Frances Willard was born in 1839 in Churchville, New York. The Willard family moved to Evanston, Illinois, in 1858 where Frances attended the North Western Female College. Frances went on to hold teaching positions after her graduation from college and was appointed president of Evanston College for Ladies in 1871. Following this in 1873 she became the first Dean of Women when Evanston College for Ladies merged with Northwestern University.
In 1874, Willard became involved in the women’s temperance movement and participated in the founding convention of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) where she was elected the first Corresponding Secretary. In 1879 she became President of the National WCTU, a post she held until her death.
The Polyglot Petition was established by Frances in 1884 as a request to world leaders to take a stand against the alcohol traffic and opium trade. World WCTU missionaries gathered the signatures of nearly eight million men and women from more than fifty countries. These signed petitions were mounted onto cloth and the rolls were displayed at early WWCTU Conventions
The WCTU’s campaigns included women’s suffrage and social and educational reforms. She travelled many miles around the country giving lectures, also visiting the UK on a number of occasions to visit her friend and counterpart, Lady Henry Somerset, President of the British Women’s Temperance Association. Lady Henry had first met Frances when she had travelled to America in 1891 and they established close links between both organisations. Frances also founded and presided over the World Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU) and Lady Henry was vice-president. Lady Henry’s friendship with Frances led to some accusations that they were trying to Americanise the British society, or that the world union was being prioritised over the BWTA.
Frances attracted criticism that spread to involve Lady Henry and the BWTA. In the US, Frances had clashed with a suffragist, civil rights and anti-lynching campaigner named Ida B. Wells. Wells looked to Britain for support in her battle. It wasn’t uncommon for anti-lynching and civil rights activists to visit Britain to amass public support for their work. A British anti-segregation society and newspaper called Fraternity took up the cause in 1894 and 1895. Their articles about the Willard and Wells controversy stirred national interest. Florence Balgarnie was involved with both the NBWTA and Fraternity. Florence increasingly put pressure on the BWTA to condemn lynching and segregation and while Frances was staying with Lady Henry, they both publically condemned lynching at a meeting and spoke in favour of more equality.
After suffering from ill-health and then contracting influenza, Frances died in her sleep in New York City in February 1898. She bequeathed her Evanston home to the WCTU and Frances Willard House was opened as a museum in 1900 when it also became the headquarters for the WCTU.
Lady Henry Somerset went on to preside over the WWCTU from 1900 to 1905.