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–by Allie Swislocki

Take a second to look around National Statuary Hall during your Capitol tour, and you may see a sea of 35 unfamiliar faces. Pieces from the National Statuary Hall Collection, a display that features 100 statues—two from each state—can be seen in every corner of the Capitol building, but it’s in National Statuary Hall (or the Old House Chamber) that the oldest, and often most obscure, works can be found. States choose the subjects of their statues, the only requirement being that the person featured is deceased. When the collection was created in 1864, equal representation of women and minorities was not an issue in the foreground of those selecting subjects for statues.

One woman did make the cut, however. Frances Willard, the only female statue to be displayed in National Statuary Hall and the first woman included in the collection, was an educational reformer and a powerful force for social change, but the chances you’ve ever heard her name are slim. She is, however, frequently called the mother of grassroots organizing, and was instrumental in the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, ushering in the era of prohibition.

Statue of Frances Willard in National Statuary Hall

Willard began her career in women’s education. Born on September 28, 1839 in New York, she eventually settled in Illinois. She attended the Female College of Milwaukee for one year, but finished her degree at the Woman’s College of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Following her career as a student, she taught at the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary from 1866-1867. She returned to Evanston to serve as president of the College for Women from 1871-1874.

In the decades to come, Willard would gain a reputation as a powerful force for social change. She became involved in the evangelist movement of the era and was eventually elected president of the National Women’s Temperance Union in 1879, the driving force behind the temperance movement. In 1882, she organized the Prohibition Party and was elected president of the National Council of Women. In 1883, she founded and presided over the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

While Willard did not live to see Prohibition—she passed away on February 18, 1898—her work, her passion, was instrumental in the passage of the 18th amendment. Alcohol was outlawed (although made legal again in 1933) in the United States because of the strength of the temperance movement in America, a movement predominantly supported by women. And Frances Willard, in her roles of leadership in so many important organizations, was a pillar of strength herself.

In 1899, the state of Illinois appropriated $9,000 for the creation of a statue memorializing Willard, still during the height of the political stances that she had been so passionate about; temperance and Christianity were hot political topics. The artist selected for the project was also a woman: Helen Farnsworth Mears. While Illinois’s choice to select the first-ever female subject for the National Statuary Hall Collection may appear forward-thinking, in reality the choice reflects many sentiments of the time—she was hailed as the state’s “uncrowned queen of purity and temperance” who was “devoted to the spiritual welfare of mankind” and whose “gentleness, tact, and self-sacrificing spirit calmed every storm that arose in the councils that were graced and blessed by her presence.” (Statue of Miss Frances E. Willard: Proceedings in the Senate and House of Representatives on the Occasion of the Reception and Acceptance of the Statue from the State of Illinois, pp 60-61) In short, while she was a powerful force for political change, Willard’s most lasting personal accolades still belong to the category of idealized motherhood and wifedom that colored the late nineteenth century.

Sources consulted:
Architect of the Capitol (Willard entry)

For more on the National Statuary Hall Collection, visit the Architect of the Capitol’s website.