Let Something Good Be Said: Speeches and Writings of Frances E. Williard

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Let Something Good Be Said: Speeches and Writings of Frances E. Willard. Edited by Carolyn De Swarte Gifford and Amy R. Slagell (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007)

Frances Willard saw raw poverty in downtown Chicago in the 1870s. She never forgot it, and as a consequence organized the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. It sought to curb drinking of hard liquors, which was flagrant at the time. Willard did not believe that drinking caused poverty. In fact, she was convinced that poverty caused drunkenness. She saw drunkenness less as a personal flaw and more as a social collusion between liquor manufacturers, tavern owners, and the federal and state governments that depended to a surprising high degree upon revenues from the liquor industry to pay for all their functions. She included the Gilded Age capitalists who underpaid their powerless and despairing native and immigrant employees.

At the turn of the twentieth century Frances Willard, a native of Evanston, was the best known woman in the United States (and leading laywoman of the Methodist Church). The WCTU was the largest activist women's organization in the nation. Her influence had been acknowledged by the Illinois State Legislature that voted to place her statue in the U. S. Capitol's Statuary Hall in Washington where only two statues per state were permitted. Half a century later, in the 1950s, the public image of the WCTU was narrowed to a post-prohibition relic of teetotalism. In 2008 Willard is little remembered except by historians who have rediscovered her as an amazingly courageous activist at a time when separate-sphere for men and women still dominated American culture.

Editors Carolyn De Swarte Gifford and Amy R. Slagell have identified and displayed a wide range of Willard's visions and achievements for social justice in one compact volume. In Let Something Good Be Said, the editors incisively uncover and effectively present the astounding breadth of Willard's world. As a fourteen year old in 1945, I remember being backed into a corner by a member of the WCTU who wanted me to join. It was the last organization I wanted to be a part of. I did not know that Willard had worked to make the WCTU a vital, action-oriented machine for reform.

Willard began her crusade in 1874 by breaking the chains linking poverty to drunkenness. She believed governments should stop protecting the liquor industry. They should cease depending upon liquor taxes as their main source of revenue. They should regulate the sale of liquor and reduce the number of outlets. Schools and churches should educate children and youths about the addictive qualities of liquor and deteriorating health associated with alcoholism. Homes for the rehabilitation of alcoholics and prostitutes (who frequently succumbed to alcohol) should be established.

Willard knew that the culture of men stopping at taverns on the way home from work and spending their week's check there on a Friday night left women powerless. When men's work was reduced to an eight hour day, many women continued to work a double-shift-eight hours at work and then eight more hours at home. Women needed to be empowered. Each woman, according to Willard, needed to redefine herself and change her "voice" from passive to active, then use her voice in public and in politics. Willard wrote handbooks to teach women how to chair a meeting, organize a group, and lobby at the state and national level. All schools of the universities should be open to women, she said, including medicine, law, science, and theology.

For this to take place, there needed to be a new ideal of manhood. Men's sexual moral standards had to be elevated to the same high level imposed upon nineteenth century middle class women. Only then could a man build genuine character. A "new chivalry" would take woman off the pedestal and instead create partnerships of equality. This would require a reconstruction of gender relationships. …