became dean of women and professor of English and art. She remained there until her constant conflicts with the university's president, Charles H. Fowler—to whom she had been engaged in 1861—led her to resign in 1874. She took a nonpaying job as Illinois corresponding secretary of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.

By 1879, she was president of the national organization, a position she held the remaining 20 years of her life.

For 10 years, she traveled 15,000 to 20,000 miles a year, founding WTCU branches in the South and West during the horse and buggy days. The organization eventually expanded internationally.

While Willard's name will forever be connected to the temperance movement, she was instrumental in getting the vote for women. She smartly called the ballot “a weapon for the protection” of the home, with which temperance was also linked. A “White Cross” department in the organization tackled such “unpure” issues as prostitution, white slavery, assault of women and children, and the age of consent.

She emphasized the home connection so women would seek civic and political engagement, something unheard of previously.

A slight, attractive figure—5 foot 3 inches tall with delicate features and red hair—Willard was known for her stubborn determination and adventurous, ambitious spirit.

She was an expert at forming public opinion. She had persuasive speaking abilities, and her voice was described as magnetic and musical.

In her later years, Willard converted to socialism in Europe and was attacked by the press. She shocked her followers when she advocated education over legislation as a better solution for the temperance movement, a radical departure from WCTU goals.

After Willard's death, the WCTU curtailed other efforts and concentrated on Prohibition and total abstinence.

Willard's last visit to Janesville was on Jan. 2, 1898, when she became faint on stage and was forced to cut short her speech.

Of her home here she wrote: “Wherever I may dwell, no place can be so dear.”

Willard died of influenza complicated by chronic anemia at age 58 in a New York City hotel room.

Two thousand people packed an auditorium there for funeral services, and it is estimated 20,000 filed past her casket in Chicago. She was cremated, another radical departure from the customs of the day.

Willard's remarkable vision of the future was vindicated in legislation that has passed and is still being fought for.

Scores of buildings, memorials and scholarships bear her name across the United States.

She was one of the 35 “famous” Americans honored in a postage stamp series in 1940.

Wisconsin law directs schools to observe Sept. 28 as Francis Willard Day.

Wrote one admirer after her death: “What she strove for, in fact, was not personal holiness, temperance or women's rights, but the progress of humanity.”


The powerful woman's temperance movement that swept the country in the late 1800s likely started in Janesville and was led by the first female attorney in the state, Lavinia Goodell.

Previous historians have given the honors to a city in Ohio.

“In Janesville, I think we see the beginning of what becomes a nationwide movement,” UW-Milwaukee history professor Genevieve McBride said in a special that aired on Wisconsin Public Television, titled “Janesville: Strong-Minded Women.”

“But it's probably like today,” McBride said in a recent interview. “The New York media can dominate the story, and they discovered it when it came closer to New York.”

Ohio might also be credited because a male temperance lecturer captured the spotlight there.

“That drives me nuts,” said McBride, who specializes in Midwest and women's history.

“We (women) were waiting for a white guy to get it, thank you,” she said. “When you look at the reason for it, it's so maddening. I think Janesville deserves more credit.”

The first temperance crusade that McBride found in her research was in 1873 in Janesville and was led by Lavinia Goodell.

During the Civil War, women had kept households afloat. After the war, they shifted their work to the women's rights movement.

Most of the activists in Janesville were also part of the temperance movement, which formed to counter the growing problem of post-Civil War alcoholism.

City politicians promised they would limit alcohol licenses but went back on their promises, McBride said.

“There is a Janesville group of women in 1873 who are furious. And they marched—literally marched—on City Hall, down the streets of Janesville. Women didn't do this sort of thing,” McBride said in the public television special.

Goodell wrote about the women's experiences in national women's publications.

After that, women all over the country followed her protest blueprint.

“I think that is how it gets picked up nationwide,” McBride said.

“Women are becoming aware of what the Janesville women did, why they did it and, more important, how they did it,” she said, including writing petitions and calling meetings. “Those were things women were not supposed to know how to do at the time.”

“In late 1873 and most of 1874, in every state and every territory, more than 150,000 women nationwide are marching down streets with petitions they've gotten women to sign.

“They were singing hymns outside of taverns.

“They are doing all the things Lavinia Goodell and her group did in Janesville. So this women's temperance crusade sweeps the country, affects a lot of change, empowers a lot of women.”

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union was formed within five years.

Former Janesville resident Frances Willard heads the powerful organization, which she expands internationally into the largest and most powerful women's organization in the world. A woman's right to vote is one cause taken up by the WCTU.

It is no coincidence that Janesville was home to such reformers as Goodell and Willard, McBride said recently.

Janesville was known then as a center for reform, especially for abolitionist reform. Goodell's father, for example, was a prominent abolitionist back East. Before the Civil War, the Tallman House was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Abraham Lincoln was a guest, McBride said.

Rock County women to this day celebrate suffragette Susan B. Anthony's birthday, a date women's clubs celebrated for decades but no longer do. McBride said she finds that remarkable.

Share on Facebook Comments Comments Print Print