Biography of Frances Willard

Temperance Leader and Educator

Frances Willard
Frances Willard. Fotosearch / Getty Images

Frances Willard, one of the best-known and most influential women of her day, headed  the Women's Christian Temperance Union from 1879 to 1898. She was also the first dean of women, Northwestern University.  Her image appeared on a 1940 postage stamp and she was the first woman represented in Statuary Hall, U.S. Capitol Building.

Early Life and Education

Frances Willard was born on September 28, 1839, in Churchville, New York, a farming community. When she was three, the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, so that her father could study for the ministry at Oberlin College. In 1846 the family moved again, this time to Janesville, Wisconsin, for her father's health. Wisconsin became a state in 1848, and Josiah Flint Willard, Frances' father, was a member of the legislator. There, while Frances lived on a family farm in "the West," her brother was her playmate and companion, and Frances Willard dressed as a boy and was known to friends as "Frank." She preferred to avoid "women's work" including housework, preferring more active play.

Frances Willard's mother had also been educated at Oberlin College, in a time when few women studied at the college level. Frances' mother educated her children at home until the town of Janesville established its own schoolhouse in 1883. Frances in her turn enrolled in the Milwaukee Seminary, a respected school for women teachers, but her father wanted her to transfer to a Methodist school, so she and her sister Mary went to Evanston College for Ladies in Illinois. Her brother studied at Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston, preparing for the Methodist ministry. Her entire family moved at that time to Evanston. Frances graduated in 1859 as valedictorian. 


In 1861, she became engaged to Charles H. Fowler, then a divinity student, but she broke off the engagement the next year, despite pressure from her parents and brother.  She said later in her autobiography, referring to her own journal notes at the time of the breaking of the engagement, "In 1861 to 62, for three-quarters of a year I wore a ring and acknowledged an allegiance based on the supposition that an intellectual comradeship was sure to deepen into a unity of heart. How grieved I was over the discovery of my mistake the journals of that epoch could reveal."  She was, she said in her journal at the time, afraid of her future if she did not marry, and she was unsure she'd find another man to marry.

Her autobiography reveals that there was a "real romance of my life," saying that she "would be glad to have it known" only after her death, "for I believe it might contribute to a better understanding between good men and women."  It may be that it was a teacher she also describes in her journals, where the relationship was broken up by the jealously of a female friend of Willard.

Teaching Career

Frances Willard taught at a variety of institutions for almost ten years, while her diary records her thinking about women's rights and what role she could play in the world in making a difference for women.

Frances Willard went on a world tour with her friend Kate Jackson in 1868, and returned to Evanston to become head of Northwestern Female College, her alma mater under its new name. When that school merged into Northwestern University as the Woman's College of that university, in 1871, Frances Willard was appointed Dean of Women of the Woman's College, and Professor of Aesthetics in the University's Liberal Arts college.  

In 1873, she attended the National Women's Congress, and made connections with many women's rights activists on the East Coast.

Women's Christian Temperance Union

By 1874, Willard's ideas had clashed with those of the university president, Charles H. Fowler, the same man to whom she had been engaged in 1861. The conflicts escalated, and in March of 1874, Frances Willard chose to leave the University.  She had become involved in temperance work, and when invited to take the position, accepted the presidency of the Chicago Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

In October she became corresponding secretary of the Illinois WCTU, and in November, attending the national WCTU convention as a Chicago delegate, became corresponding secretary of the national WCTU, a position which required frequent travel and speaking. From 1876, she also headed up the WCTU publications committee.

Willard was also associated briefly with evangalist Dwight Moody, disappointed when she realized he only wanted her to speak to women.

In 1877, she resigned as president of the Chicago organization. Willard had come into some conflict with Annie Wittenmyer, national WCTU president, over Willard's push to get the organization to endorse woman suffrage as well as temperance, and so Willard also resigned from her positions with the national WCTU. Willard began lecturing for woman suffrage.

In 1878, Willard won the presidency of the Illinois WCTU, and the next year, Frances Willard became president of the national WCTU, following Annie Wittenmyer. Willard remained president of the national WCTU until her death. In 1883, Frances Willard was one of the founders of the World's WCTU. She supported herself with lecturing until 1886 when the WCTU granted her a salary.

Frances Willard also participated in the founding of the National Council of Women in 1888, and served one year as its first president.

Organizing Women

As head of the first national organization in America for women, Frances Willard endorsed the idea that the organization should "do everything": work not only for temperance, but also for woman suffrage, "social purity" (protecting young girls and other women sexually by raising the age of consent, establishing rape laws, holding male customers equally responsible for prostitution violations, etc.), and other social reforms. In fighting for temperance, she depicted the liquor industry as ridden with crime and corruption, men who drank alcohol as victims for succumbing to the temptations of liquor, and women, who had few legal rights to divorce, child custody, and financial stability, as ultimate victims of liquor.

But Willard did not see women primarily as victims. While coming from a "separate spheres" vision of society, and valuing women's contributions as homemakers and child educators as equal to men's in the public sphere, she also promoted women's right to choose to participate in the public sphere. She endorsed women's right to become ministers and preachers, as well.

Frances Willard remained a staunch Christian, rooting her reform ideas in her faith. She disagreed with the criticism of religion and the Bible by other suffragists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, though Willard continued to work with such critics on other issues.

Racism Controversy

In the 1890s, Willard tried to gain support in the white community for temperance by raising fears that alcohol and black mobs were a threat to white womanhood.  Ida B. Wells, the great anti-lynching advocate who showed by documentation that most lynching was defended by such myths of attacks on white women, while the motivations were usually instead economic competition, denounced Willard's racist comments, and debated Willard on a trip to England in 1894.

Significant Friendships

Lady Somerset of England was a close friend of Frances Willard, and Willard spent time at her home resting from her work. Willard's private secretary and her living and traveling companion for her last 22 years was Anna Gordon, who succeeded to the presidency of the World's WCTU when Frances died. In her diaries she mentions a secret love, but who this person was, was never revealed.


When in New York City, preparing to leave for England, Willard contracted influenza and died on February 17, 1898. (Some sources point to pernicious anemia, the source of several years' ill health.) Her death was met with national mourning: flags in New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago were flown at half-staff, and thousands attended services where the train with her remains stopped on its way back to Chicago and her burial in Rosehill Cemetery.


A rumor for many years was that Frances Willard's letters had been destroyed by her companion, Anna Gordon, at or before Willard's death.  But her diaries, though lost for many years, were rediscovered in the 1980s in a cupboard at the Frances E. Willard Memorial Library at the Evanston headquarters of the NWCTU.  Also found there were letters and many scrapbooks that had not been known until then.  Journals and diaries now known number forty volumes, which has meant a wealth of primary resource material for biographers is now available.  The journals cover her younger years (age 16 to 31), and two of her later years (ages 54 and 57).

Selected Frances Willard Quotes

  • Temperance is moderation in the things that are good and total abstinence from the things that are foul.
  • This seems to be the law of progress in everything we do; it moves along a spiral rather than a perpendicular; we seem to be actually going out of the way, and yet it turns out that we were really moving upward all the time.
  • If women can organize missionary societies, temperance societies, and every kind of charitable organization... why not permit them to be ordained to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments of the Church?
  • Every woman who vacates a place in the teachers' ranks and enters an unusual line of work, does two excellent things: she makes room for someone waiting for a place and helps to open a new vocation for herself and other women.
  • I finally concluded that all failure was from a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel.


  • Father: Josiah Flint Willard (farmer, businessman)
  • Mother: Mary Thompson Hill Willard (schoolteacher)
  • Brother: Oliver (5 years older)
  • Sister: Mary (5 years younger)
  • Cousin: educator Emma Willard


  • taught at home by her mother until 1853
  • Janesville public school, from 1853
  • Milwaukee Seminary (her mother's sister taught there)
  • Evanston College for Ladies (later Northwestern Female College, Evanston, Illinois): "Laureatte of Science" 1859, valedictorian


  • Pittsburgh Female College: taught science
  • Genesee Wesleyan Seminary: taught science
  • various other teaching assignments
  • Northwestern Female College (1871: appointed as "preceptress" or head of the college)
  • Northwestern University, after Northwestern Female College merged with the university: college dean, professor of aesthetics

Marriage, Children:

  • never married
  • Anna Gordon was her living and traveling companion and private secretary for 22 years

Key Writings:

  • Woman and temperance, or the work and workers of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. 1883.
  • Glimpses of fifty years: the autobiography of an American woman. 1889.
  • Do everything: a handbook for the world's white ribboners. About 1895.
  • How to Win: A Book for Girls. 1886.
  • Woman in the Pulpit. 1888.
  • briefly, editor of the Chicago Daily Post
  • 1892: founded a magazine, The Union Signal; she was editor until her death.
  • A Wheel within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, 1895, 1991.

Frances Willard Facts

Dates: September 28, 1839 - February 7, 1898

Occupation: educator, temperance activist, reformer, suffragist, speaker

Places: Janesville, Wisconsin; Evanston, Illinois

Organizations: Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Northwestern University, National Council of Women

Also known as: Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard, St. Frances (informally)

Religion: Methodist