Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

FRANCES E. WILLARD

(1839-1898),reinventor of "True Womanhood"

BONNIE J. DOW

President of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) from 1879 until her death in 1898, Frances E. Willard was an indefatigable rhetorician and organizer. Her unique brand of woman's rights rhetoric and her work on behalf of a wide range of innovative reforms make her one of the most creative and strategic of nineteenth-century woman orators. In her rhetoric, Willard relied on the rationale of womanhood (emphasizing woman's allegedly superior moral character and the social and political benefits resulting from increased rights for women) rather than natural rights to support her arguments for reform. This strategy set her apart from such prominent woman's rights orators as ELIZABETH CADY STANTON and SUSAN B. ANTHONY and allowed her to attract significant support from men as well as women.

Through the persuasive power of her discourse, Willard built the WCTU into the largest and most diverse all-female reform organization of its time, and she personally led the conservative members of the WCTU to endorse woman suffrage in 1881 ( Bordin, 1986:110-111). Her religious upbringing, her education and work experiences, and her strategic understanding of the opportunities offered by women's temperance reform were instrumental in the development of the complex matrix of religious, social, and gender-related beliefs that constituted her rhetorical appeal.

Frances Willard was born into an educated and religious family on September 28, 1839, in Churchville, New York. Both of her parents briefly attended Oberlin College, then the only coeducational institution in the country, and they were devout Methodists. At eighteen, Willard and her sister were sent to Evanston, Illinois, to study at the newly formed North Western Female College. Although its curriculum was not equal to men's college-level study, it provided a fairly good education. Willard graduated in 1859 with a Laureate of Science ( Bordin, 1986:24). While a student there, she expressed admiration for Margaret Fuller, an early woman's rights advocate and author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century ( 1845).

Willard's growing resolve to reject a traditional female role was intimated in her decision to pursue a teaching career upon graduation from North Western. Against her father's wishes, she left home in 1860, and until 1874, she taught at eleven schools in six different cities. In 1871, she became president of the newly formed Ladies College of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, a position she held until 1874 ( Willard, 1889:133-134). Her commitment to an independent life was also reflected in her rejection of opportunities to marry, including one serious engagement in 1861 ( Bordin, 1986:36). However, her diaries and correspondence indicate that close friendships with women provided primary emotional support throughout her life ( Bordin, 1986:44-47).

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