NU Declassified: Frances Willard: Evanston’s sober sister

Frances Willard holds an important place in history for her role as an educator, prohibitionist and suffragette. Evanston residents claim her as one of their most famous residents. On this episode of NU Declassified: Names You Need to Know, we dive into Frances Willard’s contributions to progressive movements and her connection to Northwestern.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: So, who do you think Frances Willard was?

GUESSER: Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe a feminist?

GUESSER: Definitely somebody from South Campus.

GUESSER: An alum or donor of sorts.

GUESSER: She’s a suffragist from the 1870s.

GUESSER: I don’t remember but she was definitely on my APUSH exam.


AUDREY HETTLEMAN: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Audrey Hettleman. 

SAMANTHA ANDERER: And I’m Samantha Anderer. This is NU Declassified: Names You Need to Know, where we get the deets on names you’ve seen around campus but probably haven’t thought about.  

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: For this episode, we’re exploring arguably the most famous historical Evanston resident: Frances Willard. Does that name ring a bell for you? Maybe it takes you back to an APUSH lecture you barely paid attention to? Or maybe the name has simply come to be associated with quesadillas at Fran’s Cafe?

SAMANTHA ANDERER: Well-known for her work with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, or WCTU, Willard pioneered the Progressive movement of the late 1800s. 

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: To find out more about her life and legacy, we talked with Director of the Frances Willard House Museum Lori Osborne.


LORI OSBORNE: She was a 19th century social reformer, probably best known for her work in Prohibition and temperance movement. She, as a young girl, is interested in women’s rights — she wouldn’t have called it that in her time — but she sort of realizes that she has an older brother, and she kind of realizes that Oliver gets to do things she doesn’t get to do. Her father told her that she couldn’t learn how to ride a horse. Soon enough, she decides that she’s going to teach her cow to wear a saddle. I mean he didn’t say she couldn’t ride the cow. If she can’t ride a horse, she’s going to learn how to ride the cow. She’s determined, and her father eventually sort of gets what’s going on and says, “Goodness gracious. Okay, you can ride a horse.”

SAMANTHA ANDERER: This solution reflects Willard’s approach to resolving the Progressive issues of the 1800s. 

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: Medill Prof. and former Vice President for University Relations Alan Cubbage provided more perspective on her contributions to the 19th century Progressive movement.

ALAN CUBBAGE: I think Frances Willard was really a remarkably influential person in the late 19th century. She was very much ahead of her time in terms of really pushing hard and really advocating for education of women, votes for women, allowing women to vote. And then, of course, the thing that she’s most well known for is the temperance issue — trying to prohibit alcohol. But I think, to an extent, people only know her for her work with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, because she was their president or leader for many many years, but she was also very influential in both the efforts to get right to vote and also education of women.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: But Willard’s story would not be complete without her failings. She was a staunch supporter of temperance, believing it would help keep families together, but relied on Black stereotypes to win the support of White southerners for that issue. She advocated for literacy tests for voting, echoing baseless claims from southern White people that Black people who were illiterate were undermining efforts to pass Prohibition laws. 

LORI OSBORNE: She starts giving speeches, and she is clearly uninformed about the realities of the situation, and she’s also been fed a lot of propaganda that’s very racist. And she regurgitates it; she repeats it.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: Black journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells called her out on this, saying that she was slandering Black people to support causes that helped White women.

LORI OSBORNE: She’s thinking, “Hang on, Frances Willard leads an organization where Black women are members. Black women are committed to Willard and her organization, but Willard is not committed to them equally and fairly and with their lives and their concerns in mind, ‘cause if she’s going to say these things, clearly she doesn’t see things from their point of view and understand the ramifications of her words for their lives.”

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: Some may push back on these modern calls for intersectionality in 19th century activism by claiming Willard was simply a product of her time, but other prominent White progressives at the time — say, the Grimke sisters — supported both Black and women’s rights. Osborne says that while Black women were included in Willard’s temperance movement, their voices were far from equal.

LORI OSBORNE: There were segregated unions in the WCTU, so we’re not going to claim that this is some kind of open organization, but it’s really interesting to watch the dynamics. (The museum is) right now in the middle of a research project to try to figure this story out and really understand what that meant, what it meant for Black women, what it meant for the White women who were with them. When did they unify, and when did those bonds just break over race and racism? So, we know the beginnings of that story.


SAMANTHA ANDERER: But how did Willard come to be associated with Northwestern? Willard grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, then moved to Evanston in 1858 to attend the women’s college there. She went on to serve as an educator across the country, but eventually found her way back to Evanston. She joined the Alpha Phi sorority in 1875 and became the national president in the 1880s, which may explain why their second chapter was established at Northwestern.

LORI OSBORNE: When Northwestern did go coeducational in 1869, Frances Willard was brought on as the first dean of women and was the head of the women’s college and ran the women’s college program and curriculum and taught. So very early time frame for a university to go coeducational and very early for a woman to be running that college and be in that role conferring degrees, really quite remarkable. It sounds like Northwestern was a little behind, but it wasn’t. It was actually ahead and especially hiring her was a big deal.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: Willard was briefly engaged to Charles Henry Fowler, who went on to become president of Northwestern after they broke off the engagement. This led to a bit of animosity between the two. 

LORI OSBORNE: Charles Fowler becomes president while she’s dean of women, and they start tussling with the idea of who’s in charge of what, and Frances believes she’s in charge of her students in the women’s college. Charles really thinks that he’s in charge, he’s the head of the whole university, and so they have a disagreement, and she decides she can’t work under these circumstances, and she leaves this very prestigious position.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: Although Frances left the position, she retained her love for the University and Evanston as a whole. She even went so far as to call the city a “paradise for women.”

LORI OSBORNE: I would say her most important contribution is broadening women’s role in the world in the public world, that she, through the women’s temperance movement, brings all sorts of women out of their homes, out of their churches, and this new public sphere of conversation and activism opens up to them.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: Willard’s presence is still felt today — both in Evanston, where her name adorns a residence hall and the museum in her former home, and around the country, where her contributions to the women’s rights movement continue to be remembered. 

ALAN CUBBAGE: She would be very proud of what’s occurred in the fact that women are treated, to a great extent, as equals. I know there’s still some concerns about that, but I think that the work that she did has now led to the situations that we now have, and it took a long time. Women didn’t get the vote until after she passed away. Prohibition was not a great experiment, but that occurred again after she passed away. Her influence was still felt all the way through the first two decades of the 20th century, even though she died in the late 19th century.

ALAN CUBBAGE: As you may know, in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, there are statues of very famous people, and for many, many years the only woman in that Rotunda was Frances Willard. And she’s there because she was recognized for her work, not just with the WCTU, but for women in general, as well.

SAMANTHA ANDERER: Following the mindset she’d used to learn horseback riding as a young girl, Willard tried to fight for progress against the constraints of her time. Her legacy, while flawed, is on display in the Frances Willard House Museum, which will reopen for tours this summer.

LORI OSBORNE: What I find so interesting about this is she doesn’t break the rules. She wasn’t a big rule breaker, she wasn’t going to go against what her father said, but she wasn’t going to take no either. She’s going to do a work around, she’s going to come around the other side, she’s going to bring him along. She’s going to show him that what he’s saying doesn’t really make sense. This is an example of what she does the rest of her life: when she encounters an obstacle, and she doesn’t always get it, she doesn’t always succeed, she doesn’t always persuade, but she’s really about let’s come together, we’re going to meet in the middle. 

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: Osborne says that Willard’s accomplishments and failings should both be preserved in history, so people can choose for themselves what to take away from her legacy. 

LORI OSBORNE: We feel like this is just one of many stories in our country’s history where a leader really fails to lead in a key moment. Someone who had the chance to change the way others thought didn’t take that chance, didn’t see that as a moment, and failed to lead our country. So we feel that by talking about this full story and including Willard in that full story is extremely important because how are we going to understand where we are today if we don’t really grapple with this? Rather than sort of feeling like we want to dismiss her, we feel like the more we talk about this and the more we understand it, the better we’re going to understand ourselves and where we are.


SAMANTHA ANDERER: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Samantha Anderer.

AUDREY HETTLEMAN: And I’m Audrey Hettleman. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me and Samantha Anderer. The digital managing editor is Jordan Mangi, and the editor in chief is Jacob Fulton. 

Email: [email protected], [email protected]

Twitter: @AudreyHettleman, @SammyAnderer

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