Frances Willard Standing Up For Women

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“Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.”

Proverbs [31:31]


Francis Willard was one of the first women to stand up for her gender. Trained as a school teacher, her natural leadership skills led her to become the first female dean of women at Northwestern University. She was eventually fired by her former fiancé, the president of Northwestern.

For this point she moved on to a role that she is more well known, as the long serving president and founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WTCU). She served dutifully in this post for nearly a quarter of a century.

Modern critics will sometimes look harshly at her work to end alcohol consumption in America. Complaining that this eventually led to the infamous period of prohibition in America, which directly gave  rise to organized crime. Perhaps, but there is more to this story about her fight against alcoholism and her life’s work.

When we look at alcohol consumption just from the 21st century perspective, we lose the historical perspective of earlier centuries and why this was an extraordinarily important issue in the late 19th century. In the 19th century, alcoholism heavily affected women and children.

Some interesting facts about alcohol consumption in America from periods gone by. The ships that carried over the first settlers carried far more beer than water. Clean drinkable water in Europe and for the first settlers was scarce. Alcohol, because it was brewed was sanitary and as such was used as a substitute for water. While boiling water for coffee and tea where also alternatives, alcohol was far more available.

It wasn’t uncommon for a farmer to drink the equivalent of a six pack while he worked in the fields of the farm. Drinking on the job was common and acceptable.  In fact, during the late 19th century the average daily consumption was three times that of modern times. Leading to a rate of alcoholism that is far greater than in our contemporary times.

The high rate of alcoholism led to a disruption of home life. Rates of spousal abuse were significantly higher in the 19th century. Farms and businesses were lost. Families became disrupted. The majority of the victims were women and children.

The family and more specifically women and children were Willard’s interest. Her fight to eliminate alcohol was to protect families. Many historian’s miss this point when evaluating Willard’s role. Willard’s main rallying cry was for home protection.

Willard traveled thousands of miles and gave over 400 speeches every year fighting for families to have safe and secure home lives. She met with members of congress and powerful business moguls to pursue her cause. During her time the WCTU grew to be a nationwide organization.

The offshoots of the WTCU had a profound impact on American society. It was the forerunner to suffrage. It helped legislate the eight hour workday. The WCTU was against racism, ageism and gender bias.

Willard insisted that women must forgo the notion that they were the “weaker” sex. She encouraged women to join the movement to improve society. She was an early women’s right proponent that resonated with the average American woman in the late 19th century.

But she also fought for other’s rights as well. She was outspoken about the practice of lynching African American’s. Any cause that affected the powerless she became a proponent.

In the book of Proverbs is a little known reference that connects wisdom with women. The book of Proverbs is considered one of the “books of wisdom.” Biblical scholars will tell us that when we read proverbs and see female references, they are metaphorical references to wisdom. Particularly in chapter 31 of Proverbs.

Throughout the Bible, references to wisdom are commonly associated with women.

Willard demonstrated throughout her life, uncommon wisdom. While many will associate her life to the long fight to ban alcohol, her fight was more accurately for the home and women’s rights.

She died young at the age of fifty-eight from influenza in New York. Leaving a legacy that had many offshoots to modern society. She was a great leader because she saw a wrong and bravely answered the call, when others couldn’t.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Pablo García Saldaña

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