Wisconsin’s Historic Role in Women’s Suffrage

women's suffrage

Image WHS-1927: Members of the Oshkosh Equal Suffrage League show off their 4th of July float, fashioned to look like a sailboat, in this 1912 image.

By Julia Richards | Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

This year marks 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, granting women the right to vote. Wisconsin holds the distinction of being the first state to ratify the amendment, on June 10, 1919. It was a 70-plus-year struggle to get there, however, and even longer for many women of color. What can we learn from our foremothers’ efforts and what do they mean for women engaging in our political system today? A new exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Society tells the story of Wisconsin’s role in the suffrage movement and the women who were key players here.

Simone Munson, collection development coordinator at the Wisconsin Historical Society, was instrumental in putting together the exhibit, and told BRAVA about what visitors can learn.

Q: What can people learn from this exhibit?

This exhibit wanted to take the idea that [the 19th Amendment] was just the beginning and that there was a lot of work that needed to be done after the suffrage bill was passed. The 19th Amendment didn’t actually give everyone the right to vote; there are lots of women who were still excluded from voting after 1920. Native American women didn’t really have the freedom to exercise their right to vote until 1924 with the Native American Citizenship Act. And most African American women couldn’t vote until the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

The second half of the exhibit also talks more about things like the Equal Rights Amendment, women’s involvement in politics, women taking office and how far we’ve come, and how much more work still has to be done to get women more fully involved in politics.

Q: What is notable about Wisconsin’s fight for women’s suffrage?

The suffrage movement was so closely aligned with the temperance movement and Wisconsin being such a strong German and pro-tavern state—we have lots of big breweries here—that was not an easy argument to make. And so, the women in Wisconsin really struggled for a long time.

There were a number of notable Wisconsin women though, who were active at the national level. So women like Belle Case La Follette and Carrie Chapman Catt were moving in the circles of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and some of those really well-known suffragists from the time.

Q: Can you tell me about the issues women were engaged in besides temperance?

So we have to remember that it’s really a 70-year period where women are trying to gain this right and it does change over time. So at the beginning in the 1840s through the 1860s there is a close alignment between the women’s suffrage movement and abolitionism. And then after the American Civil War we see that change and there are some splits within the movement with [regards] to how they view African Americans.

Also, one of the ways that women gained ground in this state by state movement was to make the connection between children and education in the domestic realm. Women were able to argue that they deserved the right to vote in school matters or municipal elections because those elections have a more clear connection to regulating schools. So, in the 1880s the Wisconsin legislature passed a bill that said that women are allowed to vote in school matters, but they didn’t define that very clearly and they also didn’t really set up a process for women to vote. The municipalities continued to print all of the offices up for election on the same ballot and as a result they made it impossible for women to vote because voting is anonymous. If they were to hand a woman a ballot with the presidential election and the school board election on it how would they know which election they voted for? It was a bit of a fiasco and they didn’t actually get that whole thing sorted out until around 1900.

Q: What significance does it have that Wisconsin was the first to ratify the 19th amendment?

I think there were a lot of really hardworking women in Wisconsin that wanted to be able to claim the first to ratify because they had had such a struggle, and they saw that the time was right and this is something that they could accomplish, so they seized the opportunity.

To visit the exhibit: “We Stand on Their Shoulders” opened on Feb. 18 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum and runs through the end of the year. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Suggested donation for adults is $5. Plans are also underway for statewide celebrations on Aug. 26—which fittingly, is now known as Women’s Equality Day—and also the date the amendment went into effect. historicalmuseum.wisconsinhistory.org


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