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Frances Willard Weekend in Evanston, Illinois



Some of you might just possibly be aware that I have a passing interest in 19th century feminist and reform leader Frances Willard. And by "passing" I mean I volunteer with her house museum and archives and do some of their social media and spent eight hours this weekend at events for her. Because it was her BIRTHDAY! 175 years old and still no one outside her own century really has any idea who she is, BECAUSE -- because she is linked to the temperance movement, and people think the temperance movement is a buzzkill.

I mean, as they probably should, since the point was to stop people from drinking. But what people now do not care to think about is the fact that this wasn't just a group of hundreds of thousands of women who suddenly decided alcohol was evil and people should stop having fun. Men were drinking three times as much as they do now. They were usually the sole providers for their families. Domestic abuse, poverty, starvation, all these could be linked back in many cases to an alcoholic husband.


So the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) got these hundreds of thousands of women together, organized them, and made them try to fix the reasons men were drinking. So they worked on labor reform, they advocated for an eight hour workday, they wanted America's prisons fixed, they wanted the age of consent raised from seven years old to 16, they wanted public drinking fountains so people would be able to get clean water easily, they wanted clothing for women that wouldn't pinch and suffocate them so they could actually get things done in life, and they wanted the vote.




Wanting the vote was still seen as radical and unwomanly, and Frances Willard was a genius and framed it as something she called Home Protection. You don't want to vote? Hm. But do you want to protect your home? Do you want to have a voice in issues that affect your family? Then you need to vote. By voting you can save your family. It would be unwomanly of you not to want to vote.


Saturday was a five hour session on Frances Willard, which consisted of two lectures and then three discussions. I met basically all the women who have had anything to do with FW for the past three decades, INCLUDING Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, who transcribed all her journals, thereby enabling them to be available online. She is amazing. We talked for probably too long in the back room of Frances's house, eventually joined by the woman who co-edited the book of Frances's speeches, Let Something Good Be Said. No biggie. It's all ok. I freaked out only slightly.


My friend Cate and I also selfied with Frances. It's totally fine.

The discussions were about domestic & substance abuse, and closing the gender pay gap. I never go to events like this, and it was strangely empowering sitting there and talking about what we can do to fix these problems. We talked about Twitter's #WhyILeft and #WhyIStayed and why it's so important to get something like domestic abuse talked about and not seen as a silent issue. The director of the Evanston YWCA said since the Ray Rice tape came out, calls to their emergency hotline have tripled.

Sunday was a 9:15 AM lecture in Evanston (sooo far away, but we had coffee) and then the unveiling at her home of a new SIGN (very exciting) and more talk with Frances scholars and eventually cake (see beginning of post). 


#1800sHeForShe

I've talked before about how amazing it is walking around Frances's home in Evanston. They made it a museum RIGHT after she died, so things that are in photographs in 1898? They're still right there. It's not "Oh, this is a museum reproduction." No. It's the same thing that's in the photo. She wrote a book called A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, because she had to learn how to ride a bike in her 50s as a way to exercise. She had a bicycle named Gladys, she refers to it all the time in the book, and Gladys is RIGHT THERE in the museum.

This is the thing that terrified her for ages

If anything can be accomplished regarding Frances Willard, I want it known that she was not some sanctimonious, cranky woman who wanted to take away people's happiness. She was a brilliant woman who headed an international organization, she helped everyone she came across, ALL she did was try to make life better for people. That was at the bottom of her work. How can we all come together and live in a way that will give everyone their best chance. She described herself as a Christian socialist, and we should give her nothing but respect.

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