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Frances Willard Is Really Great and I Read a Hundred-Year-Old Book About Her

You might've noticed I've been talking about Frances Willard lately (this is truer for the people in my real life, so let the feelings of sadness for them commence). While on this Willard Quest for knowledge, I came upon a 1913 biography of her written by British suffragette (and sister-in-law of Lytton Strachey) Ray Strachey called Frances Willard: Her Life and Work.

Being part of the younger generation, she did not know Willard personally, as she had died in 1898 when Ray was eleven, but she writes an excellent biography -- an adjective I doubted at the beginning when I read "in studying her life I have come almost to believe that she was perfect." I mean. That's not really going to make for an objective point of view. But I came off the book feeling like she's one of the better biographers I've ever read.


She does this by reading SO much about Willard and talking to SO many people who knew her (people she had ready access to since Willard was a big player in the suffrage movement of the 1880s and '90s and spent a decent amount of time in England) that she develops a sense for the actual person, enabling her to critique FW's autobiography and writing: "It seldom gives any true picture of Frances Willard to quote what she has written."

So it's a good book.

Now as to Willard herself. She was the president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), was a BADASS LEADER, looked for the good in everyone, said awesome things like "I will not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum," stood up for suffrage when it was THE UNPOPULAREST -- even among the women in her organization --, was responsible for the installation of public drinking fountains, and wanted temperance because CAN WE GO OVER IT AGAIN DRINKING WAS A HUGE PROBLEM ESPECIALLY FOR THE HUSBANDS OF IMPOVERISHED WOMEN.

it was less of this and more of like, wife-beating

This wasn't some prudish Christian woman blinded to the realities of life who was trying to ruin fun for everyone FOREVER. She was basically a way more interesting version of Laura Ingalls Wilder, living in a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin when Wisconsin was called "the West." She kept a journal in her adolescent years that's my favorite part of her life. She called spring cleaning "the scourge of mankind" and when her father told her she couldn't ride a horse even though her older brother was allowed to, she trained a cow to wear a saddle. When her father saw this, he finally said okay, and about this her journal says:
Hurrah! rejoice! A new era has this moment been ushered in. Rode a horse through the corn. Oh! it is nice -- the acme of my hopes realized.
She was so amazed by the good temper of a neighborhood girl that she stepped on the girl's toe at recess to see if she would frown (she did not). She finally got to go to school in her late teens and wrote delightful things like "To come down to frying onions, when I've been away among the rings of Saturn, is a little too much!"

I am the small alien monster
in this situation

She was in a place in Wisconsin that DID NOT EVEN HAVE A ONE ROOM SCHOOLHOUSE until they built it in her teens. When they built it and she got to start going to school, she said "I am very terribly glad, exceedingly, excruciatingly glad." Because you couldn't take education as a given in 19th century rural Wisconsin.

Someone gave her a pistol that she decided to name Defiance. "It is a fine one. Everything between a quail and buffalo beware."

One of my favorite stories about her, because she tried SO HARD to be good and to obey God and not let her temper run away with her, but then when she was about 17, she read a novel for the first time. And said novel was by Charlotte Bronte (the bio didn't specify which one). She was at her cousins' and they had all three. She was on Villette when her father came to get her. She was sitting on the doorstep, totally into it, and he walked up and forbade her from reading more of it, as he was anti-fiction -- "which command she obeyed, although with an anger she did not dare to express."

So then it's her 18th birthday. She's at home with her parents. She gets up, sits in her mother's rocking chair, and pulls out Ivanhoe. Her dad comes up and says "I thought I told you not to read novels, Frances." And she says "So you did, father; but you forget what day it is." "I should like to know if the day has anything to do with the deed!" "Indeed it has. I am eighteen -- I am of age -- I am now to do what I think right." And so she got to read novels.

And then -- AND THEN. She was at college and reeeally thinking about her faith and whether she believed Christianity was right, and she said SUCH AWESOME STUFF OMG remember this was the 1850s:
If I truly believed that the fifth chapter of Ephesians (22-24) was to be understood literally, and applied to me if I am any man's wife, I should think the evidence sufficient that God was unjust, unreasonable, a tyrant,  But, as it is, I do not. This is my way of thinking, and I have a right to it. That right I will maintain.
Aghhhhhh. So great. 

(like Paul)

Everyone loved her And she was awesome in social situations. She went to a college party once and said "We all seem to be in good health, the company is pleasant, and the evening a fine one. These subjects being duly disposed of, what shall we talk about?"

Awesome. BUT she was also, obviously, a product of her time. So we get things like "I wish I were a better woman. Burke says that the traits most admired in women are dependence, softness, timidity, and I am quite deficient in them all," and "What a hunter I should have been if God had thought it best that I should be a man!"

She could have led the Barden Bellas to honor and glory

One of the things that kills me most about her younger days (her cow-taming days) is she used to be able to run around and climb trees and shoot things and finally she reached an age where they said her hair had to be put up and she had to wear long skirts and this happened and it makes me want to punch The Past in the face:
To her friends she often described how, when the deed was done, the hairpins in place, and the skirt really lengthened, she ran off, blinded with tears of rage, falling over her skirt as she ran, with her eighteen hairpins standing on end and pushing against her aching head, and made her way miserably to the cellar, where she lay for hours sobbing and crying and feeling as if all the joy of life were over for ever.
HOW DO YOU NOT LOVE THIS WOMAN? Okay. So let's take all the previous stuff, and then say that this woman, who saw potential in everyone and had faith in them thereby making them have faith in themselves, that she saw how alcohol was ruining the lives of men, women and children. Particularly of the poorer classes. That she saw no way that it was helping society. That those people might have a chance of actual happiness in this world if alcohol weren't there as a disastrous substitute. SO YEAH SHE FOUGHT HARD TO GET RID OF IT.

And she ran a worldwide organization, traveled internationally, and spoke so eloquently and forcefully that she at one point made an older member of the Temperance movement dissolve into tears after she was done. When someone asked what was wrong, the woman sobbed "Frances Willard has just convinced me that I ought to want to vote, and I don't want to!"

She went south of the Mason-Dixon line in the 1880s, when people from the North didn't go there and weren't trusted -- especially pro-suffrage women from the North, when suffrage had been invariably linked before the War with abolitionism. When she died, flags were at half-mast "from the Atlantic to the Pacific." She was the best-known woman in America, but as Strachey says in 1913, "Frances Willard is one of those whose influence is felt long after they themselves are forgotten.

To end this longass post (I AM SORRY), here is Frances Willard not long before she died:
"I do not know that the strong hand of labor will ever grasp the helm of state, but I believe it will; I do not know that the double standard of life for men and women will be changed, but I believe it will; I do not know that women will bless and brighten every place they enter, and that they will enter every place, but I believe they will."


  1. Where have you been all my teaching life AND could you just come and teach my classes please? If not, wondering if the quotes you have posted in
    "Frances was gay in a Lady Way" are from the Ray Strachey book? Was doing a bit of online research on our heroine, and found these marvy blog posts of yours. Merci!


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