in Wisconsin History
The Woman's Suffrage Movement
On June 10, 1919, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th amendment granting national suffrage to women. From 1846 to 1919, different groups of women's rights supporters had focused much of their energy on winning the vote, though each pursued different strategies. Although Wisconsin had not been completely unenlightened in its approach to women's legal rights (the rejected 1846 constitution would have given married women property rights), neither had it been on the forefront of the cause. Just seven years before the 19th amendment passed, a statewide referendum on suffrage had met with a resounding two-to-one defeat, so it was in some ways unusual that Wisconsin was the first to ratify federal woman suffrage.
When Wisconsin gained its statehood in 1848, there was little popular support for woman suffrage in Wisconsin. Only a few reformers, such as Warren Chase, spoke out for suffrage at the two constitutional conventions, and it was never seriously considered. Bills to grant women full suffrage were introduced in 1855 and 1867 but both failed.
Women's rights groups began to form in Wisconsin for the first time in the late 1860s. Focusing primarily on temperance and suffrage, these groups also criticized the state of women's property rights, which continued to be interpreted narrowly by courts leery of setting legal precedents that might prompt litigation between husbands and wives. The Wisconsin Women's Suffrage Association (WWSA) was formed in 1869 to begin an organized suffrage campaign. Besides facing the objections made everywhere to women's political equality, many suffrage activists in Wisconsin were also leaders in the temperance movement, which generated hostility from the state's powerful brewing industry and from German Americans.
The heavy involvement of women in the movement to improve public schools, which seemed acceptable to many male policy-makers, gave them some success with suffrage. In 1869, the state legislature passed a law allowing women to run for school boards and other elective school offices. Neighboring states began allowing women to vote in elections related to school and temperance issues in the 1870s. Following their success in gaining women's right to run for local school boards, the WWSA began an all-out suffrage campaign in the legislature in 1884. The legislature refused to consider full suffrage but gave women the right to vote at any election "pertaining to school matters." Many suffrage leaders feared that if school board candidates appeared on a general ballot alongside other offices (rather than on a separate school ballot), women would not be allowed to vote at all -- a fear that was confirmed in the spring elections of 1887.
In many parts of the state that spring, women's ballots were accepted without question, but in Racine, the ballot of WWSA leader Olympia Brown was rejected. Casting her vote for municipal offices on the basis that they, too, affected local schools, Brown sued to force local officials to accept her ballot. Circuit Judge John Winslow agreed with Brown but the state Supreme Court reversed the decision in Brown v. Phillips (1888), contending that doing so would give women the right to vote for all offices which was not what the legislature had originally intended. The court also held that women could not use ballots that included any offices other than school offices, since there was no way to verify that women had only voted for school offices on a system of secret ballots. The court ruled that candidates for school offices would have to be listed on a separate ballot, and the legislature then refused to provide the power to local governments to do this, effectively nullifying the school suffrage law of 1869.
The first wave of the suffrage movement had advocated radical rather than gradual change. By the 1890s, a new generation of suffrage activists began to work for more incremental reforms. Led by Theodora Winton Youmans of Waukesha and Ada James of Richland Center, women's rights advocates began relying heavily on women's clubs to promote suffrage as just one part of a broader platform of civic reforms. The WWSA gave way to the Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs (WFWC) as the leader in the campaign for women's rights.
These new reformers concentrated on two short-term goals: placing more women in influential state government positions and making the school suffrage law actually work. In 1901, the legislature finally authorized separate school ballots, enabling women to vote for school offices. Governor Robert La Follette, whose wife Belle was an attorney active in the women's movement, advanced the second goal by appointing women to state boards and commissions. He also helped pass laws that ensured that women would always have positions on some state boards.
In 1911, Ada James enlisted the support of her father, a state senator, in the cause of full suffrage. Senator David James and the WFWC successfully lobbied the legislature to authorize a statewide referendum on suffrage, an issue that attracted much support but also powerful opposition. When the referendum was held, Wisconsin men voted suffrage down by a margin of 63 to 37 percent. The referendum's defeat could be traced to multiple causes, but the two most widely cited reasons were the schisms within the women's movement itself and the perceived link between suffragists and temperance that antagonized so many German Americans.
The years after the 1912 referendum remained difficult for suffrage activists. In 1913, the WFWC merged with the WWSA, continuing the campaign for suffrage as a new organization. The legislature authorized another referendum that same year, but Governor Francis McGovern vetoed the bill. Two years later, in 1915, a more conservative legislature rejected yet another referendum bill and dealt an even bigger blow to the movement by eliminating elective boards of education. This wiped out many elective school board positions gained by women since first being allowed to run in 1869.
Concluding that the state legislature was never going to help the suffrage cause in Wisconsin, the WWSA leaders decided to devote their time and energy to the national campaign. Most of Wisconsin's congressmen were sympathetic to a federal woman suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it finally passed in 1919. Bowing to what it now regarded as inevitable, the Wisconsin legislature ratified the amendment giving women the right to vote in federal elections; the Wisconsin constitution was not amended until 1934. Soon after winning the vote, women organized the League of Women Voters to encourage use of the ballot and to direct it toward goals that the League believed desirable.
[Source: The History of Wisconsin vol. 3 and 4 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); McBride, Genevieve. On Wisconsin Women (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993)]