In the Interest of the Human Race

Statuary Hall in the U.S Capitol Building in Washington honors some of the most historic figures in American history. Created in 1864 out of the chamber which had previously been home to the House of Representatives, Statuary Hall was conceived as a place where each state could place two statues honoring their heroes. As more states were admitted to the union, more statues were dedicated: Hawaii’s King Kamehameha, Alabama’s Helen Keller and Massachusetts’ Daniel Webster are among the 100 statues which now stand throughout the Capitol.

But in 1905, Illinois made a bit of history itself, when it became the first state in the nation to honor a woman with one of its two statues in the Capitol. The hero chosen by the state of Illinois was a social reformer, temperance advocate and suffragist named Frances Willard.

Born in New York and raised in Ohio and then Wisconsin, Frances Elizabeth Catherine Willard came to Illinois to attend the Northwestern Female College in Evanston. She graduated in 1859 and started a career in teaching at Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, New York. But her heart remained close to her alma mater, and in 1869 she returned to Illinois as one of the co-founders of the Evanston College for Ladies. She eventually became the school’s President. Within a few years, she had presided over the merger with the Northwestern Female College, and then Northwestern University, where she became the first Dean of the Woman’s College.

Willard joined the burgeoning temperance movement in 1874. The movement fought to improve society on a number of fronts, most famously its drive against alcohol, but also through missionary work and women’s suffrage. The most prominent of the temperance groups was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which Willard joined that year, quickly becoming head of its Chicago chapter. The WCTU sought to create a “sober and pure world,” and its founding document advocated, “the entire prohibition of the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors as a beverage.”

Willard’s accomplishments in Illinois and her skill as a speaker made her an easy choice for the organization’s secretary at its first national convention in Cleveland in 1874. She threw herself into her work, taking on a mammoth, seven-week, 30,000-mile speaking tour of the nation (another such tour in 1883 would take her to every state). In this role, she became a leading voice in the WCTU’s newspaper, The Union Signal. She joined with other female journalists in the state in 1885 to found the Illinois Woman’s Press Association. She did not accept a salary for her work.

Meanwhile, Willard kept up her work with the WCTU, and in 1879 was named the organization’s new President. She would lead the WCTU for the rest of her life. She sought to broaden the WCTU’s advocacy into other areas, such as the anti-lynching movement and opposing tobacco use and prostitution, as well as working for better sanitation and labor reforms like the eight-hour work day. “Do Everything,” was Willard’s simple motto.

The WCTU became involved in the suffrage movement as it won its first victories in the late 19th Century. Willard found the temperance and suffrage movements to be inextricably linked. She saw the extension of voting rights as a way to protect women from the perils of alcohol and the violence often committed by men under its influence. She called it a matter of “home protection.” By casting the movement in this light she offered a different perspective than that found in most of the press of the time, which characterized the suffragists as dangerous radicals.

“There is such a power in the influence of women as, if it were exerted right, would shake the kingdom to the center,” she once said.

In 1879 she pushed the Illinois General Assembly to take up legislation granting women the right to vote on questions having to do with liquor. As part of her effort, she presented legislators with a “Home Protection” petition signed by over 100,000 Illinoisans. The effort was not successful, but Willard was not discouraged. She founded a “Home Protection Party,” with temperance and prohibition as its objective, and even tried to merge it into the national Prohibition Party in the 1880s. She urged women to get involved in politics in whatever way they could, including petition drives and making speeches.

Willard did not confine her activities to the United States. In the 1880s, she helped spearhead an international temperance movement through the International Council of Women. By 1891, she was a leader in this worldwide movement as well, having been elected President of the World’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In the later years of her life Willard would make her home in London, in those days the financial and diplomatic capital of the world.

She returned to the United States in declining health and died in New York on February 18, 1898. Her funeral was held in New York, before her body was returned to Illinois to be buried in Chicago’s Rose Hill Cemetery. A wake at the WCTU headquarters in Chicago drew more than 20,000 mourners. In her will her house on Chicago Avenue in Evanston was granted to the WCTU, which made it their national headquarters. It remains today as a museum and a National Historic Landmark.

The Center for Women’s History and Leadership has compiled a list of sites throughout the nation named in Frances Willard’s honor, including more than a dozen schools and buildings from one end of Illinois to the other.

The nation’s most prominent of these tributes is her statue in the U.S. Capitol in Washington. A year after Willard’s death, in February 1899, state legislators appropriated $9000 for her Capitol statue. The resolution from the General Assembly recalls Willard as, “illustrious for historic renown and distinguished for civic service in Europe and America in a new unexplored field of Christian endeavor, the effect of whose efforts and achievements and the influence of whose spotless life and sublime example has been so marked that the world has wondered and admired the author, organizer and advocate of purity and temperance, Illinois’ most illustrious deceased citizen, Frances E. Willard, the uncrowned queen of purity and temperance.”

The statue was sculpted by Helen Farnsworth Mears, who had worked with Lorado Taft in creating sculptures for Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. It depicts the social reformer in a familiar pose: beside a speaker’s podium, with a manuscript in her hand.

On February 17, 1905, Senator Shelby Cullom took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to begin the ceremony signifying Congress’ formal acceptance of the statue. He started by noting the historic nature of the occasion.

“The Senate has frequently suspended its ordinary business to pay tribute to the memory of eminent statesmen who have passed away,” the senior Senator from Illinois said. “For the first time in the history of the Senate, a day has been set apart that we may talk of a woman.”

Cullom listed the many great heroes of Illinois history: Lincoln, Grant, Logan and others, then continued, “yet, with so large a number of splendid men from whom to make a selection, the State of Illinois selected a woman thus so signally to honor.”

Willard was, “known to the world for her devotion to the cause of temperance and for her efforts in the interest of the human race,” Cullom said. “Beginning in poverty, struggling with adverse conditions, with courage and faith in the right, she overcame all obstacles in her pathway, and became one of the foremost women of her time.”

He concluded his remarks, “the world has been better because Frances E. Willard lived. She devoted her life unselfishly to the cause of humanity, and she brought sobriety into the homes of untold thousands; and at her death she left an organization that has been and will continue to be a potent factor for good in the world. The State of Illinois, in presenting the statue to the United States, to be placed in Statuary Hall among the figures of the greatest men that have lived in the United States, has honored itself, has justly honored a great woman, and has paid a tribute to all American womanhood.”