I’ve recently started volunteering at the Frances Willard House Museum, specifically in the archives/library, which holds material from and related to the life of Frances Willard, the suffragist and temperance advocate who led the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in the late nineteenth century. I got to see the museum’s recent exhibit, titled “Rights or Responsibilities? The WCTU and Woman Suffrage in Illinois”, which documents the development of the women’s suffrage movement in Illinois and the many players involved.

The exhibit spotlights an occurrence, documented in Willard’s journal, that she said helped to “stir up my spirit into a mighty unrest.” It’s 1856 and Willard, who was 17 at the time, along with her sister saw her brother and father off to vote while they had to stay at home:

This is election day and my brother is twenty-one years old. How proud he seemed as he dressed up in his best Sunday clothes and drove off in the big wagon with father and the hired men to vote for John C. Fremont, like the sensible “Free-soiler” that he is. My sister and I stood at the window and looked out after them. Somehow, I felt a lump in my throat, and then I could n’t see their wagon any more, things got so blurred. I turned to Mary, and she, dear little innocent, seemed wonderfully sober, too. I said, “Would n’t you like to vote as well as Oliver? Don’t you and I love the country just as well as he, and does n’t the country need our ballots?” Then she looked scared, but answered in a minute, “‘Course we do, and ‘course we ought,—but don’t you go ahead and say so, for then we would be called strong-minded.”

Willard did say so. She made saying so her life, which ended in 1898, before the women’s suffrage movement hit its crescendo but not before she had made an indelible impact on it. In addition to the Frances Willard House becoming a National Historic Landmark, she was posthumously honored as the first woman to be represented in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.

Amazing what you can learn from museums (and archives and libraries), huh?