Belle Case La Follette | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

La Follette, Belle Case (1859-1931)

Belle Case La Follette | Wisconsin Historical Society

In Wisconsin politics, there is perhaps no more famous family than the La Follettes. At the center sat one woman, often overshadowed by her husband and sons, yet an influential reformer in her own right. Belle Case La Follette was a lawyer, journalist, editor, suffragist and counselor who provided much of the intellectual sophistication behind the Progressive Movement for which her husband was known. The first woman graduate of the University of Wisconsin law school, La Follette devoted much of her life to the cause of women's rights.

Born in Summit, Wisconsin (Juneau County), on April 21, 1859, Belle La Follette (nee Case), idolized her farmer parents who sacrificed everything to send their only daughter to college in 1875. She excelled at her studies, finding a particular passion for literature. She also befriended her future husband, Bob La Follette. Although she was nearly four years younger than he, the two were in the same class, and she, unlike Bob, finished near the top of their class. Following graduation in 1879, La Follette taught high school while Bob studied law. The two married on December 30, 1881.

When Bob became District Attorney, La Follette "clerked" for him, researching legal precedents and helping to write briefs. In 1882 she gave birth to their first child, Flora Dodge. Her interest in law sparked, La Follette enrolled in the University of Wisconsin Law School and became the first female graduate in 1885. Although she never practiced law independently, La Follette continued to do legal work throughout her life, even earning the praise of a Wisconsin Chief Justice for a brief she wrote for one of her husband's cases.

During Bob's three terms in Congress (1885-1891), La Follette acted as his secretary and administrative assistant. When they returned to Wisconsin after his defeat, she taught physical education classes and lectured on a variety of issues including woman suffrage, coeducation and dress reform. She also served as president of the Emily Bishop League, a group devoted to exercise, pure foods and the more "natural" way of life. Between 1895 and 1899, La Follette had three more children — Bob Jr., Phil and Mary — while still working on her husband's campaigns, continuing her advocacy work and running the household.

After serving as governor's wife for five years, La Follette returned to Washington in 1906 when Bob became a U.S. Senator. She never shied away from direct participation in governmental affairs, exerting a tremendous influence over Bob's efforts at reform legislation both in Wisconsin as well as nationally.

In 1909, the La Follettes founded "La Follette's Weekly Magazine", which later became "The Progressive" under her role as editor in 1929. From 1909 until her death in 1931, La Follette wrote weekly columns that often took up political or legal positions, advocated for legislation, or critiqued political policies and administrations. She also used every opportunity to make the case for woman suffrage, railing against state and federal laws that limited the position of women. From 1911 to 1912 La Follette also wrote a column for the North American Press Syndicate.

A staunch pacifist, La Follette helped found the Women's Peace Party in 1918, which later became the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. After World War I, she was active in the Women's Committee for World Disarmament, the National Council for the Prevention of War, and helped convene the Naval Arms Limitations Conference in 1922.

After Bob's death in 1925, La Follette was urged to fill his seat in the Senate but she declined in no uncertain terms, saying, "at no time in my life would I ever have chosen a public career for myself." Instead, her son Robert Jr. was elected. La Follette began work on a biography of Bob but died before it was finished. Her daughter Fola completed it. La Follette died on August 18, 1931.