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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Women's History Month


During March the mainstream media usually pays lip service to the role of women in American history. This is the month when we hear about famous crusaders like Belle La Follette or selfless martyrs such as Cordelia Harvey. But what about obscure women? What challenges did they face, and what choices did they have to make?

This month we'll tell a few stories about women who made a difference without becoming celebrities. Take Louise Williams, for example.

A Girl Who Questioned Authority

Growing up in Milwaukee during the 1840s, Louise went with her family to the city's First Congregationalist Church -- the so-called "Free Church." This congregation welcomed impoverished immigrants, sailors from the docks, and other social outcasts. "I can remember vividly at one service," Louise later recalled, "the portentious silence after the sermon when the Rev. Curtis stepped down from the pulpit, saying 'Brethren, there's something on hand for the friends of freedom. Come, George.'

"A Negro man got up from under the pulpit. Without a word, Mr. Avery Hill took the black man by the hand and led him out of the church... This was my first view of the Underground Railroad." It wasn't her last. Her family instilled in Louise the conviction that democracy depends on citizens who think for themselves and follow their conscience rather than public opinion.

Broken Heart

When the Civil War began in 1861 Louise's sweetheart, James Williams, enlisted in the Fourth Wisconsin cavalry under Milwaukee lawyer Halbert Paine (who was arrested for refusing to return escaping slaves to their owners). One day Williams (shown here) wrote and asked her to please come to the South and marry him while she had the chance. She did, and shortly afterwards he died in battle near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She never remarried.

Legal Career

After the war, when her brother opened a law office in Oconomowoc, Louise joined him, hoping that work would provide solace for her broken heart. Women were not permitted in law schools then, and she learned the ins and outs of the profession through a hands-on apprenticeship in her brother's office.

For the next five decades, long after her brother departed for Chicago, Louise gave free legal advice to women all over southern Wisconsin. Under a sign simply reading "Louise Williams", she drew up contracts, wrote wills, probated estates, drafted insurance polices, and provided business and legal counsel. She was the first woman recognized by the state as a notary public.

"I always believed in Women's Rights," she said in her old age, "and I have tried to see that my friends received their just dues under the law."

Born into a world where slavery was legal and women could neither own property nor vote, Louise Williams lived to see many of the idealistic causes of her childhood succeed.

Discover More about Wisconsin Women

Read more about Louise Williams and view her portrait in our collection of Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles. Or brush up for Women's History Month by perusing the essays and original sources at our women's history pages.


:: Posted in Curiosities on March 1, 2012
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