|Frances Willard at 23 years old.|
In 1871 Willard became president of the newly formed Evanston College for Ladies. When this college merged with Northwestern University in 1873, Willard became the first Dean of Women of the Women’s College. In 1874, after months of disagreement with university President Charles Henry Fowler (her former fiancé) over her governance of the Women’s College, Willard resigned. That summer she began to pursue a new career in the fledgling woman’s temperance movement, traveling to the east coast and participating in one of the many crusades. When she returned to Evanston, she was asked to be president of the Chicago group supporting the crusades.
In November 1874 Willard participated in the founding convention of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and was elected the first corresponding secretary of the WCTU. As such she was given the task of corresponding with and traveling to many of the small towns and cities in the United States, working to form local Unions and build support for the WCTU’s cause. In 1877 she met Anna Gordon and asked her to be her personal secretary. Gordon was a great help to Willard for the rest of her life, providing key organizational expertise as well as friendship. Willard worked hard during these early years to broaden the WCTU’s reform movement to include such things as woman’s suffrage, woman’s rights, education reforms, and labor reforms. She later became an anti-lynching advocate as well. The support for this broader view of the WCTU’s reform work became clear when Willard was elected President of the WCTU in 1879.
Under Willard’s leadership, the WCTU grew to be the largest organization of women in the nineteenth century. She saw the WCTU both as a means for accomplishing societal reform and as a means for training women to accomplish this reform. She urged WCTU members to become involved in local and national politics, to advocate for the causes in which they believed, to make speeches, write letters, sign and distribute petitions, and do whatever they could (since they couldn’t vote) to create support for change. She also saw the WCTU as part of a wider reform movement, especially regarding issues of alcohol and woman’s suffrage, and created a broad network of friends and coworkers who advocated for the same reforms as she did.
|Frances Willard in the 1890s.|
In late 1897, Willard’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. She went on a pilgrimage to her birthplace in Churchville, New York and her childhood home in Janesville, Wisconsin, and returned briefly to the house in Evanston. In February 1898, she was preparing to sail to England to stay with Lady Isabel Somerset when she fell ill with influenza in New York City. She died in the Empire Hotel on February 17, 1898, at the age of fifty-eight. Many were stunned by the suddenness of Willard’s death. Accolades from around the world poured in and Willard’s funeral in New York City, as well as the memorials held in towns between New York and Chicago, where her casket was returned for burial, were crowded with mourners. She lay in state in the WCTU headquarters building in downtown Chicago for one day and twenty thousand mourners paid their respects. After a ceremony in Evanston at the Methodist Church, her remains were cremated and her ashes were placed in her mother’s grave in Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.
|This statue of Frances Willard was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol by the State of Illinois in 1905. Her statue was the first honoring a woman to be chosen for the collection. Artist: Helen Farnsworth Mears|
The history of the Willard house tells the fascinating story of the flexible use of a house as a private residence, dormitory, workspace, memorial, and museum. Its rooms were constantly adapted to the present needs of their occupants. Frances Willard began this tradition by re-using her father’s office as her own, and then later moving to the maid’s room and giving her office to Anna Gordon. She continued this with the construction of the Annex for her brother’s family, and when the Annex was no longer needed as a residence, she adapted it for use as office and dormitory space for the WCTU. When she died, the WCTU, through Anna Gordon, continued this tradition, moving their headquarters to the house, and adapting the private rooms as a memorial to Willard’s life. After a new headquarters building was built behind the house, the house began to be used as a museum and residence for the WCTU.
|Frances Willard House Museum and Archives.|
"It is a privilege that cannot be too highly estimated that our national offices should be there, that our prayers, our plans, and our daily work…should have the consecration of such surroundings and that Rest Cottage should thus continue to be the center from which our influence as an NWCTU can most widely radiate, a Mecca for the prayerful thought and devoted love of white ribboners everywhere."
In the spring of 1900 invitations were sent out to hundreds of people formally inviting them to the opening of the new WCTU headquarters at Rest Cottage. More than 200 people attended the ”Dedicatory Service” held Saturday afternoon, April 21, 1900, at 3pm. Newspaper reports from the time described the opening, the prayer service and speeches were given, and also the new offices. They also described a tour of parts of the house that had up until then been private rooms. Although the invitations had not announced it, Rest Cottage was officially opened as a museum of and memorial to the life of Frances Willard that day. The newspapers reported that the south side of the house, especially the “Den” where “most of the famous white-ribboner’s literary work was done,” was being kept “in the condition in which Miss Willard left it” and was now open for public viewing.
It is the goal of the Frances Willard Historical Association, established in 1994 to care for and manage the house, and to tell all of the stories of Willard House. Frances Willard House Museum and Archives are located at 1730 Chicago Avenue in Evanston Illinois.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.