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The Greatest American Woman

Miss Frances E. Willard's Last Autobiographical Interview.

Her account of her methods of work and daily life. Her interpretation of the gospel messages.


Frances E. Willard

'Two years ago, I secured a romantic "dying interview" with Miss Willard in a Pullman car of the "Lake Shore Limited" as it sped eastward from Chicago. The world­famous reformer was just starting on her journey to England to spend fifteen months at the home of Lady Henry Somerset. Never shall I forget that wonderful interview! Miss Willard was in a jubilant mood. Whether her exhilaration was due to the moving train, to the prospect of a long rest, or to the anticipation of meeting once more her bosom friend, Lady Henry Somerset, I know not, but certain it is that Miss Willard spoke like one inspired. As I sat in the seat beside her, I became permeated by the exaltation of her spirit, and knew that I was in the presence of one of the master­minds of the world's history. As we flew along, past field and village, and I gazed at her face aglow with an indescribable spiritual radiance, I felt as if I was being transported through come fairyland in an enchanted car beside a genie of Wisdom and Love. That interview was my most thrilling journalistic experience.

During Miss WiIIard's recent stay of two months in Chicago, previous to her departure for New York, she was entertained at the beautiful home of her cousin, Mrs. Lemmon, on Jackson Boulevard. Miss Gordon, for more than twenty years her constant companion, of course accompanied her. Miss Willard was very, very tired. She had been suffering from severe anemia for more than a year, and her extra exertions at the Buffalo Convention of the W. C. T. U. had well­nigh prostrated her.

Miss Willard tried to rest. Miss Gordon and Mrs. Lemmon acted as her "right and left guards" in shielding her from unnecessary intrusion. But rest for a person in her position was impossible. Daily there were scores of letters to be answered; sometimes scores of callers game. Hardly a week passed that she as not compelled to expend precious energy by speaking in public.

One bright morning last December I sent up my card to the heroic leader. I was entirely unaware of the extent of her ill health. She appeared straightway with her rarely sweet smile, and gave me a hearty welcome.

She recalled with delight our "flying interview." I was astonished and saddened to note the transformation that had taken place in her appearance since our last meeting. She seemed five years older, instead of two. Her step was less buoyant, her movements were less energetic. Her hair, however, was more beautiful than formerly. It was a soft, fluffy, hazel brown, that formed a fitting crown for a face suffused with the light of divine­human love. Once more I felt the irresistible spell of her magnetic personality. When I informed her that I desired, if convenient, am interview on "What the Twentieth Century Will Bring," or "A Prophetess' Vision of the Future," she consented, and laughingly suggested that I again accompany her on the cars for a distance, when she departed for New York a few days later. I readily agreed, and departed, after a delightful personal chat with her who has been well called the best woman conversationalist of the day.

In the meantime, various events arose, upsetting the proposed plan. Miss Wil1ard prolonged her stay in Chicago until after the holidays. She seemed bent on visiting all her old friends in Evanston. She addressed the students of Northwestern and Chicago Universities. Finally, she paid a brief visit to Janesville, Wis., and drove out to "Forest Home," the beautiful farm on which her happy, noting girlhood was spent. I am now informed that she felt it was her final pilgrimage to the scenes and friends of former years. On her re turn to Chicago, Miss Willard was worn and weary. Work was abandoned in so far as it was possible, and she endeavored to recuperate before leaving for New York. She gladly welcomed a change in the subject of our interview, by which she would recount her methods of work and narrate some of her experiences, instead of expressing her views on the coming age.

One evening in the early part of January, I called and found the public woman I most admired, daintily gowned and seated before a cheery grate fire in the beautiful drawing room of her hostess, Mrs. Lemmon. With matchless sympathy and friendliness the great leader opened her heart and talked with me as to a brother for more than an hour. Her words express her final verdict concerning some of the deepest mysteries of life. They are the result of probably as varied experience and wide knowledge of books and people as has fallen to the lot of a woman during the history of the world.

Miss Willard was one of the hardest workers of the age. She accomplished an amount of work each day that appears miraculous to the uninitiated, End marvelous to her associates. Though frail in body, she was capable of an endurance of fatigue that demonstrated the supremacy of mind over matter. Her stupendous achievements during the last twenty­five years are well known, and might be called one of the wonders of the modern world. In view of these things, I asked the Reformer regarding her love for work, and her working ways.

Young Frances E. Willard

"The amount of mental concentration dictation involves is not reported or conceived of by those not engaged in it. Today, a memorial must be written to the authorities of every college in the United States, showing with tact and an attempt at least at sweet reasonableness why the territory adjacent to a college ought to be under prohibition. Tomorrow, a memorial to the authorities of the National Library at Washington, showing why intoxicating liquors as a beverage should not be sold in the library restaurant. The next day a form of statute must be carefully prepared, in consultation with the best legal minds, and sent out to the state W. C. T. U. presidents, urging that it be taken as a basis for the winter's legislative work.

"Editorials and other articles must be written for the press, clearing up misunderstandings concerning leading workers and the new departments to which they feel called-sometimes with inconvenient frequency. Paragraphs that enshrine cogent fact and argument must be prepared by the tens of thousands. Sketches of workers of which there are thousands, must be written up in sympathetic and intelligent characterization. Letters must be read and replied to by thousand upon thousand. The man who wishes to name his new brand of sausages after me must be shown reasons why doing this would probably injure the sale. The man who inquires about the advisability of giving his own name to his patent carpet sweeper must be assured of the propriety of the action. The encyclopedia editor who wishes sketches of living leaders, must be supplied with data. The little boy who sends ten cents to the Temple Fund, must not fail to receive a personal reply. The young worker who wishes facts for projected speech, must be informed with the kind consideration that becomes a veteran dealing with a new recruit. The physician who offers an article on heredity, must be thanked. The criticism of some department of our work by a leading editor, must be carefully replied to. The perennially present epistle stating 'that above all things I should like to become your secretary,' must be gently handed down the steep with the intimation that a ladder is to be climbed one rung at a time and that per saltum is not a method in vogue among white ribboners."

Pictured are Lady Henry Somerset on the left, Mrs. Carse in the center, and Frances E.Willard on the right.

Then with a sudden smile, Miss Willard said: "If I were to continue this method of description for some days, it would grow wearisome to you and irksome to me, but it would not even skirmish the frontier of what is meant by eight hours of dictation daily.

"In addition there are speeches to be written and delivered in the evening after a full day's work. There are endless invitations to write for the daily and weekly press. Oh, how I envy the great vistas of influence these open. We are working in a cause whose magic keyword is influence, and when newspapers or periodicals having a circulation of twenty­five to two hundred thousand urge you to send them articles on subjects intimately connected with your life work, it is almost more than human nature can endure to consent to lose the opportunities."

"How many hours of sleep do you find' it necessary to secure?" I asked.

"I generally sleep eight hours; never less than seven."

"I recall the fact that you are not a hearty eater."

"No. I have always been a most pitiful feeder. In that regard I am like my parents before me who appeared to live large1y on air. Lady Henry Somerset used to say playfully: 'You always peck away like a bird that has got the wrong seed.' But for the fact that my power of assimilation has been well­nigh perfect, I could not have lived half as long as I have. I have cared very little about food, indeed, very little about anything," she said with one of her rare smiles, "except 'the matter in hand.'"


I then asked Miss Willard how much exercise she found necessary to keep her bodily machinery in working order for the production of her tremendous tasks.

In answer, she made the remarkable statements and confessions which follow:

"I have been altogether too negligent in respect to exercise. When a girl I was very outdoorsy. I did whatever my brother did. Probably it was the energy stored up during my twelve years on the farm in Wisconsin that gave me my leverage. The simple habits, the reasonable dress almost wholly of flannel, the quiet, moderate manner of life, were wonderfully invigorating. But from the time I went away to college at eighteen years of age, I am sorry to say that I practically ceased to exercise. Then in the years that followed, under the depressing influence of car air, carriage air, audience air, and house air, I gradually succumbed. I learned the bicycle as a matter of solemn duty to try to exercise because I felt a physical lethargy. Though I have been so careless in this respect I have never had a pain in the head. My mind has been perfectly clear and perfectly equal to its duties. I think these remarkable qualities were inherited. So far as I can learn not one of ancestors for a couple of centuries back was a user of liquor or tobacco, or one who kept untimely hours. All were church members on both sides as far back as I have ever heard. I think my unusual good fortune comes from a storing up of conserved energy by Godly ancestors. These good people lived and behaved themselves before I ever saw the light. I think it is the American Church and school and home that nurtured and cherished a little wayfarer from worlds unknown, and helped her through when she worked too hard.

"1 further believe that if with such a send off I had been true to God's laws of differentiation in the occupations of each day; if I had lived much under the canopy of heaven and not in stuffy rooms; if I had remembered that nothing helps the world so much as a well­ordered individual life; that it matters little after all what we do, but is of infinite importance what we are; I should have rounded out the purpose of my heavenly father as I cannot now hope to.''

"What have been the chief sources of recreation and amusement throughout your life'?" I asked.

"In youth, I enjoyed intensely the outdoor sports both of the boys and girls. When traveling abroad I delighted in the constant movement, in the variety of studies I undertook, in writing articles. I had a great fondness for music, picture galleries and architecture, but I enjoyed most of all the changing face of Nature and of man. As an educator, books were my delight. They seemed to include all that I needed by way of recreation. As a reformer, it was my wont to travel anywhere from ten to thirty thousand miles a year. During these journeys it has been my custom to visit places of interest, and famous institutions, when doing so did not keep me from my duties."

"Miss Willard, the theater wields a mighty power today, and it is mainly evil in its influence. Do you think this great institution will ever become a force making for righteousness?"

"Reared in a Puritan home, I have never been inside a theater a dozen times in all my life; but the other day I went to see 'The Sign of the Cross,' for I was told by those in whom I had the utmost confidence, that the play was a succession of scenes illustrating the sufferings of the early Christians under the tyrant Nero, and that no sermon could uplift the heart toward truer loyalty to Him who gave Himself for us. Believing as I do that my life has missed much by being shut out from the dramatic representations of the great scenes of history and life, and holding as I do that we Christians ought to discriminate between good and bad dramas, I went to see 'The Sign of the Cross;' and I frankly own it was to me a revelation of what the theatre might do to help humanity to the heights of purity and holiness. I could think of nothing but the Christians in Armenia, as scene after scene passed before us, full of that same utter devotion to Christ that they have sealed with their blood in this modern age, that was to witness, according to the prophecies of unbelievers, the downfall of Christianity; and as these devoted men, these saintly women, heroic youth and maidens with their heavenly faces, passed before us, I saw them often through my tears, and I never felt in my life such tender rejoicing to think that I, too, am a Christian and have been since the sweet years of my youth. I remembered the evening when in the old church at home I heard the invitation for those who would confess Christ to come forward and kneel at the altar; and if I ever thanked God for giving me courage to do so, it was in that theatre, as I remembered how I went straight to that altar without looking to the right or left, and though trembling so that I could feel my heart beat as I went forward, I was saying to myself, 'He that confesseth me before men, him will I confess before my Father and the holy angels.'

"The drama that can rejoice a human heart and renew its purpose, and vow still evermore to be a Christian, even though mine be the slowest foot in the last battalion of the wonderful militant army of Christ, is one that deserves well of all those who bear the Christian name; and I should feel it wrong not to make this frank admission, while I deprecate as strongly as anybody can, much that is put forward on the stage, and only hope that by the new discrimination constantly growing in the minds of Christian people, we may realize ere long that which has been the hope of the good since history began-namely, that the great heart of humanity may find in that union of music, picture, song, and the actual drama of life. passing before it, many of those lessons whereby we are lifted to a holier plane, delivered from the bondage of sense, and brought into harmony with God and His purposes of love toward all mankind."


"When do you think any large per cent of the plays presented to the public will partake of the uplifting character of 'The Sign of the Cross?'"

"Alas! I am afraid that glad day will not dawn until the era of Christian Socialism, when the theaters will be controlled by the state."

"Oh, I am so glad you mentioned Christian Socialism," I exclaimed. "I wish you would give me your idea of what it is and how it can be actualized in our country."

"It is the New Testament in action"- Miss Willard began. But just at this point our conversation was interrupted. That was practically the only remark I heard from the lips of the famous reformer on this vitally important question. From other sources, however, I have gleaned her most recent thoughts on the subject. In a letter written to a friend not long since, Miss Willard said:

"I believe in the things that Christian Socialism stands for, and, were I not 'tee-totally' occupied, would go into the movement heart and soul, as, indeed, I have done in public utterances for many years. Oh, that I were young again, and it should have my life! It is God's way out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. It is the very marrow and fatness of Christ's Gospel. It is Christianity applied."

In her last annual address, in speaking of the colonization scheme of Commander Booth­Tucker, Miss Willard declared it is "one of the spurs of the 'delectable mountains' to which many of our eyes are steadily lifted, and their name is Christian Socialism, 'all for each and each for all;' the utilization of the utmost force of this earth for the corporate benefit of Man; the cherishing of his labor as the holiest thing alive, and the development of individual gifts of brain, heart and hand under the inspiration of that universal sense of brotherhood which will be, as I believe, the perpetual tonic that will some day render all coarser stimulants distasteful."

Again, in the same speech, she uttered this eloquent and striking thought:

"Nothing recurs to my mind with such frequency and joyous hopes as this soliloquy (It was with me in the quiet woods and hills of New England; it kept time to the soft sea waves; it twinkled in my soul when I looked up into the sky's bright dome): 'I wonder why we don't set at work and abolish poverty in this great generous land within the next half century. We manage our public schools and great universities as the equal property of all; we carry on our entire postal system, our water supply, our parks, streets and highways in the same manner. In some countries the railroads, telegraph and telephone lines belong to the government. and in some cities the lighting is done by the municipality. All this works well. In the most progressive cities tenement houses are built to rent to wage workers, and the old rookeries where private capital demanded the highest rents and the lowest standard of living, are being torn down like the Bastile of old-both being parts of the same ungodly way of dealing with that holy thing called Life. Why should we practically give away the right to build railroads and street car lines, to manufacture gas, erect great public buildings, and thus farm out the people's business to corporate groups of men? Why do we not make the money basis of the country, not a mound of metal white or yellow, dug out of the ground and piled up in our treasury vaults at Washington, but the country itself with 'I promise to pay' gleaming across, its breast from Mt. Katahdin to Mt. Shasta. Beloved comrades, whatever subject we may talk of here, no other the wide world over, tingles with life like this one."

On renewing the interview a few moments later, Miss Willard gave me a number of choice gems from her jewel­box of Christian philosophy and experience: "It is perfectly safe to say regarding the universe, that we are just beginning to learn our ab abs Some people intimate that I have accomplished something, but the sense I have of absolute inadequacy is the most painful fact of my experience. However the droll part of it is that this consideration has never for a moment hindered me from launching forth as if I could do things well, for I have ever felt that not to do is to drift: to drift, is to become a derelict: than that there is no more dreadful fate. A locomotive has no explanation except that it goes; neither has a human being. He is here to locomote. If he cannot do that, he is to be eaten with rust. There is no alternative.

"A woman eighty years of age once said to me: 'Nothing makes any difference.' By which she meant that if our eye is fixed on God, none of these things make any difference. The everlasting purpose of being assimilated to the image of God is the only thing.

"One of the little lay sermons of my mother was this: 'You will have anything you take the most pains for.' If you take the most pains for worldly things, you will be worldly; if for spiritual things, you will be spiritual. That phrase is an infallible touch­stone. Everyone knows what he is taking the most pains for, and that is really what he wants."

"Finally, Miss Willard, may I ask your opinion in regard to the meaning and the application to daily life, of the message contained in the Book of Books?"

Musing a moment she said, with a seriousness that showed her words came from the fullness of her life experience:

"I have had man's increment to the Scriptures so much, that I now don't think much of it. I have gone back literally to the simple gospel. I believe that if it should be lived just one day, the world would pass from death unto life. Lived, not as theology or as duty, but lived as you live Baedeker when travelers in Italy go to the places it says to go to, and do the things it says are to be done. If you read the New Testament like that, you don't sit at home surrounded by luxury and pray like a dear, kind, rich man I used to hear, when in his blessing three times daily, he always said: 'Oh, Lord, bless those who lack these comforts of life and feed them out of Thy bounteous hand.' There are some hands lying around loose that will have to do some feeding before the New Testament becomes a text book of daily life in the sense I think it ought to be. I do not pretend to have attained, but I have at least got the concept of what the New Testament is for. It seems to me to be the world's text book of the theory and practice of being a man and a brother."

At the close of our official interview, we sat and conversed a few minutes upon personal and current topics. Miss Willard showed me with great pleasure a telegram just received from the proprietor of the Empire Hotel, New York, offering her a suite of rooms at a merely nominal cost, and saying that he would feel highly honored to entertain such a famous guest.

"Isn't that a brotherly message," exclaimed the reformer with enthusiasm, and then added with a touch of pride in her voice: "He is a Chicago man. He and his wife formerly kept a hotel in this city."

As I rose to depart and thanked Miss Willard heartily for having given our readers such a lengthy and excellent interview, she replied, in her inimitable manner, that it gave her pleasure to think that she was the instrument of affording pleasure or profit. I can still feel the fragrance of her sympathy as she followed me to the door and bid me a cordial good night. Little did I imagine, as I walked down the street, that my note­book contained her last autobiographical interview

After learning of Miss Willard's death, I again called at the home the foremost American woman had hallowed by her presence during her last stay in Chicago.

Mrs. Lemmon related many incidents of Miss Willard's visit with them. What surprised me most was her declaration that Miss Willard knew well her time of departure was near. "Many times she repeated to me these words," said her cousin, sadly: "'The end is so near and so sweet.'' This phrase coupled with her dying words, "How beautiful to be with God," shows that, for her, death was robbed of its terrors; that it was merely a silent blossoming of her soul into the full bloom of celestial glory. Her flight to "fairer worlds unknown," was almost a translation. Like Enoch of old, she walked with God, and she was not; for God took her.


In view of Miss Willard's forewarning of her trans­planetary journey, some of her latest utterances possess peculiar interest and significance. During one of our talks shortly before Christmas, she spoke substantially as follows of her fifty­ninth birthday resolution:

"On my recent birthday, it came to me that I could gain no truer concept of God than by holding to the presence of Him who is the Way, Truth, and the Life; as ever tenderly smiling on me and saying, 'Receive My spirit,' and that in the halo round His head I saw the words, 'With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.' 'Receive My spirit! ' That is life's safest and most alluring voice, but there will come a day when we shall utter those great words back again, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,' and then the mystery of life, its discipline, its joys and grief, will end, and the glad mystery of death will work out the transfer to other realms of the Infinite Power."

In conclusion, listen to a wonderful prophecy of the coming ages, made by Miss Willard shortly before her decease. It is one of a myriad of prose­poems that flowed like heavenly symphonies from the soul of the peerless seer of womankind:

"There will be other reforms and reformers when we are gone. Societies will be organized, and parties will divide on the right of men to make and carry deadly weapons, dynamite and other destructive agencies still more powerful, that human ingenuity will yet invent. They will divide on the question of the shambles, and there will he an army of earnest souls socially ostracized, as we are now, because they believe that the butcher should cease to kill and the sale of meat be placed under the ban of law. There will be a great movement to educate the people so that they will use neither tea, coffee nor any of the numerous forms of anodynes and sedatives that are now tempting millions to deterioration and death, and which will more strongly affect the finer brain tissues of more highly developed men and women. Long after the triumph of the temperance reform has universally crystallized upon the statute books; long after the complete right of woman to herself and to the unlimited exercise of all her beneficent powers is regarded as a matter of course; long after the great trust of humanity takes to itself the earth and, the fullness thereof as the equal property of all, there will remain reforms as vital as any I have mentioned, and on them the people will group themselves in separate camps even as they do today. And it is not improbable that the chief value of the little work that we have tried to do on this small planet, lies in the fact that we have been, to some extent, attempered by it, we have become inured to contradiction, and are may be useful either in coming invisibly to the help of those who toil in the reforms of the future, or we may be waging battles for God upon some other star."


Miss Willard's Last Photograph. Taken in Chicago a few weeks previous to her death.

Scanned from Our Day (Volume 18, March 1898, pp. 107-16 by Liyan Liu