Although almost forgotten today, the temperance movement played a powerful role in the quest for women’s suffrage. 

Frances Willard, the second president of the once mighty Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WTCU), who was early on dedicated to the cause of women’s suffrage, saw to this. 

Willard’s career of activism looked forward to two amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the Eighteenth—prohibition, since mercifully repealed—and the Nineteenth—women’s right to vote, whose centenary we are happy to celebrate this year.

Annie Wittenmyer, the first president of the WCTU, opposed linking temperance with other issues. Willard, however, who was already friendly with Susan B. Anthony and other suffragists, was determined that the WCTU adopt women’s suffrage as a part of its platform.

In a way, Willard was a Phyllis Schlafly figure of her day in that she mobilized ordinary women. Women who might have regarded prominent suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton or free thinker Matilda Joslyn Gage as too radical for their tastes, were only too happy to join Willard’s crusade for the vote.  

“Willard’s ability to stress womanly techniques for a changing society was a major factor in her ability to attract devotion from the forces she led,” writes her biographer Ruth Bordin. Willard herself combined a gentle manner with fervent oratory, which can seem flowery in style to the modern reader.

The name Willard gave to her distinctive approach to women’s suffrage was “home protection.” The vote, as Willard explained, was essential if women were to usher in reforms that protected the family. This approach was comfortable for many women who otherwise might have held back.  

In a way, Willard can be seen as a Phyllis Schlafly figure of her day in that she mobilized ordinary women.

 As the website of the Frances Willard Museum and Archives explains, “WCTU members were generally conservative, and in order to persuade them that women’s suffrage was a necessary tool towards achieving the organization’s goals for social reform, Willard framed women’s suffrage as part of the campaign for ‘Home Protection.’”

With the WCTU adoption of a “Home Protection” measure in 1881, “woman suffrage, cloaked in womanliness and linked to temperance, had become acceptable to thousands of mainstream American women, and Frances Willard had articulated the change of view,” according to biographer Ruth Bordin.

Like many suffragist leaders, Frances Willard came from a serious-minded, abolitionist family. Willard was born in Churchville, New York in 1839 to Josiah Flint Willard and Mary Hill Willard. Charmingly, the Willards named their new baby for the English novelist Fanny (Frances) Burney. 

The family moved to Oberlin, Ohio when Frances was small so that Josiah could pursue studies for the ministry at Oberlin College. Changing his mind, Josiah Willard uprooted the family and settled in Janesville, Wisconsin, where he became a prosperous banker, farmer, and state legislator. Frances grew up in Janesville, where she was primarily taught at home by her mother.

Frances attended North Western Female College, a Methodist secondary school, and after graduation began a teaching career. She met fellow educator Kate Jackson and the two women embarked on what was in effect a two-year Grand Tour, financed by Jackson’s wealthy father. They spent six months in Paris polishing their French. “Willard’s European and Middle Eastern travels were her finishing school and graduate degree program,” wrote Bordin. 

Though Willard had to fight in the early years to make women’s suffrage a part of the WCTU’s agenda, women’s suffrage shortly became inseparable from the WCTU.

Returning to the U.S., Willard continued her career in education, and in 1871, at the age of 32, Willard was named president of the Evanston College for Ladies, a newly-founded institution. She was made Dean of Women of the Women’s College after the Ladies College merged with Northwestern University. The president of Northwestern was Charles Henry Fowler, to whom Willard had briefly been engaged to marry. They clashed and Willard resigned her post.

Fowler, notes biographer Ruth Bordin, was one of the few serious relationships Willard had with a man. Willard’s most intense relationships were with women. Anna Gordon, whom she met in 1877 and who served as her loyal personal secretary, moved into Willard’s home. Willard’s mother lived with them until her death. Given the times, the nature of their relationship is unknown, though it seems likely that Willard was a lesbian. 

At any rate, the historian Judith M. Bennett called Willard’s relationships with other women “lesbian-like,” and Willard herself wrote in her autobiography: “The loves of women for each other grow more numerous each day, and I have pondered much why these things were. That so little should be said about them surprises me, for they are everywhere…. In these days when any capable and careful woman can honorably earn her own support, there is no village that has not its examples of ‘two hearts in counsel,’ both of which are feminine.”

Willard’s dear friend, Susan B. Anthony, never expressed reservations, at least publicly, about Willard’s twinning of suffrage and temperance.

With her educational career in tatters, Willard cast about for a new path. She worked briefly, and not happily, with the evangelist Dwight Moody before settling on the burgeoning temperance movement. The temperance movement was a massive and militant movement that propelled thousands of women into the streets and saloons to protest and pray. 

In 1874, Willard was among the founders of the WCTU. Though Willard had to fight in the early years to make women’s suffrage a part of the WCTU’s agenda, women’s suffrage shortly became inseparable from the WCTU, along with other social issues such as child-labor, anti-prostitution legislation, sanitation and international peace, all of interest to Willard, who in her later years became a Fabian Socialist. Willard was also a fan of the utopian novelist Edward Bellamy and his statist beliefs. Bordin believes that Willard was comfortable with the coercive methods to achieve utopia that Bellamy advocated, as long as such methods were not violent. 

A self-described loyal and orthodox Methodist, Willard saw her crusade for suffrage as having religious roots. In 1876, praying alone before delivering a lecture in Columbus, Ohio, she sensed a directive “borne in upon my mind, I believe, from loftier regions,” which declared to her, “You are to speak for woman’s ballot as a protection to her home and tempted loved ones from the tyranny of drink.”

Willard’s dear friend, Susan B. Anthony, never expressed reservations, at least publicly, about Willard’s twinning of suffrage and temperance—Anthony, according to Ruth Bordin, considered Willard, who had an enormous following, quite a catch for the women’s suffrage movement. Some suffragists, however, were not so supportive.

At one point, Carrie Chapman Catt, then president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, which had been founded by Anthony, Cady Stanton, and Catt herself, begged Willard to step back from the suffrage movement. Catt insisted that, because of the WCTU and Willard, some men viewed suffrage merely as “a strategic move to secure prohibition through women voters.” In other words, Catt viewed Willard as a branding problem.

Willard, as you might expect, was unimpressed with Catt’s argument and never for a moment considered dropping out of the suffrage movement. She always held decidedly ecumenical views of the suffrage movement, seeing that there was room for many different views. “A difference of opinion on one question must not prevent us from working unitedly in those on which we can agree,” Willard maintained.

Sadly, Willard also came into conflict with Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a black suffragist who also crusaded against lynching. Of course, Willard condemned lynching, but she seemed to believe that the horrendous practice arose because of lawlessness on the art of black men. It was another blot on the suffragist movement’s history with race.   

Willard was close to many suffragist leaders, including Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, Mary Livermore, and of course Susan B. Anthony. But there was one with whom she had a cool relationship, the firebrand Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was appalled by Cady Stanton’s radical The Women’s Bible and the two women had a longstanding personality conflict.

Yet, Willard saw a suffrage movement with room enough for both of them, despite their differences. In a famous speech, she said:

Our friends have said that, as President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Mrs. Stanton leads the largest army of women outside, and I the largest one inside, the realm of a conservative theology. However this may be, I rejoice to see the day when, with distinctly avowed loyalty to my Methodist faith, and as distinctly avowed respect for the sincerity with which she holds to views quite different, I can clasp hands in loyal comradeship with one whose dauntless voice rang out over the Nation for “woman’s rights” when I was but a romping girl upon a prairie farm.

When Willard died in 1898, it was an occasion for national mourning. In Chicago, women joined an honor guard escorting her coffin and singing the old Protestant hymn, “Rock of Ages.” Willard had enlarged the suffrage movement and brought in ordinary women who saw the vote as a way to improve the lives of women and men like them.