Women's History in Wisconsin
Six young women posing playfully beneath a bench. WHI 25733
Wisconsin women have made many contributions to
state and national history, yet our textbooks often
reduce women's history to the campaign for suffrage
at the expense of everything else. While the right
to vote was indeed an important victory for women,
it's just one of many issues that women have
sought to change. And while the affluent white women
who had time, access to power, and financial resources
to invest in that campaign are the best documented
in our archives and libraries, Wisconsin women of many
races, classes and ethnic groups left their mark on
Ho-Chunk and Menominee women were the first Wisconsin
women. They were joined in the 16th century by Ojibwe
women and in the 17th century by the Sauk,
Fox, Potawatomi, Mascouten, Kickapoo and Ottawa
seeking refuge from wars raging in the East. In the
18th century they were joined by French and
Canadian women involved in the fur trade and, in
the 19th century, by American and European women
starting new lives on the Western frontier. The suffrage
campaign was just one episode in a long history of
women's contributions to Wisconsin history.
This page leads to original documents, pictures,
eyewitness accounts and other primary sources available
online that reveal the history of Wisconsin women.
Besides those linked below, other documents and additional
information can be found at Turning
Points in Wisconsin History.
Images of women in Wisconsin
- European Exploration and the Fur Trade
- White Settlement and Immigration
- Civil War Era
- Industrialization and Change
- Suffrage and World War
1. European Exploration and Fur Trade
Although Indian women have lived in Wisconsin for
thousands of years, the earliest written records
about them come from European missionaries, explorers
and fur traders who only arrived in Wisconsin less
than 400 years ago. For the next two centuries Wisconsin's
economy revolved around the fur trade, bringing French
traders, missionaries and Indians into a complex
economic, political and social relationship that
had long-lasting effects. Indeed, many of Wisconsin's
best-known "founding fathers" (and mothers)
were part Indian.
Although Indian women are mentioned in passing in
the 17th-century Jesuit Relations, the earliest record
of a specific Indian woman comes from British soldier,
Jonathan Carver, who visited Wisconsin in 1766-1768.
Carver's detailed account of his journey through
the region includes a description of the Ho-Chunk
community at modern Neenah, presided over by the
female chief Glory of the Morning.
The roles played by women in the fur trade varied.
Although there were a handful of white women in Wisconsin
prior to the 19th century, most of them in Green
Bay and the Fox River Valley, fur traders generally married
Indian or Métis women. These relationships
had practical implications since they helped traders
improve relations with the rest of the tribe and
gave access to information on native language and
culture that was crucial to a trader's success. Indian
women also provided many of the essentials of daily
life, such as dressing furs, making leather, netting
snowshoes and gathering firewood — tasks unfamiliar
to many Europeans. Women were essential to the harvesting
and preparation of wild rice as well — a valuable
item for barter and a necessary source of food during
long winters. These Indian and Métis women were more
than diplomatic pawns or servants, though, and occupied
a unique position between the two cultures that was
an integral part of life in early Wisconsin. While
the documentary record of these early years is scarce
and one-sided, particularly in regard to women, Indian
women were visible and important figures in daily
life during the fur trade era.
1702: Father Etienne Carheil reveals
the darker side of life among French men and Indian
women when the fur trade was young.
Carver visits Glory of the Morning, a female
Ho-Chunk chief (pages 32-38).
1854: Read a description of the
and cooking of wild rice.
1634-1900: Read a century-old study
on the history
and significance of wild rice.
View images of women
involved in wild rice harvesting.
2. White Settlement
White settlers began streaming into Wisconsin in
the 19th century — this time including larger
numbers of women — as the opening of government
lands after the War of 1812 encouraged mass migrations
westward. Harbors on Lake Michigan's shore
and the lead mining region in the southwest attracted
people from the eastern United States, many of whom
brought with them the reform fervor for abolition,
temperance and, to a certain extent, women's
rights. Other settlers were European immigrants seeking
a better life in the American West. One of the most
interesting developments was the emigration of several
Indian communities in the 1820s, including the settlement
of the Stockbridge-Munsee band of Mohicans that would
bring Electa Quinney, Wisconsin's first public
school teacher, to the territory.
A tragic consequence of this white settlement was
the forced displacement of Indian communities, often
resulting in violence such as the Black Hawk War.
Often ignoring Indian rights to land held for centuries,
individual settlers built homes, mines and entire
towns with little regard for property rights. The
U.S. government also forced tribes to cede much of
their land or attempted to trick them into leaving
Wisconsin. Perhaps the most tragic deception took
place at Sandy Lake in 1850, recounted below by an
Ojibwe woman named Julia Spears.
Nevertheless, the reform-minded spirit of some Wisconsin
settlers was reflected in the organizations they
formed and, most significantly, in the state's first
constitution. As Wisconsin prepared to become a state
in 1846, leading politicians and businessmen drafted
a constitution modeled on New York's that would
have allowed married women the right to own their own
property. They also discussed, though it was never
included in the final draft, whether to extend to women
the right to vote. The proposed constitution provoked
heated debate both in the convention itself and in
newspapers around the state. In the end, though, the
1846 constitution proved too radical for its time and
a new constitution was prepared that omitted any mention
of women's rights. While still modeled on New
York's (with the notable exception of women's
property rights), Wisconsin's constitution was
approved in April 1848. Less than six weeks later,
in July 1848, another convention, called by women and
for women's rights, was held in Seneca Falls,
New York — a convention that would have immeasurable
influence on succeeding generations of Wisconsin women.
teenager comes to Green Bay as a new bride.
1820s: Read an article about Wisconsin's
first public school teacher, Electa Quinney.
1827: Indian agent Joseph Street
protests the exploitation
of Indian women by white traders.
1826-1841: Read an article on the
of a young mother in the lead region.
1829-1834: Juliette Kinzie's memoir
at Fort Winnebago.
Bracken flees Wisconsin during the Black Hawk War.
1833: Read a Milwaukee Sentinel
article about the
first German women to settle in Milwaukee.
1846: Read a teenager's diary
entry describing coming overland to Wisconsin from
1846: View the rejected
state constitution of 1846.
advocates for women's rights.
1850: Mrs. Julia Spears recounts
journey to Sandy Lake (pgs 54-55, 114-122).
3. Civil War Era
The years before the Civil War were a time of active
reform, as organizations were created to agitate
for causes such as temperance and abolition. Women,
unwelcome in some reform organizations, started their
own groups, including the Female Moral Reform Society
in Waukesha that even counted a former slave, Peggy
More, as a member. Both nationally and in Wisconsin,
women played a large role in the abolition movement.
Women helped to hide fugitive slaves in their homes,
including a Pewaukee farm wife recorded only as "Mrs.
Brown" who hid the first fugitive slave to escape
through Wisconsin, Caroline Quarlls, in 1843.
The Civil War had a profound effect on nearly all
aspects of life for Wisconsin citizens, regardless
of whether they became a part of the Union military
forces. Wisconsin's women played a vital role in
the success of the war effort, providing medical,
spiritual and economic support to the soldiers.
Middle- and upper-class women, especially those in
villages and cities, set aside their many religious,
ethnic and political differences to form aid societies
throughout the state. The Women's Soldiers
Aid Society sent medical inspectors to improve sanitary
conditions among the soldiers, donated thousands
of dollars worth of supplies to the frontlines and
to hospitals, and hired nurses for army hospitals.
While some women busied themselves with aid to distant
regiments, others worked closer to home. Filling
traditionally male roles, women helped to keep Wisconsin's
economy (and their families) afloat by working tirelessly
in the fields and in a number of commercial industries.
1843: Read an account of escaped
slave Caroline Quarlls' escape to Canada.
1850s: View records of some Underground
Railroad escapes, including Mrs. Davies (pages 39-42).
1863: Women try to raise money
1860s: Learn about Cordelia
Harvey's relief efforts for Wisconsin soldiers
and their families.
1860s: View a collection of documents
and the Civil War home front.
4. Industrialization and Change
In Wisconsin, as elsewhere in the nation, the decades
following the Civil War were a time of rapid industrialization,
urbanization and social change. Dairy farming spread
quickly throughout southern Wisconsin. Anne Nickerson
Pickett had founded the first dairy cooperative
near Lake Mills as early as 1841. Colleges and universities
began providing women with opportunities for higher
education, while new employment opportunities drew
women out of the home and into the labor market.
New technologies also helped to transform daily life,
though few working-class or immigrant women could
take advantage of either technological or economic
changes due to financial and, often, social limitations.
The industrialization of agriculture, coupled with
the growth of manufacturing, contributed to the rise
of Wisconsin labor organizations. While many of these
labor unions were hostile to women, viewing them
as a "competitive menace," others proved
more welcoming, particularly the Wisconsin State Federation
of Labor, which made universal suffrage a part of its
reform platform. Women workers did not sit idly by
during strikes either, joining or even instigating
The relationship between labor and socialism in
Wisconsin was a close one, which contributed to the
general support among both groups for women's rights
and suffrage. Meta Schlichting Berger, wife of Milwaukee's
leading socialist, Victor Berger, was a leader both
among women in the Socialist Party and women in suffragist
Wisconsin's rapid economic growth in the early 20th
century served as a magnet for immigrants, many of
whom faced Americanization efforts in schools and
community organizations like settlement homes. Working
with recent immigrants, settlement house workers,
predominately women, tried to ease the adjustment
to a new country by consciously teaching white, middle-class
values in urban ethnic neighborhoods. At "The
Settlement" in Milwaukee, for example, Jewish
women and girls were introduced to American consumer
culture through cooking classes. These efforts were
relatively benign, though, in comparison to the harsh,
government-sanctioned assimilation tactics Indian education
programs forced on Native American children.
former student recalls Milwaukee Female College.
girls learn to use sewing machines, 1895.
strike turns violent in Oshkosh.
excerpts from The Settlement
the government thought Indian girls needed to know.
on the education of the girl.
regulations for women workers.
sketch of the life of Meta Berger.
5. Suffrage and World Wars
World War I was a time of unusual tension in Wisconsin
as the nations of Europe with which the state's residents
identified, particularly Germany and England, squared
off in a bloody conflict. Wisconsin's sizable
German-American population and members of the Progressive
and Socialist parties generally opposed American entry
into the war. Despite many sources of outspoken opposition,
though, the majority of Wisconsin supported the American
war effort. Many Wisconsin women became nurses while
others organized drives to collect funds and supplies
for soldiers, and encouraged rationing efforts on the
home front. One group that sought to demonstrate its
loyalty and to use the wartime emergency to advocate
for its cause was the suffrage movement.
The campaign for women's suffrage in Wisconsin generally
paralleled that of the national campaign. Prior to
the Civil War, suffrage advocates were part of a
much broader movement aimed at achieving social reform,
temperance and prohibition. After the war, suffrage
activities were sporadic but the movement gradually
gained support, especially among progressive-minded
politicians. After gaining the right to vote in school
elections, Wisconsin suffragists forged a remarkably
well-organized and widespread effort that brought
many Wisconsin women to national prominence, including
Theodora Winton Youmans, Olympia Brown and Carrie
Chapman Catt. While the movement suffered some discouraging
setbacks, most notably the failed 1912 Suffrage Referendum,
Wisconsin's suffrage activists contributed
to the movement's ultimate success when Wisconsin
became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment
in 1920. In 1921 Wisconsin passed the nation's
first equal rights bill, granting women full equality
with men under law.
Wisconsin women responded to the nation's needs
once again during World War II, joining the military,
working in factories, going without daily comforts,
and supporting their families. To produce all of
the goods needed in the war effort, many women went
to work in factories like Allis-Chalmers or in shipyards
such as those in Manitowoc. Approximately 9,000 Wisconsin
women also served in the military, most in health
care, but some as parachute riggers, cryptographers
and ferry pilots. World War II also launched the career of
photojournalist Dickey Chapelle, one of the first
female foreign correspondents. Until the war ended
in August 1945, wartime shortages of food, gasoline
and other essential goods presented daily challenges
that women learned to meet by creatively stretching
their household budgets.
1911: Olympia Brown's 1911 autobiorgraphical
old and new, among reformers.
1912: The Political Equality League makes the case for women's suffrage.
pictures of the women's suffrage movement in Wisconsin.
Suffrage publications from the Wisconsin
Woman's Suffrage Association.
1918: Read the wartime
letters of nurses Helen Bulovsky and Margaret Rowland.
1918: Read about women's
contributions to the war effort on the home front.
1918: Review a list of Wisconsin
women who lost their lives during World War I (page 189).
passes the nation's first equal rights bill.
develops solutions to wartime shortages.
World War II photographs taken by Dickey Chapelle.
wartime letters from WAC Luida Sanders.
images of women metal fabricators in Fort Atkinson.
Throughout the centuries of Indian settlement and
the subsequent waves of immigration, Wisconsin women
have made significant strides forward, though many
challenges remain. The last half of the 20th century
saw substantial progress in many areas but Wisconsin
women still trail those of other states, particularly
in the workplace, education, employment prospects
and political access. The 2004 Status of Women in
Wisconsin Report found, for example, that Wisconsin
ranks 45th out of all states in wage equity between
women and men (women earn, on average, 29 cents less
per dollar than men) — and even greater disparity
exists for women of color. Wisconsin women also rank
in the bottom third in business ownership. As our Turning
Points in Wisconsin History collection progresses,
we will bring their story up to date here.