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

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION

Under the leadership of Frances Willard, the WCTU became not only a temperance organization, but also a reform society with a broad agenda. By the mid-1880s, many of the Union's goals were openly supportive of woman's rights positions. Clearly, it was she who led the Union down this political, and in contemporary terms, feminist path. Through her strategic use of arguments based on the central tenets of home protection and true womanhood, she redefined the controversial issues she espoused into reforms necessary to protect and enrich the traditional role of women as caretakers, nurturers, and guardians of piety and morality. Any rights that women gained, she implied, would benefit cultural ideals of womanhood, rather than undermine them.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the WCTU was a tremendously visible and popular organization promoting a variety of reforms to benefit women. However, Willard is less well remembered than other advocates for woman's rights and woman suffrage, which can be traced to two factors. First, the WCTU's reversion to its narrow concern with temperance following her death meant that her charisma and iconoclastic vision were allowed to die with her, and the WCTU contributed little to the final, decisive campaign for woman suffrage waged between 1900 and 1920. Second, although the natural rights philosophy used by other woman's rights activists has maintained its resonance over time, Willard's brand of "feminine feminism" ( Bordin, 1986:39) seems outdated and contrary to most contemporary feminist goals. Her rhetorical strategies achieved important short-term victories but have not stood the test of time.

Yet Willard was undoubtedly committed to an enlarged sphere for women, in both personal belief and public practice. Her rhetoric had the effect of bringing thousands of women into public reform work. The breadth of the WCTU's organization at the local, state, national, and international levels provided extensive networks for disseminating arguments in support of greater rights for women ( Bordin, 1981:157). Her success with the "home protection" rationale clearly increased the public acceptance of woman suffrage that resulted in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. After her death, many of the women she attracted to the WCTU continued to work for woman suffrage outside it. Moreover, her rhetorical success influenced other women reformers. Her basic argument for the superior moral influence of women and the resultant societal benefits to be derived from women's enfranchisement was a strategy used successfully by other activists in the final stages of the woman suffrage movement. The importance of understanding Frances Willard's brand of activist, reform rhetoric ultimately rests in her vivid enactment of a unique and an important strain in the complex, multidimensional character of nineteenth-century rhetorical action in support of advancement for women.


SOURCES

The Frances E. Willard Memorial Library (FEWML), Evanston, Illinois, houses her papers, including correspondence, scrapbooks, speeches, essays, and books. The library

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