Meta Berger | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Berger, Meta Schlichting (1873-1944)

Meta Berger | Wisconsin Historical Society

A shy yet determined and spirited woman, Meta Schlichting Berger (1873-1944) chose a life of public service and political activism over the conventionality and respectability common to women of her generation. Born in Milwaukee on February 23, 1873, to German-born parents, Schlichting trained as a teacher at the Wisconsin State Normal School in Milwaukee. She taught primary school for three years before resigning in 1897 to marry Victor Berger, a leader in the Milwaukee's emerging socialist movement.

At first, Berger felt little attachment to the socialist politics that consumed her husband's life, but over time she came to forge a real partnership with Victor in the socialist cause, challenging him and even offering her own ideas on practical and administrative matters. In 1909 Berger was first thrust into the spotlight with her election to the school board, a sign of the party's growing power in Milwaukee. The following year Victor became the first Socialist Party candidate ever elected to Congress.

As a school board member, Berger supported progressive measures such as the construction of playgrounds, "penny lunches" and medical exams for children. She also advocated on behalf of teachers, working for tenure, a fixed-salary schedule and a pension system. Re-elected in 1915, Berger won three more times, serving a total of 30 years. Her work for the school board led to her appointments to the Wisconsin State Board of Education, the Wisconsin Board of Regents of Normal Schools and University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.

Berger also took advantage of the opportunities for public service provided by her marriage. She advised Victor informally on political policy and strategy, and assisted in the production of his daily newspaper, the Milwaukee Leader. After Victor's death, Berger was even elected to his seat on the Socialist Party's National Executive Committee, a position accorded to few women.

Outside of education and party circles, Berger's skills brought her influence in numerous reform organizations, including the peace and woman suffrage movements. Her life dramatically changed during World Ware I when her German heritage and opposition to the war provoked a wave of anti-Socialist and German sentiment throughout the country that culminated in the arrest of her husband.

Embittered by her family's troubles during the war, Berger spent much of the 1920s traveling in Asia and Germany with Victor. After Victor's sudden death in 1929, Berger's relationship with the Socialist Party grew strained, and she resigned in 1940. She died at her Thiensville farm in 1944.