If your Chicago Ave. 1730, you might still see a small Victorian cottage with a sweet little garden and tchotchkes on the shelves, says Lori Osborne, museum director of the Frances Willard House.
But the house’s tranquil appearance can be deceiving – from the early 1800s to the 20th century, the building also served as a busy women’s workspace, housing the headquarters of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union – the largest women’s organization in the world. from 1890.
Frances Willard, whose family built the house, was the second president of the WCTU in 1879, just five years after its founding. She lived in the house with her mother.
Osborne said Willard reached leadership because her vision was broad: “She says, we’re not just about temperance, we’re about women’s rights. We deal with all the problems that cause people to drink. … If you have poverty, if you have bad working conditions, if you have all these problems that lower your quality of life, what do you do? [men] to do? They go to the saloon.”
August 26 is Women’s Equality Day – the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women’s suffrage, was certified 102 years ago to this date. In honor of Willard’s work, the Frances Willard House Museum hosted special voting-themed tours on Thursday, August 25 and Sunday, August 28.
Almost everything in the house is still as it was when Willard died in 1898. During the Thursday afternoon 1pm tour, the museum director painted a vivid picture of what the house looked like before it was converted into a museum in 1900.
Francis Willard and her sister Mary moved to Evanston in 1858 to attend a small women’s college, and her parents, Josiah Willard and Mary Thompson, followed her. The family was Methodist, and a Methodist college (Northwestern) is just down the road. Not only that, Osborne added, but the family was also interested in the temperance and women’s rights reform movements that started in Evanston.
In one of the common areas on the first floor is a collection of furniture that doesn’t exactly match because the family didn’t have much money when they came – but there is also a library. “Books are very expensive in those days. And they’re one of the most important assets they have,” Osborne said.
After the girls graduate from school, Frances’ sister, Mary, dies. A few years later, the family built its second home in Evanston in 1730 Chicago on land they leased from Northwestern. After two years in the new house, Willard’s father also falls ill. For the actual life of the house, from 1865 to 1898, the house has been owned by Willard and her mother, who live together.
Osborne said diary entries reveal that the sudden loss of her sister and father mobilized Willard to commit to “making a difference” as her life’s work.
She becomes a traveling teacher and soon to be the first women’s dean at Northwestern University. Her income and tenure are used to maintain and eventually upgrade the house, adding things like electricity over the years. In time, she leaves university and devotes herself fully to her organizing work.
Willard saw the WCTU as a way to encourage everyday women who are harmed by the abuses in society, such as alcohol, to mobilize for change. Her efforts paved the way for the passing of the 19th Amendment after Willard’s death.
In the 19th century, women did not often go into public social spaces unless accompanied by a man. The inside of the Frances Willard House shows how the female residents used it. The house was a multifunctional space, where each room could be used simultaneously by different groups for work, care, comfort and enrichment of the mind.
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 highly public conflict between the two activists through newspaper clippings and more.
“One of the things we’re doing in this country today is kind of re-evaluating these historical figures…to rethink how we might remember them and how we honor them,” said the museum director.
Three more voting-themed tours are available for Evanston residents on Sunday, August 28 at 1, 2 and 3 pm
Tours are available by reservation only and can be requested by emailing [email protected] or calling (847) 328-7500. Tour cost is $15 per person. Admission is free for students of all levels. Payment must be made online or by phone once the day and time of the tour is confirmed.