suffrage and temperance -- 3/23/20

Today's selection -- from Last Call by Daniel Okrent. Frances Willard, co-founder of the Women's Christian Temperance Union:

"At thirty-five Willard was among the small group of women who in 1874 founded the WCTU; at forty she took control of the organization, and for the rest of her eventful life she was field general, propagandist, chief theoretician, and nearly a deity to a 250,000-member army -- undoubtedly, the nation's most effective political action group in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Willard's rhapsodic prose style apparently inspired others as well. To one of her most ardent admirers, Hannah Whitall Smith, Willard (who was always known to her family and friends as 'Frank') was 'the embodiment of all that is lovely, and good, and womanly, and strong, and noble, and tender in human nature.' To another, the historian and U.S. senator Albert J. Beveridge, Willard managed to be both 'the Bismarck of the forces of righteousness in modern society' and 'the greatest organizer of sweetness and light that ever blessed mankind.'

"The woman who educed such adoration was raised on a farm in Janesville, Wisconsin. At sixteen, she asked her parents to sign a pledge she had pasted in the family Bible. Fashioned as a series of rhyming couplets, the oath began, 'A pledge we make, no wine to take/Nor brandy red that turns the head.' Several couplets later it concluded with 'So here we pledge perpetual hate / To all that can intoxicate.' When Willard moved to Evanston, Illinois, with her parents a few years later, she found herself in what she would call a 'Methodist heaven.' The new college that dominated the town (the predecessor of Northwestern University) had been established, its founders said, in 'the interests of sanctified learning.' This mission was abetted by a legal proscription against the sale of alcoholic beverages within four miles of its campus and buttressed by the creation of a similarly liquor-loathing women's school that soon opened nearby. Willard graduated from North Western Female College as valedictorian, became president a decade later, and assumed the position of dean of women at the university when the two schools merged in 1873.

Frances Willard

"But 1874 was the year of the Crusade, and on a trip east Willard found herself on her knees in Sheffner's Saloon, on Market Street in Pittsburgh, singing 'Rock of Ages.' Taking measure of the 'crowd of unwashed, unkempt, hard-looking drinking men' arrayed behind her, 'filling every corner and extending out into the street,' Willard wrote, 'I was conscious that perhaps never in my life, save beside my sister Mary's dying bed, had I prayed as truly as I did then.' A week later she was back in Chicago, about to walk away from her academic career so she could give her life to the temperance cause.

"Forging a new alloy out of the moral commitment of Eliza Thompson and the feminist fire of Susan B. Anthony, Willard very explicitly made temperance a woman's issue -- and women's issues, she argued, could not be resolved if authority was left solely in the hands of men. She had further come to believe that encouraging temperance was no longer enough. Only some form of legal prohibition could crush the liquor demon, and no such prohibition would ever be enacted without the votes of women. In 1876 she stunned a WCTU audience into silence when she made the case that women should have the right to vote on matters relating to liquor. Only three years later, her commitment to suffrage enabled her to unseat the WCTU's founding president, the antisuffragist Annie Wittenmyer. Susan B. Anthony would soon begin to appear at WCTU conventions, and Willard installed Lucy Anthony, Susan's niece, as head of the WCTU lecture bureau. The merging of Anthony's campaign and Willard's brought a critical realignment among the era's feminist activists: the WCTU had acquired a very specific goal, and the suffrage movement had acquired an army.

"'I have cared very little about food, indeed, very little about anything,' Willard once said, 'except the matter in hand.' This dedication to her cause was magnified by her astonishing productivity. She began each day with a devotional reading, and then immediately after breakfast, whether at home in Evanston or on one of her cross-country speaking tours, she would charge into eight hours of dictation to her stenographer. She traveled constantly, in one year addressing audiences in every state and territorial capital except Boise and Phoenix. In 1881, accompanied by her secretary and lifelong companion, Anna Gordon, she went south to organize WCTU chapters in states where women's political activity was even less welcome than it was in much of the north. She also traveled abroad (having founded the World WCTU in 1883), particularly to England, and numbered among her friends and supporters such fellow enemies of alcohol as Leo Tolstoy and the British philanthropist Lady Henry Somerset. Books poured out of her: polemics, memoirs, political manuals. She did step away from the temperance campaign long enough to publish A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle ('As nearly as I can make out, reducing the problem to actual figures, it took me about three months, with an average of fifteen minutes' practice daily, to learn, first, to pedal; second, to turn; third, to dismount; and fourth, to mount independently this most mysterious animal'). But even in her homeliest concerns, Willard rarely wandered far from the cause. She called her pet dog Hibbie, a diminutive for the name she had originally bestowed on him: Prohibition."



Daniel Okrent


Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition




Copyright 2010 by Last Laugh, Inc.


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