Between qigong and grocery shopping—Frances Willard

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After qigong this morning I met a student of mine and her mother to take a tour of Willard House in Evanston. The student is doing her research project on Frances Willard and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In actual fact, I have occasionally tried to get into the Willard house but its much reduced hours have made it difficult. So moments after “The Jade Plate Receives the Morning Dew” and “Tiger Grabs its Prey,” only a minute or two after “The Unicorn Turns its Head to Gaze at the Moon,” I found myself inside a lovely 19th century home that after Willard’s death became the national offices of the WCTU.

The house was a bit run-down on the inside— some paper images in frames but without glass, old books and papers resting on wooden (not archival) shelves, some paint peeling, and water stains on ceilings— but there were also places where great care had been spent— dishes and ceramics behind glass and other items professionally lit and labeled, a few freshly wall-papered and carefully appointed rooms— that I wanted to spend more time in than was allotted.

Our guide was quite enthusiastic about Willard and though her delivery was not as smooth as it might have been, was very definitely knowledgeable and a committed admirer. Frances Willard (1839-1898) was a women’s suffragist, a temperance reformer, and an educator. She was brought up by a very progressive mother and strict father. When the family moved to Oberlin when Willard was 2 or 3, her mother insisted on getting an education at Oberlin College herself, already with two children (Oliver and Frances) and the third child, Mary, born while her mother was still attending school.

Frances Willard in her work with the WCTU, was working to push its understanding of alcoholism and drug abuse beyond the blaming place of a weak personal and amoral character to an understanding of the broader environmental context around it—poverty, abuse, poor sanitation, poor working conditions, labor issues including length of working day and child labor, as actually contributing to the problem of alcoholism.  Because of her charisma, she had convinced this basically white and christian and middle-class organization to support this progressive political agenda, but when she died, the WCTU pulled back into its more narrow goals of temperance and women’s suffrage.

The issue of her conflict with Ida B. Wells also came up and how Willard, like most middle class white women of her day would be considered racist. Willard felt that black people’s character was more savage, inferior, less civilized. In an 1890 interview with the New York Voice, Willard said the local tavern “is the Negro’s center of power … the colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt.” Our guide suggested that since temperance and suffrage were intrinsically linked, that Willard really was working to consolidate support from southern women and would have lost the whole south had she been a louder spokesperson for equity for blacks as well. Ida B Wells never softened her views on Frances Willard, who eventually had the WCTU support Wells’ proposed anti-lynching legislation, while Frederick Douglass supported Willard’s politics and understood her to be forward thinking for her race and for her time. Our guide said that Douglass’ support is corroborated in papers in the archives behind Willard House.

It was lovely to step back into time on this snowy winter afternoon and peruse the personal items, books, furniture, and space of Frances Willard’s home and headquarters for the WCTU and listen to the stories of this remarkable woman from over a hundred years ago. Between morning qigong and late afternoon grocery shopping, Frances Willard came alive in all her complexity and contradiction.

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