Investigating U.S. History

Investigating U.S. History Banner

From Abolition to Progressivism: Women in Public Life

Group Two Documents

  1. Declaration of Sentiments
  2. Frances Harper
  3. Florence Kelley, “Strength in Numbers”
  4. Frances Willard

Frances Willard

Frances Willard was one of the most popular and effective reformers of the progressive era. She began her career as a teacher, and ultimately became the president of an important women's college in Illinois, but left this job to become a full-time activist in the Women's Christian Temperance Union, a group which sought to ban the sale of alcohol. Although she initially had conflicts with some in temperance leadership over whether to mix the issues of woman's suffrage and temperance, she continually worked to bring temperance activism and women's suffrage together, first by making an effort to gain women the vote on temperance matters through a "home protection ballot," and in 1892, by attempting to bring the the WCTU into a coalition with the with the populist, or "people's party." She was the president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union from 1878 until her death in 1898, and is credited by some historians as bringing women's suffrage, which had been a radical cause associated with New England abolitionism, into the conservative American mainstream of the 1880s. Despite the seeming conservatism of some of her views by today's standards, Willard's life was far from conventional. She never married, but rather, lived with a female companion,Anna Gordon, for most of her life; she was a world traveller, and an advocate of bicycle riding! At the end of her life, after spending time in England with Fabian socialists, she came to believe that poverty, rather than alcohol was the primary cause of social problems.

In these two excerpts from her speeches, Willard discusses several different issues important to women reformers of the time including the vote for women, the temperance issue, and dress reform. for more on Willard, see Bordin, Frances Willard a Biography, Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1986 and

Address of Frances E Williard, President of the Woman's National Council of the United States, (Founded in 1888) at its first triennial meeting, Albaugh's Opera House, Washington, D.C., February 22-25, 1891

This document came from the Library of Congress server, in the Women's Suffrage collection. (Excerpted by Rebecca Hill)

Rufus H. Darby, Printer, Washington, D.C.

* ** Locally a woman's council should, in the interest of that "mothering" which is the central idea of our new movement, seek to secure for women admission to all school committees, library associations, hospital and other institutional boards intrusted with the care of the defective, dependent, and delinquent classes, also to boards of trustees in school and college and all professional and business associations; also to all college and professional schools that have not yet set before us an open door; and each local council should have the power to call in the united influence of its own State council, or, in special instances, of the National Council, if its own influence did not suffice.

I am confident that the development of this movement will impart to women such a sense of strength and courage, and their corporate self-respect will so increase, that such theatrical bills as we not see displayed will be not permitted for an hour, without our potent protest; and the exhibitions of women's forms and faces in the saloons and cigar stores, which women's self-respect will never let them enter, and the disgraceful literature now for sale on so many public newsstands, will not be tolerated by the womanhood of any town or city. An " Anatomical Museum" that I often pass on a Chicago street bears the words: "Gentlemen only admitted." Why do women passively accept these flaunting assumptions that men are expected to derive pleasures from objects that they would not for a moment permit their wives to see? Someday women will not accept them passively, and then these base exhibitions will cease, for women will purify every place they enter, and they will enter every place. Catholic and Protestant women would come to a better understanding of each other through working thus for mutual interests; Jew and Gentile would rejoice in the manifold aims of a practical Christianity; women who work because they must; women, true-souled enough to work because they ought, or, best of all, great-souled enough to work because they love humanity, will all meet on one broad platform large enough and strong enough to furnish standing room for all. Later on, who knows but that by means of this same Council we women might free ourselves from that stupendous bondage which is the basis of all others-the unhealthfulness of fashionable dress! "Courage is as contagious as cowardice," and the courage of a council of women may yet lead us into the liberty of a costume tasteful as it is reasonable, and healthful as it is chaste. Another practical outcome that might be looked for from such a confederation of women's efforts in religious and philanthropic, educational and industrial work, might be the establishment in every town and city of headquarters for women's work of every kind...

* * But it be remembered that until woman comes to her kingdom physically she will never really come at all. Created to be well and strong and beautiful, she long ago "sacrificed her constitution, and has ever since been living on her by-laws." She has made of herself an hour-glass, whose sands of life pass quickly by. She has walked when she should have run, sat when she should have walked, reclined when she should have sat. She has allowed herself to become a mere lay-figure upon which any hump or hoop or farthingale could be fastened that fashion-mongers chose; and ofttimes her head is a mere rotary ball upon which milliners may let perch whatever they please-be it bird of paradise or beast or creeping thing. She has bedraggled her senseless long skirts in whatever combination of filth the street presented, submitting to a motion the most awkward and degrading known to the entire animal kingdom, for nature has endowed all others that carry trains and trails with the power of lifting them without turning in their tracks, but a fashionable woman pays lowliest obeisance to what follows in her own wake; and, as she does so, cuts the most grotesque figure outside a jumping-jack. She is a creature born to the beauty and freedom of Diana, but she is swathed by her skirts, splintered by her stays, bandaged by her tight waist, and pinioned by her sleeves until-alas, that I should live to say it!-a trussed turkey or a spitted goose are her most appropriate emblems.

A lady reporter tells us that she had the curiosity to ask the weight of a bead-trimmed suit, and found it greater than the maximum weight carried by soldiers in our late war, "including accoutrements, ammunition, and all." She reports the present situation as follows: "No pockets, no free use of the lower limbs for her who is in style, and they say that skirts are to be lengthened-already they must touch the floor; that trains are coming back, and-perhaps-hoops!" In conclusion, this sensible woman suggests that "a committee of our most capable and honored sisters be chosen and instructed to give us a costume for walking and for working."

To my mind, this is an altogether reasonable plan, and I wish we might appoint that committee at this Council, giving it a few instructions, to which I would gratuitously contribute the following: "Arrange for and build the dress around one dozen pockets."

The catalogue of our crimes as the dry-goods class of creation is, however, less tragically true to-day than it was yesterday. ... Following up this splendid advantage, we decided, at our recent convention in Atlanta, to attempt securing laws that shall require the regular teaching of gymnastics in all grades of the public school, with reference to health of body and grace of attitude and movement. ... In view of the impending mania for long skirts, and the settled distemper of bodices abbreviated at the wrong terminus, it strikes me as desirable that the Council should utter a deliverance in favor of a sensible, modest, tasteful, business costume for busy women. But the better is always likely to be the greatest enemy of the best, and in her happy deliverance from the worst in dress the average woman is too much inclined to let well enough alone. For this reason it is more than ever the duty of leaders to point their sisters onward along the brightly opening way, not by precept alone, but by method and plan.

Frances Willard on “Women and Temperance Work”

(edited by Rebecca Hill)

An old Quaker lady, in the time of the crusade, went with a young woman into a rum-shop. The saloon-keeper looked at them and said: "What have you women come up here for?" and an old lady of fourscore years looked up and said gently: "I will tell thee what I came here for. Thee knows I had five sons and many grandsons; thee knows that here at thy counter more than one of my boys tasted his first glass; thee knows that more than one of them has gone to the drunkard's grave, and one by the suicide's knife; and can't thee let his mother lay her Bible down on thy counter, where her boy took that glass, and read to thee these words of God: 'Woe unto him who putteth the bottle to his neighbor's lips'?" That is what we have here in America in the rum-shops, something that devastates the places we care most for, ruins the destinies of those we love best, have borne most for, and would shield with most of tenderness. And we want to say just this: We believe that we can do something about it. This is one thing we are going to do: we are going to carry the Gospel to the drinking class, the class that is most beyond the pulpit's influence of any class. If we make an advance all along the line, upon a body so numerous we must call out the reserve force of the Church; and you know two-thirds of the church members are women, and we must call them out; they have had the most in jeopardy; they have suffered the most, and will put forth the most earnest efforts in this work. Then another thing: women as a class, and the women of the wealthier class, and those of the middle class, are not so worn out and tugged out all their lives with care and anxiety as men; they have more leisure. That is something that will bear demonstration.

You and I are learning that not in the acquisition of a language, not in the mastery of a piano keyboard, lies the supreme good; but in teaching the tender feet never to stray from the sure path, and in going out to seek him who is "away in the mountains bleak and bare, away from the tender Shepherd's care." There it lies more than anywhere else on earth, and we are getting to believe it. Those who have been on tours of philanthropy, these Christian women, are getting more of an idea of making it a business. We have tasted the sweetness of benignant life. The truest, most nutritious food God has given us we find in well-doing. I think about it what a fine thing it is to know a language, and many of us will never know any but our mother tongue, but yet there are none here but can learn and teach the words of life, the language of Canaan. We may not be able to obtain the highest proficiency in mathematics; but you and I can help many a tangled, wicked life into a plain solution. It is a tender thing to be a sculptor and to chisel marble into beautiful shapes and forms, but it is sweeter to mold the clay of a child's character. It is a noble thing to be an architect and build grand cathedrals; but grander far to teach somebody who had not found it out, that the body and the soul were made on purpose to be the temple of the Holy Ghost, in which shall dwell nothing that is not pure and white and clean. It is a grand thing, surely, to be able to trace upon the canvas features of beauty, but ah! to restore the image of God to the face that is really the face that smiles back into your own, to restore there the image of God, which was lost, that is a better office; and to sweep the harps Aeolian, to strike the keys that tune with God's purpose in creation, that is a nobler kind of music than any ever learned from Beethoven or Mozart. That is for you, for me, and for every one of us, blessed be God's name.

Back to top