The Willard House, 1730 Chicago Ave., Evanston Photo by Neil Cogbill.

Two distinctively different 19th-century women stand out among the women of national and international clout of the City of Big Shoulders: Frances Willard of Evanston and Jane Addams of Chicago. The Getaway Guys toured both their nearby residences, and learned much more about these remarkable women than even the distinctive architecture of their residences indicates.

Francis Willard, the earlier of the two, is the topic of this first of two installments.  The next Getaway Guys column will focus on the life and times of Jane Addams.

Born near Rochester, N.Y., in 1839 and raised in Janesville, Wis., Frances Willard entered Evanston College for Ladies in 1857, an institution of which she became president in 1871. In 1873, Evanston College for Ladies merged with Northwestern University, where Ms. Willard was appointed its first dean of women. In a disagreement over the role of women in what had been an all-male institution, she resigned in 1874. The next 24 years of her life were dedicated to female rights, first through her presidency of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and later through her efforts to obtain for women the right to vote.

With its distinctive Carpenter Gothic treatments, the Willard House, at 1730 Chicago Ave., in downtown Evanston occupies a unique niche in Evanston’s architectural past. Hemmed in by contemporary buildings of no particular distinction, this historic house and museum is easily missed while driving on busy Chicago Avenue. This is regrettable, because its former occupant was perhaps the most important woman of her day.

Getaway Guys Neil and Alan and Holly Clayson visited the Willard House in December of 2010. Neil had been there before as an art packer and shipper, but for Alan and Holly it was a new experience. Alan was particularly interested in its architecture, Holly (as director of the Alice Kaplan Humanities Institute at Northwestern University) was keen on Frances Willard the feminist and intellectual, and Neil was into the history of her Prohibition involvement. Not unlike many historic houses and/or house museums visited by the Getaway Guys, the Willard House is packed with artifacts and ephemera related to its owner and her place in history. But because of its multiple uses over the years, not all the furnishings are just as Miss Willard left them. Enough remains, however, to give a visitor a good idea of Frances Willard’s 19th-century domestic life and her commendable missions.

Despite downtown Evanston’s rush to reinvent itself during the past 20 years, the Willard House is distinctively well-preserved externally and internally. In addition to a comprehensive chronological display tracing the ascent of the WCTU and its current activities, this house/museum also contains a riotous collection of furniture and whatnots identified with upper middle-class-propriety in the late 19th century, including two stunning marble portraits, one of Frances Willard by Anna Whitney and the other of temperance leader Diocletian Lewis by an unknown artist.  There is also a small copy of Helen Farnsworth Meer’s statue of Miss Willard now residing in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The Willard House is only open by appointment or on Sundays between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m., an unfortunate state of affairs caused by a lack of funding. The house also needs funds for repairs and further restoration. Admission is $10.

But what really distinguishes the Willard residence in Evanston and the Starr-Addams residence in Chicago is their occupants, two powerful ladies with big ideas. Ms. Willard sought to change behavior through the prohibition of alcohol, while Ms. Addams sought to help the needy. But both sought to help women gain a voice through the ballot box, thinking women would be the key to reform in both spheres. To say that either woman was a single-minded ideologue focused on a single cause would be a gross over-simplification, even though many people (if not most) characterize Ms. Willard this way.

In 1879, at age 40, Frances Willard became the second president of the WCTU and although the next 19 years of her life were devoted to its fundamental cause (the prohibition of alcohol), Willard was not a fire-breathing confrontationist like Carrie Nation. She did not believe breaking up bars or smashing saloons would get the WCTU anywhere. Wielding a hatchet (and rumored to have used it), Carrie Nation (1846-1911) got the prohibition movement a lot of press, most of it bad. Lampooned from coast to coast for her headline-grabbing exploits, Ms. Nation was the antithesis of what Willard was about. Ms. Nation made a public spectacle of herself (guaranteed to offend ladies and gentlemen); furthermore, proper ladies did not enter bars and saloons, much less hack them to pieces.

Ms. Willard focused on the vote for women, believing that once it was enacted, women could reform many aspects of American society, including the prohibition of alcohol. (Ironically, Prohibition came first and a woman’s right to vote second.) The 18th Amendment to the Constitution (the Volstead Act) went into effect in January 1920; the 19th Amendment (universal suffrage) became law in August 1920. Unfortunately, Frances Willard did not live to witness either (nor did she witness the wave of lawlessness that engulfed the U.S.). She died 22 years before their enactment. Without the right to vote, approximately 345,000 members of the WCTU and their allies pulled off two stunning victories that changed the social fabric of the United States forever. The answer to how they did it may be somewhere between “the tail wagging the dog” and the legend of the Sabine women. Quite possibly the WCTU was America’s first political action committee, its cause much greater than a single issue.

The Getaway Guys typically disagree about many things, and they enjoy the give and take in their often disparaging comments about one another’s taste in things cultural. But Frances Willard and Jane Addams gave them reason to agree (well, almost). Neil and Alan have been known to lift a few, but they understand and appreciate the efforts of Willard and the WCTU with regard to alcohol and its debilitating effects on society. A woman’s right to vote (for which both women fought) is a no-brainer. In their next Evanston RoundTable article, about Jane Addams and the former Hull Mansion (now Hull House), the Guys salute America’s first female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her disarmament advocacy, another no-brainer.

Editor’s Note:  The authors maintain
a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.