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That Frances E. Willard was a national leader in both the temperance and woman suffrage movements makes the Willard House in Evanston the ideal setting for a new exhibit that illustrates the intertwined history of these two great social movements of the 19th century. The exhibit is titled “A Duty or a Right: The Illinois Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and Woman Suffrage.”
From 1879 until her death in 1898, Miss Willard served as president of the national Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which worked to promote abstinence and to fight the negative influences of alcohol on family life. During her almost 20-year presidency, Miss Willard led the WCTU to embrace the cause of various social reforms and especially suffrage. She saw granting women the right to vote as a tool by which temperance laws could be achieved. Recognizing that most of her WCTU members considered suffrage unwomanly, she justified it as a means to protect the home.
Already in 1879 as president of the Illinois WCTU, Miss Willard published a Home Protection Manual with the subtitle: “An argument for the Temperance Ballot for Women and how to obtain it.” In 1881, only two years into her national presidency, the WCTU incorporated woman suffrage as an organizational goal. By 1888 Miss Willard was promoting full suffrage in a speech before the U.S. Senate committee on suffrage.
The suffrage cause needed the temperance women as well because the WCTU was the largest women’s group in the country. Its membership grew during Frances Willard’s presidency from 5,000 to 200,000.
The Willard House exhibit kicks off a year-long celebration of Miss Willard’s 175th birthday that will end in September with a symposium. The exhibit includes profiles of three other Evanston women too: Emily Huntington Miller, who co-founded the WCTU in Cleveland in 1874, and suffrage leaders Elizabeth Boynton Harbert and Catharine McCulloch, who co-founded the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association and were two of its early presidents.
The exhibit ties together the two movements at the national, state and local levels, tracing American temperance back to the 1830s but citing the years after the Civil War as the real starting point for the woman’s crusade against drink. The war had expanded the role of women outside the home through their work supporting the soldiers. What they learned led them to take on more public roles in social reform. They focused particularly on the problem of drink, since both alcohol consumption and the number of saloons had spiked after the war.
On Christmas Eve 1873, the women’s crusade began in earnest in Hillsboro, Ohio. Local women launched a three-month action against temperance, picketing saloons and drugstores that sold alcohol and holding public prayers for the men who drank. The Hillsboro crusade triggered similar campaigns across the country. Although Evanston had been dry since 1855, community women formed the Evanston Woman’s Temperance Alliance in March 1874, and in November the national WCTU was founded.
The new exhibit also traces the story of women’s suffrage in America back to its roots: to the 1848 Women’s Rights Convocation in Seneca Falls, New York. By 1855, a group of LaSalle County women had formed Illinois’s first suffrage group down in Earlville. A national group, the Equal Rights Association, was founded in 1866 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to promote universal suffrage for both women and African American men. In February 1869 Chicago hosted two suffrage conventions, which led to the creation of the long-lasting Illinois Woman Suffrage Association.
Later in 1869, the U.S. Congress passed the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It did not grant universal suffrage; instead, it gave only African American men the right to vote, not women of any race.
Before the amendment was even ratified in 1870, its limits infuriated many suffragists and caused the Equal Rights Association to break in two. The more radical faction organized the National Woman Suffrage Association as an all-women group.
The exhibit, “A Duty or a Right?” includes a handy timeline of key dates in the advance of suffrage and temperance, including the 1891 Illinois law that enabled women to vote in school elections the next year; the passage of the 1913 Illinois law for partial suffrage and, finally, the 1920 ratification of the 19th amendment, which extended suffrage to women.
Pictures and cartoons in the exhibit show temperance and suffrage women in high-necked, long-skirted dresses and gigantic hats from the turn of the last century, reminding viewers how long was the struggle and how long ago their success.
Visitors to this ongoing exhibit can enjoy a tour of Willard House, 1730 Chicago Ave., the house Frances Willard lived in right after the Civil War and which, since her death in 1898, has served as the national headquarters of the WCTU. Visitors can walk into
• the parlor with the Willard Bible, in which each family member signed the pledge of temperance.
• Miss Willard’s upstairs study, where her books line the shelves and her long-time mantra, “Let something Good be said,” is painted over the fireplace.