Frances Willard on Christian Social Responsibility Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and its founder Frances Willard were key participants in the social reform movements that emerged after the Civil War. Although the issue of the abolition of slavery had been decided by the Civil War, there were many other social movements that emerged in the latter part of the nineteenth century. One of the more active and influential was the WCTU, which took on a variety of social causes and whose membership grew to over 100,000 under Willard’s leadership. As the name suggests, Christianity was a key tenet of the WCTU, and it was used as a basis to promote a range of social reforms. The WCTU also provided women a place in the public and political sphere, as opposed to being relegated solely to domestic duties. The address Willard made to the membership in 1890 was meant to reinforce the Christian foundation of WCTU’s social responsibility and humanitarian reform efforts.

Summary Overview

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and its founder Frances Willard were key participants in the social reform movements that emerged after the Civil War. Although the issue of the abolition of slavery had been decided by the Civil War, there were many other social movements that emerged in the latter part of the nineteenth century. One of the more active and influential was the WCTU, which took on a variety of social causes and whose membership grew to over 100,000 under Willard’s leadership. As the name suggests, Christianity was a key tenet of the WCTU, and it was used as a basis to promote a range of social reforms. The WCTU also provided women a place in the public and political sphere, as opposed to being relegated solely to domestic duties. The address Willard made to the membership in 1890 was meant to reinforce the Christian foundation of WCTU’s social responsibility and humanitarian reform efforts.

Defining Moment

Frances Willard and the organization she led, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), were in the forefront of the struggle for social reform in the post–Civil War era. Under Willard’s leadership, the temperance movement, which initially focused on banning alcohol and some drugs, also broadened its focus to include women’s rights, women’s suffrage, prison reform, an eight-hour work day, free school lunches, and the abolition of prostitution. Willard was aware of the moral boundaries of her time, and in order to appear nonthreatening, she advocated for change on the basis of a strong Christian message, which then created an appropriate platform for her to speak publicly, something that would otherwise have been viewed as improper during the time period. Women were expected to keep within the separate sphere of domestic issues and focus on the home and on child rearing, while men were granted the freedom move within public and political spheres. However, because alcohol had such destructive effects on the family as a whole, temperance was seen as a suitable issue on which women could speak out. Having secured a platform for this one issue, Willard was able to use her traditional values to bring forward other radical ideas for reform.

She emphasized in many of her speeches the conservative values of Christianity and of women’s moral superiority. In this way, the WCTU was not seen as a threat to the status quo of society and especially men’s leadership within it. One campaign that worked well for the WCTU was the “Home Protection” campaign, which promoted giving women over the age of twenty-one the vote in order to allow them a voice in prohibiting strong alcohol as a threat to the family unit and domestic life.

As a result of her leadership in the WCTU, Willard was one of the best-known women of her time. She appealed to both women and men by adapting conservative values to promote social reforms. Willard was well respected among such contemporaries as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She lost prominence in the eyes of later historians, however, and was virtually ignored by feminist scholars because of those strong conservative and Christian values. Many of her other, more progressive reform attempts were overshadowed by her leadership of a temperance movement. When prohibition ended in 1933, her reputation as a reformer faded along with the movement with which she was so closely associated.

Author Biography

Frances Elizabeth Willard was the leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) for almost twenty years, from 1879 until her death in 1898. During her leadership, she transformed the organization from a one-issue focus (the prohibition of alcohol) to a much broader social reform platform. She was born in 1839, and held a variety of teaching positions, eventually being named president of Evanston College for Ladies in 1871. Evanston was later absorbed by Northwestern University, where Willard became the first dean of women in 1873. During her tenure at the WCTU, she expanded its focus to include women’s rights and women’s right to vote, the moral reform of prostitutes, prison reform, and the kindergarten movement. At the time of her death, she was one of the best-known and most well-respected women of her time, with tens of thousands of mourners paying their respects in both New York and Chicago.

Document Analysis

Frances Willard gained prominence and a public profile by advocating social responsibility and humanitarianism while retaining a very conservative and Christian position that belied her activism and allowed for support of important social reforms. Views on women’s suffrage, women’s rights, prohibition, and education reform were thereby kept within a conventional and traditional societal view that was able to attract a wide group of people–both women and men–to her cause.

Her 1890 “Work Done for Humanity” speech to the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, an affiliated organization she founded, was designed around strong Christian themes. Notice in particular that, although her audience would have been composed primarily of women, she uses the masculine pronoun “he” throughout the speech to refer to people in general, which, although common usage at the time, also points to her conservative leanings.

Her message in this speech focuses on the concepts of social responsibility and humanitarianism and that people should come to the aid of their neighbors. She uses history to frame her messages and claims that all reform has been thought of by someone else in the past. She notes both “Greek philosophers and early Christian Fathers” in her speech as examples of this. Again, this helps portray her not as a radical, but as a student of history and one who can deliver a message that addresses the current structure of society. Her clever rhetorical strategy points out for the audience that if society only knew its own history, then the reforms to which she refers would not seem as foreign or innovative.

She describes the sense of communion with all humanity that comes from altruistic activity, such that a person who dedicates their life to helping others is “practically unconscious of a separate existence.” Willard then expands on this and creates a connection between “beneficent work” (good works) and a closer connection to God. She explains that each person’s soul should focus its work on only two things, “work for humanity and faith in God,” and by doing the one, the other will naturally be enhanced. She puts service to others as a higher calling than affection or love between people because, as she explains, such affection is not a foundation of one’s life, but is rather a “beautiful embellishment” or addition to it. In this way, Willard is attempting to sway her audience to join her in her efforts to make American society a better place for all concerned.

Essential Themes

Frances Willard’s view of social reform and communal social responsibility to make American society a better place resonates to modern times, and this period in American history can be seen as the genesis of the modern nonprofit sector. Today, the key tenets of humanitarianism are kept alive by myriad not-for-profit organizations that work to enhance and improve the quality of life around the globe. Many groups are still closely associated with Christian values and operate within church-based organizations. Others are independent of a connection to religion and are therefore free to advocate much more secular social reforms. Ironically, the social reform Willard was best known for–temperance–was ultimately a failed social experiment in the United States: the production and sale of alcohol was banned by constitutional amendment from 1920 to 1933, but the ban was widely flouted and ultimately repealed. As of the early twenty-first century, the WCTU and its global equivalent are still in operation, but they have lost the prominence that they once enjoyed.

Willard’s world view was clear: social reforms were necessary, and they needed to be achieved within a society strongly rooted in Christian values. Although Willard believed that women should remain in the traditional role of wife and mother in order for society to operate effectively, she herself never married or had any children. She spoke out on social reforms she felt would make women’s lives easier to bear, and she believed that all humanitarian reforms are closely connected to faith in God. By grounding one’s life in service to others, one could also find a closer relationship to God. This message is still being used by many Christian leaders in America, as many churches run considerable charitable and humanitarian activities. It is not, however, a message that resonates within a multicultural nation that guarantees freedom of religion to all of its citizens. As such, her message would not have been as universally accepted today as it was during her own time period.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bordin, Ruth. Frances Willard: A Biography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986. Print.
  • Gifford, Carolyn De Swarte, ed. Writing Out My Heart: Selections from the Journal of Frances E. Willard, 1855–96. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995. Print.
  • Gifford, Carolyn De Swarte, and Amy R. Slagell, eds. Let Something Good Be Said: Speeches and Writings of Frances E. Willard. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2007. Print.
  • Willard Frances E. How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle: Reflections of an Influential 19th Century Woman. Sunnyvale: Fair Oaks, 1991. Print.
Categories: History Content