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I Got Drunk at the Founder of the Temperance Movement's House

The home of Frances Willard is a boring one, but if you get drunk enough, you might just be able to see the difference between the prohibition of alcohol and the prohibition of marijuana.

Frances Willard, one of the 19th century's greatest activists, came of age down the street from where I live in Evanston, Illinois. Two Sundays ago I visited her old house, now a tiny museum dedicated to her legacy as the influential president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. To honor Willard's memory, a friend and I pregamed our tour with Methodist-appalling amounts of alcohol.

It used to be much harder to procure booze in Evanston. The town, just north of Chicago, often (incorrectly) called the "birthplace of prohibition," was completely dry until 1972 and didn't legalize liquor stores until 1984. Evanston's first distillery and brewery didn't even open until 2011 and 2012, respectively, after long licensing battles with city officials. Both evoke the town's comically sober history in their names: FEW Spirits (Willard's middle name was Elizabeth) and Temperance Beer Co.


After a dozen of Temperance's Gatecrasher IPAs and a journalistically unverifiable number of cheap whiskey shots, and armed with a flask of backup rations, we entered Willard's adorable Victorian Gothic cottage, one block north of the local Whole Foods. Aside from a middle-aged couple upstairs, the house was empty. At the front desk a gray-haired woman dressed entirely in purple greeted us with a mix of surprise and excitement, then took ten minutes to type in our credit card information. As she struggled with an old PC, my friend went to the bathroom, while I moved behind a wall to consult the flask.

The docent started the tour in the tastefully-wallpapered living room. She explained how Willard first came to live here at 18, gossiped about her short-lived engagement with an early Northwestern University president, and pointed out a white ceramic bust of the fake homeopathic doctor (and real inventor of the beanbag) Diocletian Lewis—whose early-1870s lectures, calling for women to invade saloons to "pray" and sing" for their closure, prompted a brief national crusade that Willard would later cite as inspiration. Before moving to the next room, our guide sadly noted that substance abuse is "still familiar today." I scribbled this down, unfazed by the illegibility of my notes.

With Rand Paul and Cory Booker's CARERS Act idling on the Senate floor (waiting to end 77 years of federal marijuana prohibition), we came to Willard's house curious to compare America's older prohibition politics with current reefer resistance. As our guide continued, explaining that Willard's priority was "home protection," it sounded like a conservative talking point. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush last summer opposed Florida's medical marijuana initiative because he thought the proposal ran "counter" to the state's status as a "desirable place to raise a family."


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However, the prohibition wave ignited by the WCTU actually aligned with progressives. The 18th amendment could have never passed without the 16th that preceded it, which introduced a federal income tax championed by the increasingly populist Democratic Party. The political support for both amendments was intertwined; the income tax was billed as a way to break the federal government's addiction to the alcohol excise tax. The WCTU's official magazine, founded by Willard, first demanded an income tax in 1883.

Not to say the prohibition movement was entirely forward-thinking. Much of its political livelihood relied on nativism and racism. Many states in the post-Reconstruction south passed prohibition laws tied to Jim Crow legislation, campaigning against alcohol as a crime-inducing "negro problem" and safety threat. Anti-semitic prohibition rhetoric was lobbed at the largely Jewish-controlled liquor industry, while many northern progressives attacked saloons out of resentment for the Irish immigrants who used them to operate urban political machines.

Upstairs my friend, increasingly red-faced and looking even more like the late Philip Seymour Hoffman than he normally does, asked his second question of the day, again the location of the bathroom. Unsuspicious, or more likely just in the zone, our chaperone waxed poetically about Willard's belief in female civic responsibility. To illustrate the point, she showed off a set of toy city building blocks that Willard apparently loved playing with as a child. Whether it was the generational gap or the slur, I made a LEGO joke that didn't land.


WCTU's more lasting legacy is, of course, its staunch advocacy of women's political activism and suffrage. At its peak, the organization counted over 200,000 national members, an unprecedented mobilization of female political speech. Though Willard didn't live to see either happen, the right to vote was constitutionally enshrined a year after alcohol was banned. Even if you're drunk, it's hard to imagine similarly honorable civil rights progress emerging from the fight certain interest groups continue to wage against cannabis. The biggest spenders on anti-marijuana lobbying include pharmaceutical and alcohol companies, for-profit prisons, and police unions—not quite disenfranchised voices.

Rushing to finish the tour before the museum closed, we were whisked up to Willard's bedroom, where our guide explaining that she probably died of influenza. Such was her fame that 20,000 people flocked into Evanston in 1898 to see the casket. Two years after her death, her sister converted the house into the WCTU's national headquarters, reserving a wing for a museum to commemorate Frances.

These days the museum opens just two days a month, and the quiet is typical. The Northwestern kids in town don't stop by often. As we walked downstairs, the other tour guide on duty joked, "Being a leader of the temperance movement, Frances doesn't have that good of a reputation with college students." We laughed, bid thanks, took one last swig on Willard's front porch, and passed the fuck out before dinner.

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