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Evanston and the Fight for the Vote

Frances E. Willard

Photograph of Frances Elizabeth Willard

Born in 1839 in New York, Frances Willard spent her childhood in Wisconsin. She later recounted her first moments of experiencing the unequal treatment of women. Reflecting on seeing her brother and father going to vote, and realizing that she would not be able to do so, she said to her sister Mary: “Don’t we love our country as much as they do?” She later decided that she would dedicate her life to working on “the woman question” by becoming an activist for a larger public role and rights for women, especially suffrage.

Willard came to Evanston to attend North Western Female College and her first career was as a teacher. When the woman’s temperance movement began in the 1870s, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in 1874, Willard quickly saw it as an ideal venue for her work for women. This new movement simultaneously embraced women’s traditional role in the home and expanded women's role as caregivers for their communities, allowing for that larger public role that Willard sought. 

Frances Willard became president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1879 and brought her support for suffrage with her. Her arguments for suffrage were various, depending on her audience and time period. But, Willard was one of the foremost proponents of the social benefit argument for suffrage - the idea that giving women the vote would make politics, government, and society dramatically better for everyone because of women's moral influence and uplift.

One of the key ways she did this was by formulating the case for what she called the “Home Protection Ballot.” In 1879, Willard called for a limited ballot for women that would include school officials and temperance referendums. Willard was a master strategist, and she knew that this argument would appeal to women, persuading them to support suffrage, and counter the anti-suffrage argument that the political sphere was inappropriate for women. Willard made women’s suffrage a popular cause with WCTU women and this support from the WCTU membership, many times larger than the national suffrage organizations, really carried the suffrage movement from the 19th into the 20th century.