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The birthday girl was there in spirit only, but that was enough for the Frances Willard Historical Association to host a weekend celebrating the 175th birthday of Frances E. Willard (1839-98) on Sept. 28. The run-up to the birthday party was Saturday’s leadership program billed as “Frances Meets the Future, Re-Igniting the ‘Do Everything’ Spirit.”

Also in tribute to Miss Willard – the long-time Evanston resident, 19-year president of the national Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), suffragist and social reformer – Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl proclaimed the whole month of October the birthday month of Frances Willard.

It doesn’t mean “we get cake all month,” the Mayor wryly told the group gathered Saturday at the Woman’s Club of Evanston, but we will honor Miss Willard all month for her years of leadership in so many spheres besides temperance. “It would be helpful,” she said, “to have her here in Evanston today.”
 
And that was exactly the point of the day – to bring Frances Willard’s optimistic can-do spirit into today’s world. It was not only to make her memory relevant but to keep in mind how her insights, oratory, organizational skills and distinctive brand of leadership as president of the national WCTU from 1879 until her death in 1898 managed to engage men and women across the country in social reform and turn the WCTU into the largest woman’s group in the country.

And she didn’t do it by preaching to the choir, said Amy Slagell, one of two historians who opened the weekend by discussing Miss Willard’s work. Ms. Slagell, a speech professor and liberal arts dean at Iowa State University, described how Miss Willard understood power and reached out to conservative male groups but not in a strident way. She always stressed change as evolution, not revolution, Ms. Slagell said, and she stayed within “the feminine sphere,” always persuasive and articulate but also always non-threatening, dressing in demure ladylike fashions and labeling her work “Christian socialism.”

Rachel Bohlmann, Newberry Library’s director of continuing education, read a paper which focused on the Chicago and Illinois WCTUs, both of which Miss Willard served as president. Ms. Bohlmann cited the Chicago union for charging ahead into the vanguard of reform, its members becoming day nurses, establishing kindergartens and medical dispensaries, creating a lodging house for men and a mission for destitute women. The Chicago union, she said, became “a voice for women’s political and social disabilities,” particularly in relation to their economic, political and legal dependence on men.

The afternoon leadership session picked up where the morning left off. State Representative Robyn Gabel observed that many reform issues Miss Willard addressed are still in play. For example, she said, right now only one-third of the Illinois House members are women. Rep. Gabel saluted everyone at the meeting as “fellow fighters” for equality.

Local leaders then introduced specific social concerns of today and asked the approximately 100 attendees to split into smaller groups to consider how Frances Willard might have handled these issues and to discuss possible remedies. YWCA president and CEO Karen Singer addressed domestic violence. Kate Mahoney, executive director of PEER Services, concentrated on substance abuse. Porschia Davis, the City of Evanston’s assistant youth and young adult program manager, looked at economic empowerment. Leadership itself was the subject of a short talk by Susan Garcia Trieschmann, executive director of Curt’s Café, where she provides jobs and training in food service to at-risk Evanston youth.

Sunday’s birthday events began at First Methodist, with a tour of Miss Willard’s home church that features a stained glass window dedicated to her. It finished at Willard House, a local and national historic landmark where Frances Willard lived for more than 30 years. She called it Rest Cottage.

It wasn’t restful Sunday when close to 100 visitors came to celebrate Miss Willard’s birthday, singing Happy Birthday to the music of the Ridgeville Band, digging into a huge birthday cake and touring the house and its newest exhibit: “Cultivating Character – The Early Life of Frances E. Willard.” Scores of visitors took their pictures with a giant cardboard cut-out of Miss Willard, including one 6-year-old dressed in a Batman suit and flexing his muscles.

After formally accepting a $25,000 gift from the Alpha Phi Foundation, Glen Madeja, the Association’s executive director, announced the start of a $100,000 capital campaign. He said this latest gift boosted to almost $40,000 the amount the Association already has on hand. Campaign funds will be used to update Rest Cottage rooms for interpreting Miss Willard’s story and to improve docent training that will enhance the telling of it.

The Willard weekend and October birthday month bring to a close a year-long celebration of Miss Willard’s 175th birthday that was kicked off in February with a Willard House exhibit on the links between the WCTU and the Woman Suffrage Movement. The Willard weekend was hosted by the Frances Willard Historical Association in partnership with Alphi Phi Foundation, Evanston History Center, First Methodist Church, Evanston Women’s History Project, Woman’s Club of Evanston, League of Women Voters of Evanston and Shorefront.