Great Woman-Centric Moments in Wisconsin’s History

Here’s how the women of our state have been badgering the patriarchy.

TRAILBLAZING WOMEN HAVE PUT WISCONSIN – and our fair city, Milwaukee – in the national spotlight since the 1840s, when a then-controversial document giving women the right to own property was put forward. More recently, judges Vel Phillips and Kristy Yang have gone through previously unopened doors. Here are some key milestones in the advancement of women in Wisconsin. 


The Wisconsin constitutional convention produces a document that would have given women the right to own property, among other progressive provisions. (An even more radical idea – granting women the right to vote – was discussed but not included in the approved draft.) Voters – at the time, all white men – rejected the draft constitution. That led to a second convention in 1847 that produced a less controversial constitution that left out any mention of women. Voters accepted that new constitution a year later. A law allowing married women to own property passed in 1850, two years after statehood.


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The Milwaukee Female Seminary begins reorganizing as a women’s college under the guidance of national women’s educator Catharine Beecher. The college provided a full course of study in higher education for Milwaukee women, which was very rare at the time.


A delegation of women from Wisconsin joins the first national suffrage parade in Washington, D.C.


Capping a decades-long battle for suffrage, Wisconsin becomes the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. The National American Woman Suffrage Association responded with a euphoric statement: “A Vote for Every Woman in 1920!”


Wisconsin passes the nation’s first equal rights bill, granting women full equality with men under the law. The bill includes the “exercise of suffrage, freedom of contract, choice of residence for voting purposes, jury service, holding office, holding and conveying property, care and custody of children and in all other respects.”


The Wisconsin constitution is amended to officially allow women the right to vote.


Gov. Philip La Follette appoints Verle Sells to the circuit court bench in Florence County, making her Wisconsin’s first woman judge.


The Women’s Coalition of Milwaukee is founded to bring together feminist groups to fight sex discrimination, educate and advocate for women and advance feminism in the city.


Susan B. Anthony Day is established as a state holiday on her birthday, Feb. 15. Wisconsin is one of only six states to so honor the suffragist and social reformer.


Milwaukeean Vel R. Phillips becomes the nation’s first African American woman elected to serve as a secretary of state. Phillips was also the first African American woman to graduate from UW-Madison Law School (in 1951) and to become a judge (in 1971).


The Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee, which works to economically empower women and girls, is founded.


Tammy Baldwin wins a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first woman elected to Congress from Wisconsin and the first openly gay woman elected to the House.


Gwen Moore, previously a state senator from Milwaukee, becomes the first African American woman elected to Congress from Wisconsin.


Kristy Yang becomes Wisconsin’s first Hmong American judge, and the nation’s first female Hmong American judge. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, she moved to Sheboygan with her family at age 7. Yang sits on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court.

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s November issue.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.