Open Letter to Center for Women’s History & Leadership

Questions from an impatient and concerned observer in Evanston, IL
Posted December 20, 2018

To: Center for Women’s History & Leadership
Evanston, IL
Attn:  Glen Madeja, Exec. Director

Dear Mr. Madeja:

I think I speak for many when I say that I have been greatly anticipating the detailed plans for the new Center for Women’s History & Leadership. When the Frances Willard Historical Association (FWHA) announced its name change in August 2017, I was excited about the prospect of having such an organization in my hometown. Seven months after the January 2017 Women’s March amped up women’s engagement, many women including myself were still looking for new or additional outlets for our individual geographies, talents, and interests. “Center for Women’s History & Leadership” sounded like something I might want to get involved in — a real stake in the ground, possibly a national center, practically in my neighborhood.

The original announcement (Aug. 15, 2017) read:
On Sunday, August 13, 2017 members of the Frances Willard Historical Association (FWHA) voted to re-incorporate as a new non-profit organization, The Center for Women’s History and Leadership. Accompanying this name change, later this fall the new Center will also become the owner of the property and historic buildings in the current Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) Evanston Local Historic District. The Center’s mission will be to honor the leadership of women of the past to inform the present and inspire leaders of the future.

Since August 2017, as I’ve received each subsequent FWHA newsletter, I’ve searched for news about the new Center. But in the 16 months since the first announcement, there has been little to chew on or dream about.

At the same time, as these last two years have played out on the national political and cultural stages, many of us have been looking at long-time institutions with new eyes and, indeed, thanks to social media and new generations of researchers, new information is daily streaming out on all our institutions and our collective history.

For me, this has been true of FWHA’s parent organization, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Yes, I had always known that the Frances Willard Museum and FWHA were owned by the WCTU. But public events never mentioned the connection and, in fact, I assumed that the WCTU was no longer an active organization.

As time went on after the name change announcement and the silence from the new Center for Women’s History & Leadership became deafening, I started to wonder why. Early in 2018, the Center shared that the board had been going through a strategic planning process, funded by a grant from the Evanston Community Foundation. But no substantive information was included and the process seemed to be taking a long time. I began to wonder more about WCTU itself and started doing a little research.

One of the first things I came across when Googling WCTU was a reference to a 2004 WCTU conference described in a Chicago Tribune article (Oct. 29, 2004). The article mentioned two items in the conference platform: opposition to abortion and opposition to homosexuality. Specifically, the Tribune said:

“At the WCTU’s most recent national convention in August in Charleston, W.V., it passed six resolutions it asked its members to act on. One encouraged people to vote, and another set Sept. 9 as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Day.

“But of the other four, one commended President Bush for his effort to stop the use of federal funds for stem-cell research–consistent with the organization’s opposition to abortion. The remaining three involved sexuality. One supported the Marriage Protection Act, another encouraged children to take part in the Day of Purity, and another commended students who opposed homosexuality.”

These are not positions in the women’s movement that I want to be a part of. Or that I thought an organization with the generic and seemingly all-inclusive name of “Center for Women’s History & Leadership” would promote. Not after having lived through months of intersectional compassionate messaging courtesy of the Women’s Marches, with more and more women finding our voices. I began to wonder if my original enthusiasm for an organization called Center for Women’s History & Leadership had been misplaced.

Simultaneously, thanks to Donald Trump’s signifying, events across the nation and the world have sprouted more and more anti-Semitic propaganda and indeed anti-Semitic violence. As a Jew, I am becoming more hyper-vigilant for any new instances of anti-Semitism as well as old instances that haven’t been fully reckoned with.

A penultimate straw to me writing this letter was something I read in a library book that I had reserved two months ago that finally became available last weekend: Jill Lepore’s 2018 history of the United States, These Truths. On page 340 in a section about the WCTU, Lepore writes:

“…Sarah E.V. Emery, a devout Universalist from Michigan, rose to prominence as a speaker and writer through the WCTU, the Knights of Labor, and the Farmers’ Alliance. The Farmers’ Alliance sold over 400,000 copies of Emery’s anti-Semitic tract Seven Financial Conspiracies Which have Enslaved the American People.”

What finally moved me to start drafting this letter is the recent announcement about Alice Walker’s racism in the form of raging anti-Semitism. This was not entirely new to me as I had read her poem on the Talmud and had an inkling that something was wrong with one of my feminist idols. But I had chosen to overlook her poem and two days before the New York Times interview came out (about the books on her nightstand, one of which is by a well-known British anti-Semite, David Icke), I had posted a long quote from Alice Walker on my Twitter page. It was about a totally different subject and I used the quote because it was so inspiring. (I’m now rethinking my relationship to Alice Walker and her work.)

So far as I know, Alice Walker has no connection to WCTU or FWHA, but here’s the connections that are being made in 2018  by some people all over the country (not to mention the world):

Jill Lepore described an example of Sarah Emery’s anti-Semitism and quoted from Emery’s tract:

“‘But that period has passed, and today we boast more millionaires than any other country on the globe; tramps have increased in a geometrical ratio; while strikes, riots and anarchists’ trials constitute an exciting topic of conversation in all classes of society.’ Emery blamed this state of affairs on a conspiracy of Jewish bankers.”

This Jewish banker stuff is exactly what’s being spouted by Alice Walker, David Icke, and many others, and something that I addressed in an August 2017 blog (following the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville): Monetary science and healing for white supremacists, Jews, and other confused Americans.  For the record, I reject the “Jewish bankers” theory as the cause of all our collective economic and social problems. For every Jewish banker, there have been many more non-Jewish bankers. (My blog is a little more nuanced.)

Given that some of my friends, neighbors, and colleagues have been involved with FWHA over the years and that I have appreciated having FWHA and museum in my 40 years in Evanston, this whole can of worms has been deeply disturbing. Perhaps I’ve connected some dots that should not be connected. Perhaps these questionable things in WCTU’s past have nothing to do with the lack of information about the new Center for Women’s History and Leadership.

I am fully aware that individuals in the organization may be insulted by my use of the phrase “questionable things” for sincere beliefs that some may have. For the record, I support every individual’s right to choose not to have an abortion or to not marry a particular person or to not bank with a particular banker. But making one’s individual beliefs a public policy is a “questionable” intention in my opinion, especially when such policies deprive others of their rights. This history cannot be overlooked if we are all to move forward–as Evanstonians, as Americans, as women, as leaders. It would help to have some questions answered so that we can know where we stand vis-a-vis the Center for Women’s History and Leadership and the Frances Willard Museum.

Questions to the Center for Women’s History and Leadership:
1. What does it mean to preserve the WCTU legacy as cited in the Aug. 15, 2017 comment by Glen Madeja, Executive Director of the FWHA?

“This is a very exciting time and opportunity for a redefinition of the FWHA into an expanded organization. We are very honored that the WCTU, as it approaches it’s 150th anniversary, has entrusted us with ensuring the future of its legacy. Members and leaders of both organizations have been working on this project for over two years. Their goals have been to safeguard the future of the property, ensure the legacy of the WCTU, and provide for proper stewardship of the Willard House Museum and the WCTU Archives so that they remain open to the public and available to researchers long into the future.”

2. What does it mean to merge these two organizations, as described in the Evanston Roundtable (Sept. 20, 2017):

“Now the NWCTU [National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union] and the Frances Willard Historical Association (FWHA) are merging into a single non-profit entity: the Center for Women’s History and Leadership.”

3. Is the Center going to continue to promote the WCTU’s 2004 platform, including opposition to abortion and homosexuality?

4. Will the Center make any statement disavowing past anti-Semitism in the WCTU? Will there be any plans to deal with anti-Semitism if it arises again within the new organization?

5. If the new Center is going to continue as a Christian women’s organization (or an organization that reflects a particular set of values not shared by all women), would you consider changing the name to reflect that fact so that people are not confused about the Center’s name?

6. Can you let us know any more details about the Center’s formal mission, activities, and official opening date?


I hope that the Center for Women’s History & Leadership can address these questions publicly, sooner rather than later. I would like nothing better than for the new Center to start its life with full enthusiasm, a welcome for all women, and programming unencumbered by any historical millstones (while also serving as a place to acknowledge historical events, artifacts, women, women’s accomplishments, etc.).

I have wanted to promote the new Center to my networks (local, state, regional, national), but have been unable to do so without any real information about the new organization. On the other hand, if the new Center is not going to be inclusive of all women and for all women, I’d like to know that, too.

Thanks for any information that you can provide.

— Debbie Hillman
Evanston, IL