Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard

Leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) 

from 1878 -1998


Editor’s Note: A significant portion of this entry was copied from the Biographies of the National Women’s History Museum.


Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard
Photo: Public Domain

Introduction: Frances Willard promoted the cause of women and reform as a pioneer educator and especially as the most prominent leader of the nineteenth century movement to end alcohol abuse.

One of the most influential women of the nineteenth century, Frances Willard’s name is inseparable from that of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), but her life embodied little of the conservatism that came to be associated with the WCTU after her death.

Instead, Willard’s upbringing encouraged fresh ideas. Her mother set the precedent for unconventionality, for Mary Willard had taken college courses at Oberlin College when both that institution and her daughter were only a few years old. Frances’ father, who was a full-time Oberlin student, tended her while his wife went to classes in the early 1840s. Both parents thus exhibited a very unusual willingness to experiment with new roles, for married men in this era seldom took care of children, while female college students of any marital status were a rarity. Indeed, Mary Thompson Willard may have been the first college student who was also a young mother.

Early Years: Frances Willard was born September 28, 1839 to Josiah Flint Willard and Mary Thompson Hill Willard in Churchill near Rochester, New York. But she spent most of her childhood in Janesville, Wisconsin.  She was named after English novelist Frances Burney, the American poet Frances Osgood, and her sister who had died the previous year, Caroline Elizabeth. She had two siblings, Mary and Oliver, and was born the middle child. Her father was a farmer, naturalist, and legislator while her mother was a schoolteacher. The father had originally moved to Oberlin, Ohio, to be part of the ministry there. During the family’s stay in Wisconsin, they converted from Congregationalists to Methodists, a Protestant denomination that placed an emphasis on social justice and service to the world. In 1858, the Willard family moved to Illinois so that Mary and Frances could attend college and their brother Oliver could go to the Garrett Biblical Institute.  Willard had three years of formal education. She attended Milwaukee Normal Institute where her mother’s sister was a teacher, and she attended North Western Female College in Illinois. She moved to Evanston, Illinois when she was 18. Willard’s time at the Northwestern Female College led her to become a teacher.

Career: In 1845, this intrepid young family pioneered in Wisconsin. There Frances lived an outdoor life, joining in her brothers’ activities and even referring to herself as “Frank.” The children were educated largely by their mother until their father, who had become a state legislator, finally succeeded in getting a school for their area when Frances was fifteen. At seventeen, she traveled to Milwaukee Female College, and the following year, went to Illinois, where she studied at Northwestern Female College, from which she graduated in 1859. She held various teaching positions until she became the President of Evanston College for Ladies. She held this position on two separate occasions, once in 1871 and again in 1873. She was also the first Dean of Women for Northwestern University.

In the 1860s, Frances Willard suffered a series of personal crises: both her father and her younger sister Mary died, her brother became an alcoholic. Meanwhile, she became a friend of her future sister-in-law. Willard’s family underwent financial difficulty due to her brother’s excessive gambling and drinking, and Willard was unable to receive financial support from them. She taught for the next few years before traveling to Europe from 1868 to 1870.

Upon her return, Willard was named president of the Evanston College for Ladies, a new school founded in 1871 with links to Northwestern, which it soon absorbed.  Willard then was named dean of women, one of the first female administrators to hold a high position at a major co-educational university. After less than a year as dean of women, Willard ended her career as a college administrator in June 1874 to begin what became her true life’s work with the newly organized Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

As head of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) from 1879 until her death, Willard changed the WCTU from a conservative temperance organization into a broader woman’s rights movement with a range of social concerns, including the right to vote. She coined the phrase “Home Protection” to encourage women to expand their influence beyond the family circle, including fighting prostitution and venereal disease.

In 1884, Willard wrote the “polyglot petition,” which urged world leaders to enact total prohibition, not only of alcohol, but also opium and other addictives. She led the WCTU in gathering signatures from 7,500,000 men and women from 50 countries. The petition was unveiled in 1891, the same year in which Willard was able to extend WCTU into an international organization, becoming president of the World’s WCTU at a Boston meeting. Willard’s health began to deteriorate from chronic anemia and she passed away in 1898 at the age of fifty-eight. Two thousand people attended her funeral at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City, and an estimated twenty thousand more viewed her casket at the Women’s Temple in Chicago.

For additional information:Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard” video excerpt from Prohibition: A film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Works Cited:
  • PHOTO: Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (LC-DIG-ggbain-02864)

Sources: National Women’s History Museum: (Accessed: October 14, 2015)

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,




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