In Stained Glass: Frances Willard & the Temperance Movement

A sketch of her life and influence
delivered at Marsh Chapel in April of 1990
by Professor Dana L. Robert, PhD,
of the Boston University School of Theology

As you walk into Marsh Chapel, you see on the left the only stained glass window in the Chapel devoted to a woman. Depicted is a Victorian woman dressed in her favorite color, blue, and holding a scroll in her hands, the "polyglot petition." This petition was presented in the late 1800s to the president of the United States and other world leaders. Signed by seven million women from fifty nations, it asked each government in the world to abolish liquor trade and consumption. The woman in blue is Frances Willard, woman suffragist, Methodist activist, Christian socialist, political prohibitionist, and president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union from 1879 to 1898.

When Boston University was erected on the Charles, the portrait windows were moved from the old School of Theology chapel on Beacon Hill. Two more windows were needed to fill out Marsh Chapel, and the president of the university chose two Americans to add to the biblical and historical figures already honored in stained glass. Because of his work to free the American slaves, Abraham Lincoln was chosen to represent all the unbaptized who nevertheless lived by Christian principles.

For the second new window, the president of Boston University decided to select a Christian woman. He chose Willard, one of the greatest leaders of women in American history. The temperance movement that Willard led was concerned not only with the control of liquor, but with freeing women from the social and legal disabilities that made them second class citizens in the United States. The last few generations have forgotten Frances Willard, but a century ago, she was the most well-known woman in America. During her lifetime, the press, without sarcasm, called her "St. Frances" and the "Queen of Temperance." Her obituaries said of her that "next to Queen Victoria," she was "the most influential woman of the age." In the rotunda of the capitol building in Washington D.C. is Statuary Hall, where each state in the Union placed a statue of its greatest citizen. Frances Willard is the only woman among those statues, and she represents Illinois, the home state of Lincoln.

Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard, called "Frank," was born in Churchville, New York, in 1839. Frank's father was a farmer, and the family soon moved to the Wisconsin frontier where Frank and her sister Mary grew up on an isolated farm on the prairies. Frances Willard benefited from the movement to establish schools for girls that was sweeping across the Midwest in the 1850's. After being taught at home by her mother, she was permitted to enroll at the North Western Female College in Evanston, Illinois, where her family moved in 1858.

After graduation, Frances Willard began to teach at various girls' academies across the country. Ultimately she decided not to marry, but rather to devote herself to the education of girls and women. In the United States in the nineteenth century, to combine career and marriage was not considered appropriate for women--it was one or the other. For various reasons, including the fact that she was unwilling to accept the narrow role that marriage would have assigned her, Frances Willard chose to devote her life to teaching and to the furtherance of women's rights.

By 1870, Willard was well-respected as a teacher. Meanwhile, a group of women in Evanston decided that in the wake of the opening of Vassar as the first woman's school with a modern college curriculum, the North Western Female College should be upgraded to the full college level. The best way to accomplish this upgrading would be to merge with Northwestern University. Frances Willard was chosen to be the president of the women's college within Northwestern University. Thus she became one of the first woman deans of a true collegiate-level institution. Northwestern's experiment with co-education was one of the earliest in America. Like Boston University, Northwestern was sponsored by the Methodists. Methodists pioneered in co-education and in admitting women to study on an equal basis with men.

Frances Willard would probably have remained an educator had it not been for an explosion that rocked the Midwest in 1873-4: the so-called "Woman's Crusade." In Hillsboro, Ohio, in December of 1873, a group of Protestant church women went to hear a temperance speaker. The women became so excited by the dangers of liquor portrayed in the speech that they stormed the local saloon with prayer and non-violent protest. Across the Midwest, normally quiet housewives began to march and to accost druggists, hotel owners, and saloon keepers and demand that they refuse to sell liquor. Women dropped to their knees for pray-ins at local saloons and refused to leave until the saloon shut down. Within three months, the women had driven liquor out of 250 villages and towns. Opened casks of liquor were poured down the streets. By the end of the Woman's Crusade, over 900 communities in 31 states and territories had experienced it. Nationwide, 750 breweries were closed. Thousands of women felt empowered by the crusade, which was the first time many of them had taken a public stand for anything.

At the end of the crusade, women founded the Women's Christian Temperance Union as a national organization to press for abstinence from liquor. At first the WCTU used moral suasion, education, and non-violent protest as its main pressure tactics. Willard had not participated in the crusade, but she was involved in the WCTU from its beginning and was elected Corresponding Secretary. After Willard became president in 1879, the WCTU under her guidance turned to political means to effect abstinence. Through massive petition drives, the WCTU pressed for local option votes to prohibit liquor. Under the slogan "Home Protection," the organization ultimately pushed for a national prohibition.

The WCTU quickly became the largest women's organization in the United States, with local branches in most communities. It was the first national religious organization to be organized in the South after the Civil War. Its paper, the Union Signal, by 1890 was the largest woman's paper in the world.

Why did temperance activity become an obsession for American women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? The most important reason is that the alcohol problem represented the powerlessness of American women. The crusade to stop alcohol was a protest by women of their lack of civil rights. In the late nineteenth century, women could not vote. In most states, married women were considered "dead to the law," their identity subsumed under their husband's. Men could take their wives' pay but not vice-versa. Married women could not own property in most states, and men could not be prosecuted for wife abuse. As late as the year 1900, in 37 states a woman had no right to custody of her children in the case of divorce. When the WCTU began its work, the state-regulated "age of consent" was as low as seven, and prosecutions for rape were rare.

Women in the United States were victims. The consumption of alcohol by the men of America, coupled with the powerlessness of women, led to child and wife abuse and other oppressions of women. And liquor was truly a curse. In the late nineteenth century, there was one saloon for every 50 males over age 15 in working class sections. Most local political meetings were held in saloons from which women were excluded. The liquor trade held a disproportionate share of public offices and was involved in corruption, crime, and vote-buying. By the year 1900, one of every 116 Americans was employed in the liquor industry. Americans spent over a billion dollars on alcoholic beverages, $900 million on meat, $150 million on churches, and less than $200 million on public education.

The women who fought to control liquor were opposing one of the most powerful, entrenched forces in American life. Alcoholic men spent their money on liquor and had no legal obligation to support their wives and children. In divorce, the same alcoholics were awarded the children. As the leader of the WCTU, in the forefront against the grave societal evils represented by liquor, Frances Willard became the most admired woman in America.

Since childhood, Willard had believed women should have the right to vote. Under the "home protection" slogan, by 1894 she had persuaded the WCTU to endorse women's suffrage. The WCTU pushed for women's rights to vote specifically so that women could vote for the prohibition of liquor. As an organization of church women, the WCTU persuaded the Protestant churches to get behind the women's vote as a vehicle to push through temperance. Suffrage and temperance were seen as two pieces of the same issue: national prohibition was finally enacted in 1919, shortly before women received the vote.

To social reformers of the late nineteenth century, temperance was the movement out of which other social causes emerged. We can see the unity of social reform in the life of Frances Willard in the way that she encouraged the WCTU to broaden its mandate to include other reforms. Her personal motto was "Do Everything." By "do everything," she initially meant that women should use any means possible to reach the final goal of prohibition. But the slogan "do everything" came to mean that all reform was inter-connected. One social problem could not be separated from another, and a multi-faceted approach was necessary to combat the web of social evils. Alcohol was not just a cause, but was a symptom of larger problems in American society.

By the 1890's, Frances Willard was on the cutting edge of social reform, and she took the WCTU along with her. She was a Fabian socialist, urging the nationalization of utilities, the 8-hour day, child labor laws, and many other reforms now taken for granted but that were considered "socialistic" in the late nineteenth century. Willard reached out to organized labor at a time when most Protestants abhorred it and were taking the side of capital. Willard felt that wealthy capitalists were exploiting labor. In 1886, the year of the violent haymarket riots for which labor was blamed, the WCTU sent a representative to the meeting of the Knights of Labor, America's first large labor union. Despite the anti-Catholic tone of American life in the late 1800's, Willard maintained a twenty-year friendship with Terence Powderly, the Roman Catholic president of the Knights.

In the area of women's rights, Willard supported suffrage and helped to found the National Congress and National Council of Women. She was first president of the National Council of Women and in that capacity supported a broader franchise. Willard was a powerhouse in the Prohibition Party, which fielded political candidates from 1872 to 1892 and went on record in support of women's right to vote. Willard and the WCTU supported prison reform, the establishment of kindergartens and shelters for poor women and children, and federal aid for education. Other causes that she personally espoused included pacifism, social purity, dress reform, health food, anti-smoking and anti-drugs, and wages for housework. By 1896, 25 of 39 departments of the WCTU were dealing with non-temperance issues. The WCTU was the first organization to hire professional lobbyists in Washington, Far from being a single-issue movement, temperance was the glue that held social reform together.

There is another area in which Frances Willard pioneered. Frances Willard became a full member of the Methodist Church in 1860, and she remained a loyal Methodist throughout her life. She believed that the essence of the Methodist faith was personal piety combined with social reform activity. In 1888, she was among the first handful of women who were elected to the General Conference of the Methodist Church, the governing body of the church that meets every four years. The Methodists were the largest Protestant denomination in nineteenth-century America, and they led in much of the social reform work just described. But in 1888, the General Conference refuse to seat Willard and the four other women elected. The same Methodist bishops and preachers who invited her to speak on temperance in their churches refused to let her sit at General Conference. Willard was so angered by the refusal of her church to permit her to sit that she wrote Woman in the Pulpit, a plea for the ordination of women, based on scriptural and historical arguments.

Willard wrote a number of wide-selling books on various topics ranging from temperance to the merits of bicycling to a book on Evanston, her home town. A few years before she died, she published her autobiography, Glimpses of Fifty Years.

By the mid-twentieth century, temperance was no longer the basis for social reform. In fact, until the recent re-emphasis on substance abuse, most people thought of prohibition as a moralistic joke. Willard was successful partly because she never challenged the basic role of woman in American society as wife and mother. Her basic conservatism regarding sex roles was a secret to her success in the nineteenth century, but it guaranteed that she would be forgotten in the twentieth. The combination of temperance with an emphasis on home protection made her the queen of the nineteenth century, but a laughingstock by the mid-twentieth.

But perhaps the time has come to give "St. Frances" her due. The dangers of alcohol and drug abuse have made temperance an issue again. Groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving work along many of the same lines as did the WCTU. The wide availability of drugs and alcohol combines with other social problems like racism to oppress women and the women of the WCTU fought are again present in American society. But perhaps the Methodist tradition of personal self-control combined with social reform represented by Frances Willard is still valid. The Frances Willard window in Marsh Chapel stands as a monument to woman's best efforts, in all eras, to make life better for women and children throughout the United States and the world.


Bordin, Ruth. Frances Willard: A Biography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Bordin, Ruth. Women and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.

Epstein, Barbara. The Politics of Domesticity: Women,Evangelism, and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century America. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1981

Gusfield, Joseph R. Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966.

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