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Significant but underexplored role

I just received a heads-up from the National Women's History Alliance about a virtual conversation on the significant but underexplored role of Black women in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) at 4 p.m. (CST) on Feb. 26 at the Frances Willard House and Museum. Here is the link to register for this free virtual event, and/or explore the informative website about the WCTU.

First image R-L: Amanda Berry Smith, a Methodist preacher and former slave who founded orphanages and homes for African American children; Lucy Thurman, a founding member of the WCTU and a president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs; Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, abolitionist, suffragist, teacher, author; Sarah Early, who oversaw Black women's WCTU's activities in the South; Rosetta Lawson, an educator, reformer, and a co-founder of Frelinghuysen University, where she taught anatomy and physiology. This is just a snapshot of these women’s activism in a wide range of social reform movements, spanning education to anti-lynching.

I included the first two stanzas of a poem, “The Slave Auction,” by Frances Ellen Watkins

Harper (third from left in the first image) in my book Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America: Born free in 1825, Harper grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. She wrote the poem after witnessing a slave auction:

The sale began—young girls were there,

Defenceless in their wretchedness,

Whose stifled sobs of deep despair

Revealed their anguish and distress.

And mother stood with streaming eyes,

And saw their dearest childcare sold;

Unheeded rose their bitter cries,

While tyrants battered them for gold.

Founded in 1874, in response to rampant abuse of alcohol that wreaked havoc on families, the WCTU’s stated purpose was to create a “sober and pure world” by abstinence, purity and evangelical Christianity. As president from 1879 until her untimely death in 1898, Frances Willard, whose philosophy was “Do Everything,” successfully broadened the WCTU’s mission, embracing many social reform movements, including woman suffrage, public health, education, working conditions, international peace. In 1883, she founded the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. By the 1890s, the WCTU was the largest organization of women and Frances Willard was considered one of the most famous women in the world. (Numerous children were named after her.) The WCTU was a unique and invaluable arena in which women gained political and leadership experience, skills, support, and confidence. Over half of the suffragists in New Zealand, the first country in the world to enfranchise women, were members of the New Zealand WCTU. In August 2023 the WCTU will hold its 150th National Convention. The theme is “Preserving the Past and Transforming the Future.”

I have visited several landmarks to Frances Willard, including a statue, the first of a woman, in the United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection. Installed in 1905,

the marble statue was sculpted by Helen Farnsworth Mears. (Today of the 100 statues in the collection, two from each state, only eleven represent women.)

Frances Willard also appears in my book Girls: A History of Growing up Female in America. In the first chapter, “It’s a Girl!: Understanding Gender”: I quoted an entry in her diary from 1856: “Mother insists that at last I must have my hair ‘done up woman-fashion.’ She says she can hardly forgive herself for letting me ‘run wild’ so long. We’ve had a great time over it all . . . . My ‘back’ hair is twisted up like a corkscrew: I carry eighteen hair-pins; my head aches miserably; my feet are entangled in the skirt of my hateful new gown. I can never jump over a fence again, so long as I live. As for chasing the sheep, down the shady pasture, it’s out of the question.” In a later chapter, “New Opportunities: Girls in the Late Nineteenth Century,” I wrote more about Frances Willard (1839-1898), including how she decided to learn how to ride the latest rage in America—the bicycle. She named her bicycle "Gladys" because of the "gladdening effect of its acquaintance and use on my health.” (Images: Marker in Philadelphia; Statue representing Frances Willard; cover of How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle: Reflections of an influential 19th century women; article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 19, 1898, p. 5.

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