During a guided tour of the Frances Willard House Museum, Museum Director Lori Osborne gestures to a map on the wall revealing how states slowly allowed (primarily white) women to vote at the municipal, state and federal level. Red X’s indicate suffrage was decided at the municipal level, red lines indicate partial suffrage rights and solid red indicates full voting rights for women. Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

If you pass by 1730 Chicago Ave., you might notice another small Victorian cottage with a “sweet little garden” and “tchotchkes on the shelves,” said Lori Osborne, Museum Director of the Frances Willard House.

But the house’s quiet appearance may be deceiving – from the early 19th century into the 20th, the building doubled as a busy women’s workspace, housing the headquarters of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union – the largest organization of women in the world as of 1890.

Frances Willard, whose family built the house, served as the second president of the WCTU in 1879, only five years after its founding. She lived in the house with her mother. 

Osborne said that Willard rose to leadership because her vision was broad: “She’s like: We’re not just about temperance, we’re about women’s rights. We’re about all the problems that cause people to drink. … When you have poverty, when you have terrible working conditions, when you have all these issues forcing your quality of life down, what do [men] do? They head to the saloon.”

Aug. 26 is Women’s Equality Day – the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women’s right to vote, was certified on this date 102 years ago. In honor of Willard’s work, the Frances Willard House Museum scheduled special suffrage-themed house tours on Thursday, Aug. 25 and Sunday, Aug. 28.

Almost everything in the house remains as it was when Willard died in 1898. On Thursday afternoon’s 1 p.m. tour, the museum director painted a vivid image of what the house was like before it was converted into a museum in 1900. 

Francis Willard and her sister Mary moved to Evanston to attend a small women’s college in 1858, and her parents, Josiah Willard and Mary Thompson, followed behind. The family was Methodist, and a Methodist university (Northwestern) is just up the road. Not only that, Osborne added, but the family also was interested in the reform movements related to temperance and women’s rights that began in Evanston.

Museum Director Lori Osborne gestures to the Willard family bookshelf as she gives a guided tour of the Frances Willard House Museum. Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

Inside one of the first-floor communal rooms is a collection of furniture that doesn’t match exactly because the family didn’t have a lot of money when they came – but there is also a library. “Books are very expensive at the time. And they’re among the most important possessions they have,” Osborne said. 

After the girls graduate from college, Frances’ sister, Mary, dies. A few years later, the family builds its second Evanston home at 1730 Chicago on land they leased from Northwestern. After two years in the new home, Willard’s father succumbs to illness as well. For the true lifespan of the house, from 1865 to 1898, the house belongs to Willard and her mother, who live together. 

Osborne said that diary entries reveal that the sudden loss of her sister and father mobilized Willard to commit herself to “making a difference” as her life’s work. 

Museum Director Lori Osborne stands in the center of Frances Willard’s bedroom on a guided tour of the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston. Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

She becomes a traveling teacher and then, soon, the first Dean of Women at Northwestern University. Her income and tenure are used to maintain and eventually upgrade the house, adding things like electricity over the years. Over time, she moves away from the university and dives headfirst into her organizing work. 

Willard saw the WCTU as a way to encourage everyday women harmed by the abuses of society, like alcohol, to mobilize for change. Its efforts set the stage for the passing of the 19th Amendment after Willard’s death. 

Museum Director Lori Osborne stands in a communal office space on the first floor of the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston. Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

During the 19th century, women were not often going out into public social spaces unless they were accompanied by a man. The inside of the Frances Willard House shows how its female occupants used it. The house was a multipurpose space, where each room could be used for work, grooming, comfort and enrichment of the mind simultaneously by different groups.

Unfortunately, the WCTU leader was far from perfect, Osborne said, and when challenged by Ida B. Wells to support anti-lynching reforms, Willard refused. The museum has posted an online interactive exhibit exploring this very public conflict between the two activists through newspaper clippings and more. 

“One of the things I think we’re doing in this country today is sort of reevaluating these historic figures … to think again about how we might remember them, and how we honor them,” said the museum director. 

There are three more suffrage-themed tours available to Evanston residents on Sunday, Aug. 28 at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. 

Tours are available by reservation only and may be requested by emailing info@franceswillardhouse.org or calling (847) 328-7500. Tour fees are $15 per person. Admission is free for students at all levels. Payment must be made online or over the phone once the tour day and time has been confirmed.

Debbie-Marie Brown

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at dmb@evanstonroundtable.com...

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