Frances Willard was born in Churchville, New York and grew up in in Janesville, then on the Wisconsin frontier. In 1859, she graduated from the Northwestern Female College in Evanston, Illinois. She taught school for several years before travelling extensively in Europe with a friend in 1868-1870. After her return, she became president of the newly-established Evanston College for Ladies, which was associated with Northwestern University. When the college was absorbed by Northwestern in 1873, Frances Willard became dean of women -- one of the first female administrators to hold such a position at a major co-educational university -- and professor of English and art. In 1874, she was chosen to be corresponding secretary of the new Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).
She became a popular public speaker and an influential leader of the women's suffrage movement as well as of efforts to end alcohol and drug abuse. In 1879, she was elected president of the WCTU, a post she held for the rest of her life.
Under her leadership, the WCTU evolved into into a broader women’s rights movement with a range of other social concerns, creating national public education and political pressure campaigns. In 1888, she joined May Wright Sewall at the International Council of Women meeting in Washington, D.C., and laid the groundwork for a permanent National Council of Women, which she served as the first president.
She was a regular contributor to national periodicals and WCTU publications. She published her autobiography, Glimpses of Fifty Years, in 1889. Two years later, she became president of the World WCTU. Her suffered from chronic anemia and died at age 58 in 1898.