Frances Willard: Armenia’s Angel on Capitol Hill

Marble statue of Frances Willard in National Statuary Hall, US Capitol (Photo: Architect of the Capitol)

Inside the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., each state is represented by a statue of its most honored citizen. While most of the 50 states have chosen men to represent them, it was Illinois, the land of Abraham Lincoln, which became the first state to select a woman. Her name is Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard

When she died in 1898, flags flew at half-mast in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Her body was transported by rail from New York to Chicago, pausing along the way for services like a presidential funeral train. In Chicago, tens of thousands of people passed by her casket in one day alone. Biographer Ruth Bordin wrote, “The nation mourned her with grief, admiration, and respect it would have bestowed on a great national hero or martyred president. No woman before or since was so clearly on the day of her death this country’s most honored woman.” The New York Independent wrote, “No woman’s name is better known in the English speaking world than that of Miss Willard, save that of England’s great queen.” Another declared that she was the most influential woman of the age and that her name would become more and more revered in ages to come.” Prominent British newspaper editor, W.T. Stead, went as far as calling her “the uncrowned Queen of American Democracy.” 

From 1879 until her death, Willard had been the president of the American Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). She encouraged the internationalization of the organization as the World’s WCTU, enabling it to become the largest women’s social reform organization in the world with chapters in 50 countries. Under her leadership, the WCTU encouraged members to engage in a variety of social reforms including women’s suffrage, temperance, labor rights and moral reform through lobbying, petitioning, preaching, publishing and education. Willard succeeded in raising the age of consent in many US states, as well as passing labor reforms including the eight-hour work day. In her commitment to social reform, in one year alone, she traveled over 30,000 miles visiting almost every state and territory in the US. According to a subordinate, within ten years, “she had left unvisited no town of 10,000 save six and but a few of 5,000”. She is recognized as having had a major influence on the adoption of universal suffrage by the first country in the world – New Zealand in 1892, and after her death, the 19th Amendment (Women’s Suffrage) of the US Constitution (1920). 

Portrait of Frances Willard

In the 1890s, news of the Ottoman Empire’s large-scale massacre of Armenians evoked a strong humanitarian response in the United States…especially among women. Along with many leading women’s suffragists such as Julia Ward Howe, Willard was deeply appalled by the tragedy. On January 13, 1896, she noted in her diary “Nothing in all my life – not even our Civil War has outraged my spirit like the fate of that martyr nation.” She made the Armenians a cause celebre for the WCTU because she considered them as representing the same ideals that her organization stood for: “the sanctity of home life, the faithful loyalty of one man to one woman” and they had done this, she said, “like no other nation on the face of the earth.” According to her British counterpart, Lady Isabel Somerset, Willard did not cease “with pen and voice” to plead for the Armenians and to warn the international community “of the terrible retribution that is sure to follow if this colossal crime against humanity” was “allowed to pass unatoned.”

The official organ of the WCTU, the Union Signal, argued that the “American spirit and example” had “stimulated the Armenian spirit of independence” which led to their repression. It was therefore an American “duty” to provide aid to the Armenians. Outraged by inaction of the western powers over the Armenian atrocities, Willard made a strong appeal to Americans “as a nation just, brave and generous” to mobilize their efforts to provide relief to the distressed Armenians and to assist in securing passage of resolutions of protest. Clergymen began to devote a Sunday for intercessions and collections for the starving Armenians. Many American media outlets rallied to the rescue. Businessmen and religious societies gave most generously, providing the president of the American Red Cross (ARC), Clara Barton, sufficient funds to head a humanitarian relief mission to the Armenian survivors of the massacres. It became the ARC’s first major foreign mission, giving rise to what Peter Balakian calls “the modern era of American international human rights relief.”

Willard’s political protests augmented and paralleled her humanitarian appeals. Under Willard’s guidance, the WCTU sent a strong petition to Congress in January 1896 which read in part: 

“We, the officers of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, representing a membership and following of not fewer than a million people, who believe that the protection of the home is the supreme duty of statesmen, do hereby most earnestly and solemnly beseech you to take such action as shall put our home-loving Republic on record as having used its moral and material influence for the relief of Armenia, the martyr nation, in the time of its supreme distress. We respectfully urge that our country should no longer remain a silent spectator of the agony and outrage inflicted … upon our brother and sister Christians, whose only fault is their devotion to Christ and their loyalty to a pure home … We beg you, therefore, as the legally constituted representatives of the wives and mothers of our nation, to give heed to our devoted prayer and aspiration that America may, through her highest legislative authorities, give expression to all the world of her abhorrence of the atrocities in Armenia, and may make an appropriation from the people’s money for the relief of our brothers and sisters who have been driven to the last extremity by the fatal fanaticism of the Sultan and his soldiers.”

Later that year, a cycling vacation to northern France by Willard and Lady Somerset was cut short at news that about 500 Armenian asylum seekers from the Constantinople Massacre in August had landed in the southern port city of Marseilles. The two women quickly made their way south to provide relief to the refugees. They found “the poor refugees, penned in an open barn by the local authorities,” and existing on the handouts of “a few cents each every day or two, with which to buy bread.” After quick negotiations, the women were able to procure part of an old charity hospital and set up a relief camp. Soon they moved on to the problem of relocating the refugees. About 200 of them were settled in France; Lady Somerset arranged for around 100 of them to be settled in England. Willard successfully settled the remaining 200 refugees in the United States with the generous support of WCTU members, many of whom became personally responsible for the refugees. The foundation of the Armenian community of Portland, Maine, can be traced to these refugees.

Willard scorned the male-dominated European statesmen for their lack of action in stopping the killings. In a chapter she penned for a book on the Armenian massacres edited by the Rev. Frederick Greene, Willard wrote: “An ancient nation is being slowly slaughtered at the foot of Mt. Ararat, fifty thousand victims stretched out under God’s sky in the slow cycle of a year; women, pure, devout and comely, suffering two deaths-a living and a dying death: little children poised on the bayonets of … soldiers, villages burned, and starvation the common lot. On the other hand, Christian Europe, with seven millions of soldiers who take their rations and their sacrament regularly … diplomatists who can ‘shape the whisper of a throne’ and shade the meaning of an Ultimatum; but neither statesmen, diplomat nor soldier has wit, wisdom or will to save a single life, shelter a single tortured baby, or supply a single loaf of bread to the starving Christians on the Armenian hillsides: ‘vested interests’ are against it, ‘the balance of power’ does not permit it, the will of the Sultan is the only will in the Ottoman Empire, and all the wills of all the Christian nations cannot move it one hair.” She urged readers to support Clara Barton’s humanitarian mission for it was a “greater power for God and Brotherhood than all the statesmen, diplomats and soldiers.”

“Our Armenians,” Anna Gordon, The beautiful life of Frances E. Willard: a memorial volume, Women’s Temperance Publishing Association, Chicago, 1898, p. 241.

The response to Willard’s humanitarian appeal was impressive. In 1897, the WCTU raised over $7300 (about $220,000 in today’s terms) for the Armenian Relief Association which was more than the contribution from any other single organization in the United States. The model of generosity and political activism by Americans in the 1890s – especially by women like Willard, was to be repeated during the World War I Armenian Genocide. The establishment of the American Committee of Armenian and Syrian Relief in 1915 later known as the Near East Relief (NER) mobilized a broad segment of the American people, including endorsements by Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. A national women’s committee of the NER was established and led by Mrs. Percy V. Pennybacker, the president of the American General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Many American women throughout the US mobilized to support the Armenian relief movement which included over 500 who volunteered to conduct relief work among the Armenian refugees and orphans scattered across Greece, Armenia and the Middle East. By 1930, the organization raised over $110 million (about $1.4 billion dollars in today’s terms) and helped rescue, house and feed over 500,000 survivors of the Armenian Genocide including some 130,000 orphans. It was an unsurpassed achievement, remarkable even by today’s standards, accomplished through the pioneering of philanthropic techniques that continue to be used today. 

In the epic PBS documentary series Prohibition produced by Ken Burns in 2011, historian Catherine Murdock spoke of Frances Willard as being “one of the great unsung heroes of American history.” There was a time Murdock said, “when every school child in America knew” Frances Willard. “She was that important to American history.” 

Sadly, despite her importance, many people have never heard of Frances Willard. On the other hand, her contemporaries, who were lesser lights during their lifetime – Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony – have immediate name recognition. As Willard’s statue continues to proudly stand at the home of the United States Congress on Capitol Hill, it’s time that her legacy is better remembered and honored by freedom loving peoples of the world – especially by Americans and Armenians.

Vicken Babkenian

Vicken Babkenian

Vicken Babkenian is an independent researcher for the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He is the co-author (with Professor Peter Stanley) of Armenia, Australia and the Great War (NewSouth Publishing 2016) - shortlisted for 2 major Australian history awards.
Vicken Babkenian

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  1. Thank you for this wonderful article. I have been in the WCTU nearly 60 years. The WCTU has made Frances Willard’s home a museum. It is located in Evanston, Ill. We look forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in 2020!

  2. Very interesting article! Unfortunately, I have never heard of this most humanitarian woman. I am so glad that it was brought to my attention.

  3. I knew about the founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, and I included her work in my award winning book “Ravished Paradise, Forced March to Nothingness.” I certainly will include her name in a further reprint of my book. I have five books about Clara Barton and only in two of them it is mentioned that she worked for the Armenians from Feb. 1896 to Aug. 1896 when she was at an old age. The three other books do not mention any work she has done in Turkey for the Armenians.
    I thank you for this wonderful article about a wonderful woman.

  4. It is unfortunate that Francis Willard’s actions in assisting survivors of the Hamidian and Constantinople massacres have gone unnoticed by the Armenian press; promulgation of such information would place the massacres into full historical perspective as a prelude to the Genocide. Our thanks to Vicken Babkenian for informing us about this noble woman.

  5. I can honestly say I had not heard of Frances Willard. Remarkable that her death sparked such a response, but she is now all but forgotten, not, obviously by the state of Illinois. Like the Armenian Genocide that just about shared equal billing with Anzac Day here in Australia for a couple of years around a century ago, she has been relegated to a footnote. Job well done, Vicken, for bringing her to light. I wonder is she was a confidante or President Wilson? My latest draft of ‘Angel of Aleppo’ has a scene featuring Wilson and Henry Morgenthau.

    • Thank you Jon

      I’m very confident Woodrow Wilson would have at least known about Frances Willard before she passed away in 1898. However, the Rev Loyal Lincoln Wirt, the international commissioner of the Near East Relief and a friend of President Wilson, had met Frances Willard and was inspired by her work … and all the best for your novel – Angel of Aleppo.

  6. I am a long time resident of Evanston and have heard much about Frances Willard. Yet this is the first I am hearing about her concern and tremendous amount of help for Armenian genocide victims. Thank you very much to Vicken Babkenian for giving me another reason to be proud to live in a city that has always been active politically and in humanitarian efforts. May women like Frances Willard be always remembered for their incredible deeds, especially during a time in history when few women were activists of this magnitude. Although generations divide us, I am proud of a fellow Evanstonian who did so much to help Armenians.

    • Thank you Koharig for your touching reply which means a great deal to me. There are so many stories of individual Americans who responded to the Hamidian Massacres and the Armenian Genocide that still need to be told. I had wanted to write this article for a long time because I knew that Willard’s efforts to help the Armenians had for some reason been forgotten. I’m glad that the Armenian Weekly was enthusiastic about this story and decided to publish it. It will be great of the Armenian American community pays an annual tribute to her memory.

  7. Amazing! Outstanding! Yes, on behalf of every Armenian I can say “Thank you Mr. Babkenian.”
    Just like Clara Burton, Leslie Davis, and many others who took part in saving Armenian lives, I want to engrave her name in my heart and spread the word so the public will be aware of her good deeds. What a beautiful human being and what a wonderful article indeed. This is history in the making. I read the whole article but I did not want it to finish. That is how good you enlightened me. Thank you and thank you.

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