Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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The Secret Life of Francis Willard

In the early days of Northwestern’s history, a dean and a president were ex-fiances. Three years later, the dean quit. It was material for a modern soap opera: a woman’s worst nightmare of ex-lover turns boss.

The boss, Charles Fowler, was president of NU at the time, and the woman was Frances Willard.

After becoming affianced in 1861, they broke off the engagement in 1862. Frances Willard became president of Evanston College for Ladies in 1871, which soon after began integration with NU. Fowler accepted a position as NU’s president in 1872. In 1874, Willard resigned as dean of women from NU.

And in the time they shared a workplace, the ex-fiances did not have the friendliest of relationships. Willard’s resignation letter was 15 pages long and detailed her discontent with the University’s policies. But their romantic history had nothing to do with it.

“I don’t think there was a personal element to her resignation,” said Janet Olson, assistant university archivist. “Based on the policies at Northwestern at that time, she didn’t feel that she could continue being the dean of women with the different ideas of woman’s governance.”

Willard’s idea “was this female education model of where all of women’s education should be held in one place and they would never be touched by the immorality of men,” said Hayley Altabef, a Weinberg junior who came across the Willard-Fowler relationship in her research.

In contrast, Fowler wanted more integration between men and women, which “ended up just placing women behind men in all aspects so they became second-tier students,” she said.

And according to Willard’s personal journals, the engagement ended on good, mutually understood terms. So there was no relationship drama between Willard and Fowler.

But Willard’s journals also revealed a different sort of drama, which occurred around the same time as their relationship: her passionate love for Mary Bannister, her friend who eventually married Willard’s brother Oliver.

She writes her simultaneous feelings of joy for their relationship, which she took part in setting up, and pain to have Mary, who she often refers to as “My Darling,” love someone else. Meanwhile, her love for Fowler in the beginning of their relationship also seems genuine.

“O Charlie! … you do not know how deep and fervent is the love I’ve given to you!”

But as time passes, her love for Fowler dims, especially in comparison to her love for Mary.

“With Mary a great love for her went surging through my heart. A love that if I could give the same to C- (Charles Fowler) would make us both happy for all our lives.”

Willard believed her love for Mary to be uncommon and unacceptable to her society but that she would be unhappy in marriage with a man. She lived the rest of her life single and invested her work in the feminist movement, such as with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union she led following her resignation from NU.

“What she says in her journal is all I know about who she was, and I know that women of their time expressed their feelings for their friends in very strong terms,” Olson said. “What that meant, I really can’t say because I wasn’t there.”

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The Secret Life of Francis Willard