WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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Women’s Suffrage Exhibit

Temporarily Closed

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“We Stand on their Shoulders” | A History of Wisconsin Women and Voting

EXTENDED THROUGH JUNE 12, 2021

Located in the Radell Gallery (4th floor)

The right to vote is life-changing, but it does not come without struggle. Join us in celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment and examining how strong leaders and passionate groups have gained long overdue rights and recognition for women in Wisconsin and around the nation.

This new exhibition marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. It also shines a light on Wisconsin’s iconic women political leaders and connects the 19th Amendment to other struggles for rights and recognition that have been waged in the United States over the past century. Through the lens of Wisconsin suffragists, we learn about the national women’s suffrage movement. And by exploring issues of suffrage and civil rights in the latter half of the 20th century, we engage in a dialogue about diversity, inclusion, and human rights that is relevant today.

The exhibit draws on the depth and breadth of Wisconsin Historical Society collections and archives. Selected highlights from the exhibit are presented below.

Poster issued by the Milwaukee County League of Women Voters that graphically urges women to vote.
A poster issued by the Milwaukee County League of Women Voters in the 1920s urging women to vote. WHI IMAGE ID 37894

The Passage of the 19th Amendment

On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment went into effect and citizens of the United States could no longer be denied the right to vote on the basis of sex. Yet, the effort to achieve voting equality for women started decades earlier. Once the United States Congress passed a proposed constitutional amendment in 1919, each state—including Wisconsin—then had to follow a rigorous ratification procedure.

Wisconsin State Constitution, 1846. The first proposed constitution was rejected in an 1847 referendum.

Wisconsin State Constitution, 1846

This is Wisconsin’s first constitution that was drafted—but did not pass—at the state’s first constitutional convention in 1846. A second convention was held two years later. The constitution drafted in 1848 remains our constitution today. However, it did not include women’s right to vote.

Iconic gold tunics, pennants, and accessories from the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association ca. 1910–1920.

Replica Suffrage Tunics

These tunics are based on those that were worn by women demonstrating for women’s suffrage in a Chicago parade on June 7, 1916. Women from Wisconsin joined women’s suffrage activists from around the country to demonstrate the size of their movement during the 1916 Republican National Convention.

This official certification accompanied the proposed 19th Amendment that was sent from the US Congress to states for ratification on June 5, 1919.

THE 19TH AMENDMENT

This official certification accompanied the proposed 19th Amendment that was sent from the US Congress to states for ratification on June 5, 1919.

Iconic Women Leaders of Wisconsin

The fight for women’s suffrage required the skills and talents of thousands of women across the country. Learn about just some of the Wisconsin women who played a pivotal role in obtaining the right to vote 100 years ago and some women who have since worked to advance the rights and recognition of women. Profiled women include Lavinia Goodell, Olympia Brown, Belle Case La Follette, Theodora Winton Youmans, Carrie Chapman Catt, Ada James, Doris Oiyotte Emery, Vel Phillips, Bernice Lindsay, and Andrea-Teresa “Tess” Arenas.

In 1877 Lavinia Goodell received this petition from the Wisconsin State Supreme Court allowing her to practice law in Wisconsin.

Lavinia Goodell

In 1877 Lavinia Goodell received this petition from the Wisconsin State Supreme Court which specifically allowed her, as a woman, to practice law in Wisconsin.

Documents and artifacts from iconic women political leaders, including Vel Phillips’s desk from her time on the Milwaukee Common Council, 1956–late 1960s.

ICONIC WOMEN LEADERS

The exhibition highlights documents and artifacts from iconic women leaders of Wisconsin, including Olympia Brown, Theodora Winton Youmans, Belle Case La Follette, and Carrie Chapman Catt. On display is Vel Phillips’s desk from her time on the Milwaukee Common Council, 1956–late 1960s.

Eyeglasses used by Belle Case La Follette, 1900–1920.

Belle Case La Follette

Belle Case La Follette was the first woman to graduate from law school in Wisconsin and an outspoken advocate for women’s right to vote. She used these eyeglasses around 1900-1920

Continuing the Effort

The passage of the 19th Amendment was a watershed moment that future movements built upon, and the fight for voting rights continues. Today, questions surrounding citizenship, identification, and gerrymandering, among other issues, are being discussed. Generations of Americans have fought for access to the polls.

Campaign buttons worn at marches and rallies during the 1970s and 1980s for a number of advocacy efforts, including the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

Campaign Buttons

A display of campaign buttons worn at marches and rallies during the 1970s and 1980s for a number of advocacy efforts, including the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

Buttons worn by supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and 1980s, and a bed sheet banner from the 1970s which advertises a bake sale fundraiser for Wisconsin Assembly candidate Mary Lou Munts.

Continuing Battles

A display from the section of the exhibition on the continuing fight for voting rights. In the foreground is a mannequin wearing a pantsuit, ca. 1975, with buttons worn by supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) at marches and rallies during the 1970s and 1980s. In the background is a bed sheet banner from the 1970s which advertises a bake sale fundraiser for Wisconsin Assembly candidate Mary Lou Munts.

Automatic voting machine booth used in Neenah, Wisconsin, ca. 1970–1990.

Voting Booth

A display from the section of the exhibition on the continuing fight for voting rights. On exhibit is an automatic voting machine booth used in Neenah, Wisconsin, ca. 1970–1990.

Rhoda Lavinia Goodell

Rhoda Lavinia Goodell (1839–1880) fought to become Wisconsin’s first licensed woman lawyer. Goodell, a daughter of a New York abolitionist, grew up closely following legal debates around her family’s dinner table. She aspired to become a lawyer, but her mother objected. “Mama is very much afraid I shall become identified with the ‘women’s rights movement,’” Goodell once wrote. She worked as an editor for her father’s paper and later for Harper’s Magazine. Following her family’s move to Janesville in 1871, she studied law and was admitted to the Rock County bar in 1874 as Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer. In 1875, the Wisconsin Supreme Court did not allow her to practice law before the court on account of her sex. Thanks to Goodell’s petitioning, the legislature passed a bill in 1877 prohibiting denial of admission to the bar on the basis of sex. In 1879, the court admitted Goodell, who won her first Supreme Court case in 1880.

On display in the exhibit:

An 1877 petition from the Wisconsin State Supreme Court specifically allowing her, as a woman, to practice law in Wisconsin.

Olympia Brown

Olympia Brown (1835–1926) was born in Michigan and began teaching school at age 15. She graduated from Antioch College in Ohio in 1860, among the first women to graduate from college in the United States, and she became the country’s first woman minister in 1863. Brown arrived at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Racine in 1878. She left that position in 1887 to focus on working for women’s suffrage. She served as president of the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association from 1884 to 1912. She traveled across the country campaigning for the amendment of state constitutions to allow women the right to vote, and she eventually began working with a group of suffragists on passing a federal constitutional amendment to grant voting rights to all women in the country. She lived to see the 19th Amendment pass in 1920, and at age 85 she voted in her first presidential election.

On display in the exhibit: Wisconsin Citizen, March 1915. A story on Olympia Brown is featured on page 5.

Belle Case La Follette

Belle Case La Follette (1859–1931) was born in Summit, Wisconsin, and grew up in Baraboo. At age 16, she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she met the man who would become her husband, Robert M. La Follette, Sr. A skilled orator, she delivered a prize-winning commencement speech when she graduated in 1879. She then taught high school while her husband pursued his law degree. She later took law classes and became the first woman to earn a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1885. Belle La Follette believed that women should have the right to vote, and she was a strong advocate for peace and equality. When her husband ran for Congress, the governorship, the US Senate, and then the presidency, she helped write his speeches and manage his campaigns. She co-edited La Follette’s Weekly Magazine and wrote columns advocating for women’s suffrage. From 1915 to 1919, she traveled the country speaking out for women’s right to vote.

On display in the exhibit: Eyeglasses used by Belle Case La Follette, 1900–1920. Scrapbook documenting the death and funeral of Belle Case La Follette.

Theodora Winton Youmans

Born in Ashippun, Theodora Winton Youmans (1863–1932) graduated from Waukesha’s Carroll Academy as class valedictorian in 1880. She soon became the first woman to join the full-time staff of the Waukesha Freeman. In 1889, she was named assistant editor of the newspaper. By the 1890s, Youmans was one of 30 women working for Wisconsin newspapers. She was also active in the women’s club movement, during which women’s clubs subtly advocated for women’s rights and debated the role and influence of women in society. It was not until 1910 that Youmans became an outspoken advocate for suffrage. Her newspaper articles from the 1910s now serve as some of the best sources on the Wisconsin suffrage movement. By 1919, she was president of the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association and assistant editor and “suffrage writer” of the Waukesha Freeman. In 1920, after the passage of the 19th Amendment, she was named the first vice-president of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters.

On display in the exhibit: Excerpt of a speech delivered by Theodora Winton Youmans, then-president of the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association, ca. 1919.

Carrie Chapman Catt

Born in Ripon, Wisconsin, Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947) graduated from Iowa Agriculture College in 1880, where she was the only woman in her class. She worked as a law clerk, a teacher, and eventually a school principal. She married and became co-editor of her husband’s newspaper, the Republican, for which she wrote a weekly feature discussing women’s suffrage. Catt began working for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890 and was soon asked by Susan B. Anthony to speak to Congress about the proposed suffrage amendment. She served as president of NAWSA for two terms, helped organize the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, and traveled to other countries to promote equal voting rights worldwide.

Catt’s writing and speaking for NAWSA built her reputation as a leading suffragist. She was considered a brilliant strategist and thought that the best way to promote women’s suffrage was through coordinated support for World War I. This strategy worked, and Catt is often credited with creating the plan used to win suffrage for American women. After the passage of the 19th Amendment, she stepped down as NAWSA’s president and founded the League of Women Voters.

On display in the exhibit: Diary of Carrie Chapman Catt, 1911–1912. During a trip around the world, Catt described people, places, and her activities, including meetings with women’s suffrage groups and their leaders. She also detailed daily life in the places she visited and commented on area politics.

Ada James

Born in Richland Center to parents who were active in women’s suffrage efforts, Ada James (1876–1952) became involved in the movement as well. In 1911, she became president of the newly formed Political Equality League. It was in this role that she led a grassroots campaign for the 1912 suffrage referendum. The next year, the league combined with the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association, and she led the combined association until the passage of the 19th Amendment. James remained an active grassroots organizer and social activist. She contributed to many of the reform movements of the 1920s, including temperance, pacifism, birth control advocacy, child labor reform, labor reform, and prison reform. She administered the David G. James Memorial Fund for the relief of poor families in Richland County, and she chaired the county children’s board for many years.

On display in the exhibit: Calling cards and case belonging to Ada James, ca. 1915. Scrapbook of the suffrage movement, compiled by Ada James, ca. 1915.

Doris Oiyotte Emery

Chiwagiid (1931–2016), known by her English name as Doris Oiyotte Emery, served as the first chief justice of the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin Tribal Court and was elected as a member of the tribal council for six terms. Emery was born in Sand Lake, Wisconsin. She attended the Bureau of Indian Affairs Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota, graduating as valedictorian. She served as a telephone operator for several companies in Illinois and Wisconsin before moving back to the St. Croix reservation. Active in tribal government and politics, Emery held many roles in addition to her judicial and council service such as tribal health director, housing authority director, and tribal administrator. At age 80, she earned her associate of arts degree in Native American Studies and became Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College’s oldest graduate.

On display in the exhibit: The Vision, the newspaper of the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, July/August 2011. A story featuring Doris Oiyette Emery is on the front page.

Vel Phillips

Born in Milwaukee, Velvalea Rogers Phillips (1924–2018) attended Howard University and, in 1951, became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison law school. Just five years later, she was elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, becoming the first African American and the first woman to do so. While serving on the common council, Phillips worked on behalf of women and minorities. She participated in nonviolent protests against discrimination in housing, education, and employment. In 1962, she introduced Milwaukee’s first open-housing ordinance. In 1971, Phillips was appointed to the Milwaukee County judiciary, making her the first woman judge in Milwaukee and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. She was elected Wisconsin Secretary of State in 1978, becoming the first African American elected to a statewide constitutional office.

On display in the exhibit: Vel Phillips’s desk from her time on the Milwaukee Common Council, 1956–late 1960s.

Badge, Democratic National Committee, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1964, presented to Milwaukee City Coucilwoman Vel Phillips. Gavel presented to Judge Vel Phillips by the National Organization for Women, 1971. Sign, Judge Vel Phillips, Milwaukee County Children’s Court, Wauwatosa, 1971–1972.

Bernice Lindsay

Born in Winchester, Indiana, Bernice Copeland Lindsay (1899–1985) moved to Milwaukee in 1928. Lindsay served as director of Northside YWCA and later as a caseworker for the Department of Public Welfare. In 1931, her activism led the Milwaukee Public Schools to hire its first black teachers. In 1940, Lindsay was among several African Americans who bought tax-delinquent homes in a predominantly white neighborhood. In response, the common council rezoned 40 acres of property to halt sales to African Americans. Lindsay vocally fought the council’s actions, testifying that African Americans would seek the courts’ intervention if the resolution wasn’t rescinded. She later served on the Milwaukee Mayor’s Commission on Interracial Relations and the Governor’s Council on Human Rights. She was a founder of several Milwaukee institutions, including the Mary Church Tarrell Club, Carver Memorial Homes, and the Creative Center. In 1967, the City of Milwaukee named a street after her—the first named after an African American in Milwaukee and a rare honor for a living person.

On display in the exhibit: Milwaukee Commission on Human Rights annual report, 1957, and “Keep Milwaukee’s Conscience Clear” brochure from the Mayor’s Commission on Human Relations, ca. 1962. Bernice Lindsay served on both commissions.

Andrea-Teresa “Tess” Arenas

Dr. Andrea-Teresa “Tess” Arenas (1951–) is a Milwaukee native who excelled at school at an early age. After spending years working in the insurance industry, she decided to pursue higher education. Arenas holds a BA in Professional Communications, an MS in Educational Administration-Higher Education, and a PhD in Educational Administration-Higher Education from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Since earning her degrees, she has spent considerable time engaged in post-secondary education policy formation, college instruction, and advocacy efforts for the Latinx community and people of color. In 2005, Arenas joined UW–Madison as the director for the Office of Service Learning and Community Based Research. In 2012, she developed a community-based learning course to document Latina history in Wisconsin—this became the Somos Latinas Oral History Project, which is currently housed in the Wisconsin Historical Society. The project became the basis for the book Somos Latinas: Voices of Wisconsin Latina Activists, published in 2018.

On display in the exhibit: Somos Latinas: Voices of Wisconsin Latina Activists, by Andrea-Teresa “Tess” Arenas, and Eloisa Gómez, 2018.

Arenas at podium

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