According to the South Carolina Code of Laws, Title 53, Chapter 3, Section 20…
The fourth Friday in October in each year shall be set apart and designated in the public schools as Frances Willard Day and in each public school it shall be the duty of such school to prepare and render a suitable program on the day to the end that the children of the State may be taught the evils of intemperance.
Frances Willard is best known as the national president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and as an advocate for women’s suffrage. She was instrumental in passage of the 18th Amendment authorizing Prohibition and the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.
I’m not sure when the South Carolina law was passed, but it’s still on the books. In all my years as an educator and as a student in South Carolina I’ve never heard of Frances Willard, much less celebrated a day in her honor in school, regardless of any law.
However, that wasn’t always the case. Many states, in addition to South Carolina, have days honoring Willard, including Wisconsin, where she lived for awhile, Pennsylvania, Texas, Nebraska, and her native Illinois. I don’t know how many of these statutes are still on the books.
I imagine that at one point these celebrations in schools were an early incarnation of our Red Ribbon Week (which, perhaps not coincidentally, is next week.) A 1948 issue of the Spartanburg Herald describes how Spartanburg County schools celebrate that particular Willard Day…
The suggested program is as follows: Song “God Bless America;” Introduction by school officials with the Student Body saluting the flag; a brief address on Miss Willard; Song, “America;” the reading of favorite Bible verses of Frances Willard; Song, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
Included in the program was a message to teachers from Gov. J. Strom Thurmond and read in parts as follows:
“The school teachers of South Carolina are to be commended for their continuing effort to instruct our children in the problems of alcohol and its harmful effects upon our society…we must teach them the value of temperance in the building of strong bodies and strong minds.”
It is interesting to note that it was only the temperance portion of Willard’s legacy that is addressed by these statutes. There isn’t much mention of her work in women’s suffrage, and even less is said about her own sexuality – a topic which even today seems contentious. However, Willard’s own feelings on the matter seem clear…
“The loves of women for each other grow more numerous each day, and I have pondered much why these things were. That so little should be said about them surprises me, for they are everywhere … In these days when any capable and careful woman can honorably earn her own support, there is no village that has not its examples of ‘two hearts in counsel,’ both of which are feminine.”
As for the present, our district has a teacher workday, so we can’t celebrate as mandated. Oh darn. Instead, on this fourth Friday of October, I shall add another olive to my martini in honor of Frances Willard, temperance leader and suffragist extraordinaire.