Biography of Frances Willard, Temperance Leader and Educator

Frances Willard
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Frances Willard (September 28, 1839–February 17, 1898) was one of the best-known and most influential women of her day and headed the Women's Christian Temperance Union from 1879 to 1898. She was also the first dean of women at Northwestern University. Her image appeared on a 1940 postage stamp and she was the first woman represented in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol Building.

Fast Facts: Frances Willard

  • Known For: Women's rights and temperance leader
  • Also Known As: Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard, St. Frances
  • Born: September 28, 1839 in Churchville, New York
  • Parents: Josiah Flint Willard, Mary Thompson Hill Willard
  • Died: February 17, 1898 in New York City
  • Education: Northwestern Female College
  • Published WorksWoman and temperance, or the work and workers of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Glimpses of fifty years: The autobiography of an American woman, Do everything: A handbook for the world's white ribboners, How to Win: A Book for Girls, Woman in the Pulpit, A Wheel within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle
  • Awards and Honors: Namesake for many schools and organizations; named to the National Women's Hall of Fame
  • Notable Quote: "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?"

Early Life

Frances Willard was born on September 28, 1839, in Churchville, New York, a farming community. When she was 3, 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 legislature. There, while Frances lived on a family farm in "the West," her brother was her playmate and companion. Frances Willard dressed as a boy and was known to friends as "Frank." She preferred to avoid "women's work" such as 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. Her father wanted her to transfer to a Methodist school, so Frances 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, Frances got 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 wrote 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 her romantic interest was in a teacher who she describes in her journals; if so, the relationship may have been broken up by the jealousy of a female friend.

Teaching Career

Frances Willard taught at a variety of institutions for almost 10 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. After that school merged into Northwestern University as the Woman's College of that university, Frances Willard was appointed Dean of Women of the Woman's College in 1871 and a 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 1874, Frances Willard chose to leave the university. She had become involved in temperance work and accepted the job of president of the Chicago Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

She became the corresponding secretary of the Illinois WCTU in October of that year. The following month while attending the national WCTU convention as a Chicago delegate, she became the corresponding secretary of the national WCTU, a position that required frequent travel and speaking. From 1876, she also headed up the WCTU publications committee. Willard was also associated briefly with evangelist Dwight Moody, although she was 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 national WCTU president Annie Wittenmyer 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, she 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." That meant to work not only for temperance, but also for women's' 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. She described men who drank alcohol as victims for succumbing to the temptations of liquor. Women, who had few legal rights to divorce, child custody, and financial stability, were described as the 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, had shown by documentation that most lynchings were defended by such myths of attacks on white women, while the motivations were usually instead economic competition. Lynch denounced Willard's comments as racist and debated her 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. Anna Gordon was Willard's private secretary and her living and traveling companion for her last 22 years. Gordon succeeded to the presidency of the World's WCTU when Frances died. She mentions a secret love in her diaries, but it was never revealed who the person was.


While preparing to leave for New England in New York City, Willard contracted influenza and died on February 17, 1898. (Some sources point to pernicious anemia, the source of several years of ill health.) Her death was met with national mourning: flags in New York, Washington, D.C., 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. Her journals and diaries number 40 volumes, which has provided a wealth of primary resource material for biographers. The journals cover her younger years (age 16 to 31) and two of her later years (ages 54 and 57).


  • Biography.” Frances Willard House Museum & Archives.
  • The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Frances Willard.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 14 Feb. 2019.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Frances Willard, Temperance Leader and Educator." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Biography of Frances Willard, Temperance Leader and Educator. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Frances Willard, Temperance Leader and Educator." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).