Writing out My Heart

A treasure was discovered in 1982, when forty-nine journals written by WCTU leader Frances Willard were found in Evanston, Illinois. Consulted early in the century by biographers and quoted to a limited extent by Willard in her 1889 autobiography, the journals were presumed to have been destroyed by Willard’s loyal aide, Anna Gordon. They were microfilmed as an addendum to THE TEMPERANCE AND PROHIBITION PAPERS (1977), but the microfilm (neither indexed nor numbered, with texts in Willard’s difficult handwriting) is only assessable to the most dogged reader.

In 1986, Carolyn De Swarte Gifford began transcribing the journals. She selected about one-tenth of the total material for this book. She concentrated on Willard’s private life, using some entries that have never before been published, or were little known. The result is spellbinding. Particularly strong are those sections that cover from 1859 to 1862, when the young Willard (then in her early twenties) was struggling with her own identity and sexual orientation. Articulate, painfully honest, and gripping, these entries have the high drama of a bodice-ripper. Willard records her angst and her personal pilgrimage toward greater self-knowledge. She emerges from the fray an independent, loving, and capable person, who after a career in academics would go on to a position of leadership (and celebrity) that she would use to change the world. A good read in itself, this book provides a wonderful complement to previously published biographies and memoirs. It fills in gaps with revelatory facts where before we merely wondered.