Are We There Yet? Women got the vote 100 years ago, but equality remains elusive

  • May 13, 2019
  • Amy Barrilleaux
  • Isthmus



Theodora Youmans, a journalist and suffrage leader, helped keep Wisconsin suffragists organized through several state defeats. “We rested for a bit…. But the rest was short.”

The pink ballot. There were four statewide referendums up for a vote in Wisconsin on Nov. 4, 1912, but the one that could enfranchise the state’s women was printed separately, on pink paper.

“It had been a rugged decade, a rugged, long stretch — many decades — for Wisconsin women,” says Genevieve McBride, professor emerita of history at UW-Milwaukee and author of On Wisconsin Women: Working for Their Rights from Settlement to Suffrage. “This [referendum] was very exciting because this was following the peak year of progressivism, 1911.”

That year, Wisconsin passed the Workman’s Compensation Act, hallmark legislation of the state’s progressive movement, as well as a host of other protections for workers.

“People thought Wisconsin was such a progressive state. That’s when the myth started,” McBride says.

Any hopes that women would be able to ride the wave of progressivism in Wisconsin were deflated at the polls. The state’s men denied women the right to vote by 227,054 to 135,736. The Wisconsin Suffrage Referendum got 120,000 more votes than the sum total of the other three measures up for a vote that day. Men had come to the polls, it seems, specifically to cast those pink ballots.

“Wisconsin women battled the worst opponent of women’s suffrage, which was the liquor and alcohol lobby. And the Brewer’s Congress was famous,” McBride says. “It was founded in Milwaukee in the 1870s to battle the temperance campaign. And they recognized women were significant leadership in that campaign.”

By the end of 1912, women in nine other states had full suffrage, and the following year, women next door in Illinois won the right to vote in presidential elections. Wisconsin women, meantime, were still only allowed to cast votes in school board races, which had separate ballot boxes — often with pink ballots.

“Isn’t that cute? Don’t you love the pink ballots?” asks McBride. “That was an act of the Legislature. Who sits there and says, ‘Let’s make the ballots pink’?”

As women’s suffrage began sweeping the country, Wisconsin was falling behind. The 1912 referendum, McBride believes, had exposed Wisconsin’s newfound progressivism. The political and social movement was open to men only.

“I was born and raised here. We were all raised on the progressive myth,” she says. “We were taught in fourth grade, ‘Oh Wisconsin is such a progressive state.’ We’re taught that myth.”

Progressive reformer Fighting Bob La Follette was a prominent supporter of women’s suffrage, and his wife, Belle Case La Follette, was a leader in the movement. But his support could not shepherd though a victory for women at the polls.

For suffragists, the long battle for voting rights would continue.

“We rested a bit after that campaign. We needed it,” recalled Wisconsin journalist and suffrage leader Theodora Youmans in 1921. “But the rest was short.”

In a way, Wisconsin women benefited from that overwhelming defeat in 1912. They stayed organized, through setback after setback — another potential suffrage referendum vetoed by the governor in 1913, a third try in 1915 failed to make it through the Legislature at all. In March 1919, the state Legislature gave women the right to vote in presidential elections with a bill that Gov. Emanuel Philipp reluctantly signed, contending that it was illegal.

Susan B. Anthony wrote the 19th Amendment in 1876. When it was finally approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1918 and the Senate on June 4, 1919, suffragists in Wisconsin were ready.

Click here for a more legible PDF of the above graphic.

And so the rest of the story unfolds, the part students across the state learn in history class. The part that highlights Wisconsin’s role in the enfranchisement of American women.

“Wisconsin and Illinois women raced to see who could be first with this long rivalry. And Michigan women also got their Legislature called into a special session,” recounts McBride. “So on June 10, here were these three states. Illinois acted first, but they screwed up the wording. So they had to re-do it a week later. Wisconsin’s actually got to Washington, D.C., first, so it was the first legal ratification accepted by the United States secretary of state.”

While states were ratifying the amendment, a new organization was formed — the League of Women Voters. It was designed to help “20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters.” The goal wasn’t merely voter participation, but encouraging people to become engaged citizens who would lobby for political and social reforms.

In Wisconsin, voters approved the first equal rights legislation in the country in 1921, ratified the ultimately-doomed Equal Rights Amendment in 1973, and passed the nation’s first modern marital property reform, the Uniform Marital Property Act, in 1984.

And while suffrage greatly expanded women’s opportunities to hold office, proportionate representation has remained elusive.

In 1925, Wisconsin elected its first women — Mildred Barber, Helen Brooks and Helen Thompson — to the state Assembly. But it would be another 50 years before a woman would hold a state Senate seat. The 1970s appeared to usher in a new era, where women made steady gains in the Legislature all the way through the 1980s. In 1989, a record 37 of the 132 legislators at the Capitol were women. That number would be reached again in 2003, but it has never been surpassed.

“‘Why don’t you train men?’ That’s usually the way they put it,” says Erin Forrest, executive director of Emerge Wisconsin, part of a national organization that identifies, encourages and trains women to run for office.

The occasional pushback from people who question the need for an organization like Emerge doesn’t really surprise her. “For a lot of us, we were told that the women’s movement was a thing that happened, and it ended in the ’70s. ‘That thing is done now, and now everything is fine and everything is equal,’” she says.

Wisconsin sent its first woman to Congress in 1999 — 77 years after Illinois and 41 years after Michigan, its two old ratification rivals. The second woman from Wisconsin was elected to Congress in 2004.

“Both of the women that Wisconsin has ever elected to federal office are still serving,” Forrest points out. “It’s Tammy Baldwin and Gwen Moore. End of list.”

Neighboring Minnesota, with the same number of congressional seats as Wisconsin, has sent eight women to Congress, five of whom are currently serving. Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan also have higher percentages of women serving in their state legislatures than Wisconsin. Illinois may have been bested in 1919, but a century later its Legislature is 36 percent women, the highest in the Midwest. Wisconsin’s is 27 percent.

Forrest insists that electing women is about more than numbers.

“At the end of the day, what government is is decision-making. It’s just making a bunch of different decisions. And what we know about good decision-making is that it requires diverse perspectives,” she says. “If you have narrow framing or limited perspective, you’re less likely to make good decisions.”

The list of reasons why, in the century since Wisconsin ratified the 19th Amendment, women have never made up more than 28 percent of their state Legislature and 20 percent of their representatives in Congress is complicated.

Forrest stresses the power of incumbency, and the fact that women are less likely to be recruited to run for office in the first place.

“When most of the people who hold elected office are white men, we tend to have pretty homogeneous networks. So when they’re recruiting, they’re recruiting from their network, which is going to look a lot like them usually,” Forrest explains. “There are also still internal factors, confidence gaps between men and women. Then there’s the chore gap. Regardless of how much we work outside the home … elder care, child care, the general management of everything that happens at home, still disproportionately falls on women.”

“I wore myself out,” recalls U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) of her first years serving in the Assembly. At the time, her children were still in elementary school in Milwaukee. “Traveling back and forth every single night so I could get home to make sure homework was done, make sure I prepared some meal I could put in the refrigerator for them to warm up when they got home, versus a lot of my male colleagues who had themselves little small rooms that they rented or an apartment. It was no big deal for them to stay in Madison.”

Moore points to another factor keeping women out of elected office — money.

“It’s harder to raise money. If we do ask, then we’re seen as aggressive, you know, ball-busting women,” she says.

And with elected office, Moore says, comes sacrifice. “I have suffered I think personally. I think a lot of men think that I am not as feminine as I ought to be because I sit in this place of power. And that’s a sacrifice on a personal level.”

Moore was part of that record-breaking group of 37 women who took office at the state Capitol in 1989.

“I was a woman, I was a mother. I wanted to protect women’s reproductive freedom. I wanted better schooling. And I wanted someone to lean into the issues that I felt weren’t on most politicians’ agendas,” she says. “Women fought really, really hard for the right to vote, and we are the majority of voters. We do have the capacity in this state to elect more women.”

McBride agrees. “If you think provincially and don’t look around, you just sort of say, ‘Well this must be as good as it gets.’ No. It’s not as good as it gets,” she says. “We keep being told how we should all be grateful because of all the things we have been allowed to do. With a slogan of ‘forward,’ we’re a backwards state. Especially when we start comparing ourselves to other states even in the upper Midwest.”

McBride believes any lingering myth of a progressive Wisconsin was profoundly shattered with the 2016 election, the first election where the state’s restrictive Voter ID law was in place.

“Now we’re looking at voter suppression laws. There are various ways you can suppress the vote.… I think 2016 helped wake up more people to that,” she says. A hundred years after Wisconsin legislators raced to enfranchise women, the state has become one of the hardest places in the country to cast a ballot, including for many elderly women who were part of the first generation born with the right to vote.

“We have to keep at it and realize the battle that we’re facing,” McBride says. “We’re clearly facing a third to 40 percent or so of our populace who would just as soon go back to the 19th century.”

The League of Women Voters continues its voter education efforts today, focusing recently on making sure that people aren’t disenfranchised.

“Certainly within the last 10 years we have gone backwards rather than forwards. Traditionally, I think that Wisconsin was a state that tried to make voting more available to all eligible voters,” says Ingrid Rothe, committee chair of the League of Women Voters of Dane County. “We got a whole series of bad bills affecting voting.”

The League teamed up with the Dane County NAACP in 2015 to form the Dane County Voter ID Coalition, which helps people register to vote, obtain IDs, and understand the complicated new changes. More than a dozen other advocacy and neighborhood groups soon joined them.

“There have been a lot of law changes that affect voting administration and therefore affect voters. One of the most egregious is voter ID. It’s not the only one” says Rothe. “People needed to be educated that the law had changed and they needed an ID, and the state really did not do very much to educate people. So that really meant that it fell on volunteers to do the education.”

McBride, who graduated from college at the height of the women’s movement in 1971, says 2016 proved the struggle for rights never really ends.

“I think what my generation did not learn … we didn’t stay organized. We got those wins through and a lot of us, we didn’t stay active. It has to be a constant educational campaign. And that’s why we continue to need the League of Women Voters,” she says. “You have to remain organized. It is not enough to win and go home because the forces will come back to fight you, to try to repeal. To take back.”

There’s been good news, even in the face of setbacks. Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016 became a rallying cry for many.

“One of the most qualified people in history of people running for president ran and lost to arguably the least qualified person,” Forrest says. “Every day that he’s president, we’re reminded of our place in this society. That reminder is going to continue to serve as motivation.”

She’s seeing that motivation at Emerge in the form of dramatically increased participation in its program. “In 2017 we actually did two classes, which we’ve never done before. And one of them was just massive,” she says, adding that twice as many program graduates ran for spring office in 2019 as 2017.

Women continue to be best represented on school boards around the state, says Forrest (with the recent spring election, Madison now has an all-woman school board). “It’s also the thing that we’ve been doing the longest. What that says to me is that these other areas are going to continue to catch up.”

Forrest points out that there has also been tremendous progress in the Wisconsin Legislature, just not for both parties. Of the 50 Democrats serving, 24 are women. But of the 81 Republicans, only 12 are women.

“We’re continuing to see an increase in the number of Democratic women that are elected. But we’re seeing Republican women drop off,” she says. “If you look at the 2018 election across the country, this is what happened. It wasn’t the year of the women, it was the year of the Democratic women.”

If current trends continue, Forrest believes gender parity in both the state Legislature and U.S. Congress, where just 21 Republican women currently serve, will be unachievable.

“The [issue] with the representation of women in the Republican party is very concerning. So if there is not some sort of readjustment or reset within their party, that’s going to hold us back. It’s going to take us longer,” Forrest says. “Democrats are not going to start electing 100 percent women.”

Moore first got involved in politics by supporting other women who were running. “Every time any women ran for office, there I was licking stamps, going door-to-door,” she says. “This was a shot at someone caring about the issues that made a difference to me. I had become a victim of predatory lending practices. I had one or two payments left on my washer and dryer before they came and repossessed it.

“I had been a victim of sexual assault, domestic violence,” she adds. “And I wanted someone who I thought might prioritize these kinds of issues.”

Now Moore is one of nearly two dozen lawmakers, educators and community leaders who have been appointed by Gov. Tony Evers to serve on a committee celebrating the 100th anniversary of Wisconsin ratifying the 19th Amendment. She’s especially pleased to see some of Wisconsin’s 12 Republican women legislators on the committee.

“I’m happy that this is a bipartisan thing,” says Moore, lamenting a vote she made as a state senator in 2001. “If I could just take one vote back, the vote that I would take back would be voting against Margaret Farrow to be confirmed as lieutenant governor. Because even though I didn’t agree with anything this woman ever did, to deny a woman a seat at the table is so counterintuitive. And so to vote against her on a partisan basis is something that I’ll forever regret.”

As part of the historic 116th Congress, with the most women ever serving in Washington, Moore is cautiously optimistic that women will continue to gain seats at the table. “We shall see if this is sustainable in the 2020 election,” she says.

No one disputes that even with all the gains, American women still have far to go.

“We have to teach the real history of how change has been won in this country…It’s just rather astonishing how [women’s] stories are told. A sentence here or a paragraph there,” McBride says. “That is what our history is. People without power struggling to gain power.”

Celebrate the vote!

Events around the state will commemorate the 100th anniversary of Wisconsin ratifying the 19th Amendment.


A special display from the Wisconsin Historical Society is currently on view in the Capitol rotunda. “The Women’s Hour Has Struck, Wisconsin: The First State to Ratify the 19th Amendment,” features images and documents that highlight Wisconsin’s role in the ratification. The display is part of a larger celebration planned for June 10, which will include the unveiling of the original 19th Amendment document at noon, as well as artifacts like a yellow parade tunic worn by Wisconsin suffrage supporters during the 1916 Republican National Convention in Chicago.

The League of Women Voters Wisconsin and Dane County will mark the anniversary at noon, Sunday, June 23, at the Forward statue on the Capitol Square (State Street corner), for a short program highlighting “the importance of Wisconsin’s first-to-ratify vote, how it gave hope to many women but not to all.” The ceremony will be followed by a march around the Capitol Square, led in song by The Raging Grannies. People can make a suffrage sash and enjoy free frozen vanilla custard.

Two Steps Forward Monologue Festival, Forward Theater’s biannual festival of short monologue plays, will focus this year on the 19th Amendment. June 20 to 23, in Overture Center’s Promenade Hall.

Green Lake

League of Women Voters of Wisconsin will hold its annual meeting on June 8 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Green Lake Conference Center. The focus is “Commemorating Our Legacy, Expanding Our Impact” and the meeting will feature a lecture on Wisconsin’s suffrage history from Genevieve McBride, professor emerita of history at UW-Milwaukee.

— Amy Barrilleaux