Frances Willard and the fight for women’s suffrage

Frances Willard reading.
Frances Willard reading.

By Nora Mabie
Medill Reports

The Midterm elections of 2018 catapulted women to political victories at all levels of government, with a record number of women now serving the 116th Congress. These historic triumphs take on new meaning as we approach June 2019, marking 100 years since Congress passed the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.

One of the heroes of the movement to get the vote is Frances Willard, a suffragist whose home and museum in Evanston celebrates a woman and a political master worth remembering.

But Willard did not begin as a suffrage hero. In fact, she got her start as a leader of the Woman’s Temperance movement, which advocated against the sale of alcohol in America. However, Willard’s true moment of genius struck in 1876 in Columbus, Ohio, while she was in the middle of a prayer.

Willard describes the moment of enlightenment in her autobiography, Glimpses of 50 Years: The Autobiography of an American Woman:

“Upon my knees alone, in the room of my hostess, who was a veteran Crusader, there was borne in upon my mind, as I believe, from loftier regions, the declaration, ‘You are to speak for woman’s ballot as a weapon of protection to her home and tempted loved ones from the tyranny of drink.’”

With this revelation, Willard developed her “Home Protection” argument, aligning the more conservative temperance movement with the radical women’s suffrage movement.

The temperance movement relied on traditional domestic roles for women – many believed it was a woman’s duty to care for the house and children. However, where husbands spent the majority of their paychecks on alcohol or when drunken husbands became violent with their children and wives, home life was threatened. Willard argued that in order to protect their homes, women needed the right to vote in local elections.

“What’s interesting is that even though the Temperance movement was domestic and traditional, it also led women into the world of public policy and public life,” said Kate Masur, an associate professor at Northwestern University whose research specializes in 19th century American history.

Willard’s Home Protection idea galvanized immediately popular support. She traveled around the world delivering speeches and distributing Home Protection manuals. Willard later wrote the Polyglot Petition, which would permit the Home Protection ballot, allowing women to vote on local issues. Woman’s Christian Temperance Union missionaries sent the petition around the world and gained more than 7,500,000 signatures. The petition was a strategic political breakthrough because women could endorse it even if they couldn’t vote.

“Under Willard’s 20-year leadership, the WCTU enlarged its mission to encompass innovative programs that would ‘Do Everything’ (Willard’s motto) to solve the social, economic, and physical conditions that caused addiction to alcohol, drugs, and tobacco,” said Janet Olson, archivist at Frances Willard House Museum and Archives.

Although Willard’s Home Protection ballot failed to pass the Illinois State Senate, her impact on women’s empowerment will always be remembered.

Photo at top: Frances Willard reading. (Frances E. Willard Memorial Library and Archives, Evanston.)