Frances Willard: Address to the National Council of Women Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In February of 1891, social reformer and feminist Frances Willard, president of the National Council of Women of the United States, spoke at that organization’s first triennial meeting in Washington, DC. During her address to the group, she commented on the long-standing inferior position of women in American society, particularly in the realms of labor and politics. Citing the examples of international female leaders as well as the observations of prominent American thinkers, she expressed hope that women would one day be considered equal members of American society.

Summary Overview

In February of 1891, social reformer and feminist Frances Willard, president of the National Council of Women of the United States, spoke at that organization’s first triennial meeting in Washington, DC. During her address to the group, she commented on the long-standing inferior position of women in American society, particularly in the realms of labor and politics. Citing the examples of international female leaders as well as the observations of prominent American thinkers, she expressed hope that women would one day be considered equal members of American society.

Defining Moment

The temperance movement, an effort to halt alcohol consumption in the United States, began during the years before the Civil War. The war drew attention away from the movement, but many religious groups and reformers nevertheless sought to address the issue. During the late nineteenth century, the cause of temperance was taken up by women’s groups, who argued that alcohol posed a danger to American women and families.

In 1879, one such group, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), chose as its newest president Frances E. Willard, who had been involved in the temperance movement for much of her life. The WCTU had grown rapidly since its official formation in 1873, and by the time Willard assumed her position of leadership, the group had evolved into one of the United States’ leading temperance organizations.

Although the WCTU continued to focus primarily on temperance during her tenure as president, Willard saw an opportunity to build and expand the organization beyond the prohibition arena. She inspired the group’s members to develop an interest in a wide range of issues, including women’s suffrage. Willard also introduced a new phrase, home protection, as a driving force in encouraging women to take an interest in issues outside of the home as well as within it. Under the auspices of home protection, the WCTU began speaking out against such issues as prostitution and the spread of venereal disease. Willard was also interested in forming alliances with like-minded international reformers. The WCTU encouraged world leaders to fight alcoholism as well as consumption of addictive drugs such as opiates, and chapters of the WCTU came into being in countries around the world.

Back in the United States, Willard continued to gain supporters. She offered a different approach to achieving women’s suffrage than other activists: rather than calling for a constitutional amendment, which would require the support of the all-male Congress, Willard encouraged women to work at the local level to bolster support for suffrage. Willard also drew the public’s attention to a variety of labor and education issues.

In 1888, the National Council of Women (NCW) formed under the leadership of Willard and Susan B. Anthony, among other noted suffragists. Willard was named president of the organization that year. In February of 1891, the organization held its first meeting in Washington, DC.

Author Biography

Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard was born on September 28, 1839, in Churchville, New York. She and her parents moved to Oberlin, Ohio, when she was two years old, and later to Wisconsin. She attended Milwaukee Female College and North Western Female College. Willard began her career in education, but after traveling abroad for a time, she returned to become president of Evanston College for Ladies. In the early 1870s, she joined the WCTU’s Illinois chapter. Soon after, she became secretary of the national organization. Over time, she became the WCTU’s global leader as well as a prominent writer and public speaker. In 1888 she was named president of the NCW, a position she held for several years. She continued to lead the WCTU until February 18, 1898, when she died of influenza.

Document Analysis

Willard’s address to the NCW centers on the theme that women, long considered inferior in a male-dominated society, were starting to take an interest in being more influential in many key areas. The first of these areas was labor, which she underscores as an arena of high value to all members of modern society. The second area was politics, as issues such as hunger, child welfare, and housing were, in her estimation, being given attention thanks to the advocacy of women. Women, she explains, were increasingly playing a role in the leadership of other nations, and in the United States, they were starting to rise as well.

Willard begins this portion of her speech by highlighting the significance of labor to modern society. Labor, she says, is the “intelligent and beneficent reaction” of humanity to nature. In other words, when people went to work, they did so to ensure that they had food, shelter, and other critical amenities. There was a misperception, she explains, that only certain people were qualified to perform the most important duties in society; she characterizes this belief, that rich white men were the only people whose contributions to society were vital, as a “devil’s delusion.” In reality, poor, nonwhite, and female Americans also had an important stake in the success of society.

Women in particular, Willard notes, were, in the late nineteenth century, positioning themselves to be valuable members of the American labor force. However, women continued to receive far less pay for their work, and despite the support of some progressive men, this inequality remained in place. Willard supports her comments with statistics and the words of a number of key figures, including socialist and utopian Edward Bellamy, whom she quotes as having said, “This is a hard world for girls.” Bellamy predicted that by the year 2000, the notion that women were inferior to men in the workplace would be history, as women would be far more independent and dignified.

Willard also commented on woman’s increasing relevance in government and politics. To be sure, she notes, some of the most pressing issues facing the United States during its ongoing industrialization–the need for food, housing, and fuel, for example–were issues brought to light by women. However, women should not be treated in a political sense as a single interest group or “tribe,” as she puts it. Rather, American women were starting to show individual leadership on those and other issues. Although the United States lagged far behind other nations with women in leadership positions, such as England, Spain, and Holland, Willard argues that the tide in the United States was slowly starting to turn toward female political leadership.

Essential Themes

Although Willard was particularly concerned with the effects of alcohol on American society, she was also interested in a wide range of other issues, including women’s suffrage and labor equality. Her address delivered at the NCW’s first major conference illustrated her thoughts on these issues.

With regard to labor, Willard acknowledged two important facts: first, that labor was an absolutely essential component of modern society, and second, that labor should be considered as a broad spectrum. The work of wealthy white men, she argued, should be considered as but a part of this spectrum, and the labor performed by women, minorities, and the poor should be valued equally. Women were woefully underpaid and relegated to more menial jobs than men, but although this trend had long held true throughout American history, Willard expressed optimism at the fact that a growing group of progressive-minded leaders and thinkers advocated for a change in course.

Connected to what Willard saw as a rise of women’s influence in labor was the fact that women were increasingly positioning themselves as influential in American politics, even though suffrage was not yet a reality. Women, Willard noted, had become the chief advocates for a wide range of key issues facing the nineteenth-century American economy. Children’s welfare, housing, food, and energy, all major matters facing both state and federal governments, were issues of great familiarity to women, whose long-standing position as homemakers made them direct witnesses to these political matters. Willard believed that women’s expertise would be of great benefit in addressing those domestic issues.

To be sure, Willard argued, American women had a long way to go. While contemporary queens, princesses, and other female leaders held considerable authority and influence in their respective nations, American women remained at a political and economic disadvantage in comparison to men. Nevertheless, she said, the presence of those female leaders, as well as the slow changes in the status of women in the United States, provided a great deal of encouragement where there had previously been little.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Fletcher, Holly Berkley. Gender and the American Temperance Movement of the Nineteenth Century. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.
  • “Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard (1839–1898).” National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
  • Gusfield, Joseph R. Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1986. Print.
  • Satter, Beryl. Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement, 1875–1920. Berkeley: U of California P, 2001. Print.
  • Willard, Frances E. Let Something Good Be Said: Speeches and Writings of Frances E. Willard. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 2007. Print.
Categories: History Content