These Are the Women Who Made Milwaukee

These gutsy women are the stuff of legend in our city. Thanks to their bravery, vision, ingenuity and tenacity, Milwaukee is a better, safer and more just place for all of its residents. We salute them!

Ardie Clark Halyard


In 1924, this steadfast champion against racial discrimination and her husband, Wilbur, launched a mission to bring one of the tenets of modern middle-class life – homeownership – to black Milwaukeeans. They opened Columbia Savings & Loan Association with little more than the $10 charter fee and the dream of helping black families overcome the enormous barriers of racism, segregation and redlining.

The passion project required tireless work with little financial reward; the couple did not draw a paycheck from the business in its first 10 years. But over the ensuing decades, Columbia transformed the community, supporting entrepreneurs and making homeownership possible for black families in Milwaukee. The S&L still operates today from an office on Fond du Lac Avenue.

Halyard relentlessly fought racial discrimination in all forms, reviving the Milwaukee and Racine chapters of the NAACP and organizing the creation of a Kenosha chapter. She worked with Father James Groppi to establish the NAACP Youth Council, a key organizer of the 1967 fair housing marches that made Milwaukee “the Selma of the North.” A supporter of advanced education, the Georgia native who trained as a teacher at Atlanta University also established a branch of the United Negro College Fund in Milwaukee.

In tribute to the couple’s advocacy for fair housing and racial equality, a street at the northern edge of Bronzeville, Milwaukee’s historically black community, was named after the Halyards in 1965. The adjacent redevelopment that followed, a suburb-like neighborhood in the middle of the city, also bears their name: Halyard Park.

“Columbia Savings & Loan was the only place African Americans could go to get a loan in 1925, and today it is the only black-owned banking institution left in the state,” says state Sen. Lena Taylor, who is on the Legislature’s housing committee.

While the S&L has provided opportunity to thousands of black Milwaukeeans, significant racial disparities remain in homeownership levels and overall economic opportunity. “I’ve often wondered what Ms. Halyard would think about our situation today,” Taylor says.


Vel Phillips


The woman born Velvalea Hortense Rodgers left an indelible mark on Milwaukee. A champion for racial equality, Vel Phillips spearheaded the fight for open housing laws in Milwaukee during the civil rights era. Her professional life contains an impressive list of firsts: the first African American woman to graduate from the UW-Madison Law School, the first woman and first African American to be elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, the first African American judge in Wisconsin and, after her election to the secretary of state office in 1978, the first African American to win a statewide election.

Phillips’ groundbreaking work on the Common Council included introducing an ordinance to ban housing discrimination in the city in 1962. It was defeated, but she reintroduced it every three months until it finally passed in 1968 – after the federal Open Housing Act became law. A year earlier, during the watershed fair housing marches in 1967, she was arrested for violating Mayor Henry W. Maier’s ban on marches.

Phillips also served as chairwoman of the 2004 campaign that ended with Wisconsin’s first African American representative elected to Congress: Gwen Moore. “Vel Phillips worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Milwaukee residents, and her impact on the city could not be overstated,” Moore says. “Her arrest [in 1967] showed that she would not hesitate to put her body on the line. Vel’s background could have afforded her a different path, but she chose to fight for equality. Her drive, intelligence, persistence and courage make her one of a kind. The fight for justice lived within Vel’s spirit, and it will forever live within Milwaukee.”

After her death in 2018, the city honored her by renaming North Fourth Street as Vel R. Phillips Avenue. The name of the former Children’s Court judge is also on Milwaukee County’s juvenile justice center.


Dr. Laura Ross Wolcott

THE GOOD DOCTOR | 1826-1915
Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

A good measure of the impact a reform-minded person can have is the degree of fear that person can inspire within the existing power structure. When Dr. Laura Ross arrived in Milwaukee from the East in 1857, she was only the third woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree. She posed such a threat to the status quo that her detractors arranged for her obituary to appear in a local newspaper, hoping to bury any interest that might exist in seeing a woman physician.

But Ross refused to be scared off and became the first woman to practice medicine in Wisconsin. She also was a tireless campaigner for equality. She was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, urging supporters to “treat
every husband, brother, son or friend as we would an entire stranger, if he oppose us.” She worked to end segregation by sex at the University of Wisconsin, decrying women’s courses as one of the “petty ways in which girls can be defrauded of their rights to a thorough education by narrow, bigoted men.”

The actual obituary that appeared after her death in 1915, enumerating her many accomplishments, undoubtedly would have read as pure horror to those who penned the notice in 1857.


Meta Schlichting Berger

Photo via public domain

When the local Socialist Party drafted her to run for the city school board in 1909, Meta Schlichting Berger was a less-than-willing candidate. At the time, she was just a minor participant in political matters and felt relieved when her husband, party leader Victor Berger, assured her that she would not be elected.

But, riding a popular Socialist slate, Berger won the seat. During an early school board meeting, where she later recalled being so nervous that she could barely sign her name, she proved herself as something more than a token member of the body. Indignant over a proposal to bar women from serving as department heads at city high schools, Berger made a stand over the matter and refused to relent until her male colleagues ditched the proposal.

Berger remained on the board until 1939, fighting for the rights of women to keep their teaching jobs after marrying and to serve in school administrations and join labor unions. She worked for the construction of playgrounds, for free medical exams for children, and for better pay and pensions for teachers.

Her efforts reached beyond Milwaukee, as she emerged as a national figure in both Socialist politics and the cause for women’s suffrage – crusades that came into conflict in 1917. That year, she resigned as vice president of the Wisconsin Women’s Suffrage Association when its stance on the war in Europe conflicted with the Socialist belief in pacifism. After the war, she dedicated herself to the cause of world peace and was unafraid to assert herself in the matter. “We never obtained suffrage until we made a row about it,” she said in 1934. “And we won’t get peace until we make a row of it. And by row, I mean political action to keep men out of Congress who are not for peace.”

Berger “won significant progress for women,” says Genevieve McBride, who wrote a book on suffrage in Wisconsin, “and she did so in a city and state infamous among women suffragists for resistance to women in politics, then and since, [by] asserting a female – if not feminist – agenda for her city’s schools and children that made an impact on Milwaukeeans for generations to come.”


Sister Joel Read

THE EDUCATOR | 1925-2017
Photo courtesy of Alverno College

While she wasn’t one to accept compliments or take full credit for a group’s collective work, Sister Joel (pronounced Jo-ELL) Read was the pioneer who elevated Milwaukee’s Alverno College to its position as a global innovator in higher education. First educated at Alverno, then as a history professor and finally as president for 35 years, the sister and the school were intertwined for the majority of Sister Joel’s life.

Alverno’s student body is 69% first-generation college students, and Sister Joel emphasized a resume well-rounded by work or life experience as much as grade-point average. She started a babysitting center and “weekend college” to make college accessible for nontraditional students.

Being a feminist – Sister Joel was one of the founders of the National Organization for Women – and a Catholic nun during the feminist movements of the late 20th century may seem at odds to some. Sister Joel bridged those roles in a way that was “quietly respected and allowed, not touted, to take its course” by the church because of her standing and character, says Sister Bernardin Deutsch, who worked with her at Alverno. Sister Joel’s belief in women’s perspectives tied into a religious belief that education was what helped people become who they were meant to be.

Sister Joel also led an overhaul of Alverno’s entire approach to education, starting in 1969 with a faculty meeting and ending with a restructuring that almost immediately drew groups like Harvard and the National Institute of Education to campus to learn more. The faculty rewrote all of Alverno’s curriculum to fit eight “abilities” – problem solving, analysis and social interaction, for example – that would make a well-rounded, outcome-oriented student. Almost 50 years later, the changes she pioneered are still in place and attract attention in higher education. Alverno hosts workshops for educators to learn about its “assessment as learning” model focusing on more practical work than traditional exams.

Students and faculty remember Sister Joel for making them sit up a little straighter and asking sometimes pointed questions that made people think. Sister Joel retired from Alverno in 2003 and died in 2017 at age 91.


Lizzie Black Kander

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society

Graduating as East Side High School’s valedictorian in 1878, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Black delivered an ambitious address titled, “When I Become President.” The speech was, according to scholar Angela Fritz, “half political satire, half political commentary” that declared that “women’s maternal and moral skills could remedy the problems arising from immigration, inadequate public services, and incompetent political leadership.”

Black Kander’s five decades in public service would follow those principles. Creating what would become the Jewish Community Center in 1900, she worked to help the city’s needy and recently arrived immigrants through courses for women that taught the “domestic sciences,” seeking to uplift and assimilate their families with better homemaking skills.

In 1901, she published the first volume of The Settlement Cook Book, a compilation of recipes and household hints intended to help fund her endeavors. The book made Black Kander a household name, and it would eventually sell more than 1.5 million copies. Black Kander personally edited the first 23 volumes of the book, devoted to the project and her method of reform until her death in 1940.


Beulah Brinton

THE DAME OF BAY VIEW | 1836-1928
Photo courtesy of Bay View Historical Society

Life in Bay View in the 1870s was often bleak. The mighty rolling mills of the Milwaukee Iron Co. employed most of the village’s men but also cast a literal pall over Bay View, where recreational and educational opportunities for the children of the mill workers were minimal. Beulah Brinton arrived in Milwaukee in 1872 and, as a member of the family that owned the mill, could have easily ignored the plight of these working-class families. Instead, she opened the doors of her expansive home, establishing what would later be recognized as the first community center in the United States.

The Brinton home had a tennis court, a piano for musical instruction and a large parlor for dancing. She offered personal housekeeping lessons for the neighborhood women and even worked as a midwife for those with growing families. When the needs of the area outgrew her own property, she staked out a claim on the lakefront for Bay View’s first public park, now South Shore Park. When she saw the need for a library, she turned her home into one. Bay View’s Beulah Brinton Community Center was established in her honor in 1924, and it continues
her efforts today.


Mabel Watson Raimey


For an African American girl at the dawn of the 20th century, life was full of obstacles. But Mabel Watson Raimey worked around them, and she is remembered today as a pioneer in Wisconsin legal history.

Her family was among the first African Americans to settle in Milwaukee, arriving in the 1840s. An excellent student as a child, Raimey graduated from high school at age 14, and in 1918 she became the first African American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin.

Raimey returned to Milwaukee to be a teacher in the city’s public school district, only to be fired three days later when it was discovered she was not, as the person who hired her had assumed, a white woman. Her light complexion – several of her ancestors were white – afforded her opportunities that would otherwise be closed to her if she was recognized as African American.

In 1922 she enrolled in evening law classes at Marquette University and five years later became the first African American woman to pass the state bar and practice law in Wisconsin. “I cannot imagine the enormous pressure she must have faced as the only African American female student at the law school,” says Vada Waters Lindsey, a Marquette law professor and associate dean who is African American. “I take great pride in knowing that [today’s] African American law students, indeed all law students, don’t need to hide their true identities as Ms. Raimey chose to do while she attended law school.”

Raimey was active in both the community and her church from a young age. She began volunteering for the Milwaukee Urban League in 1919 and later served on its board for 25 years. She chartered the local chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in Milwaukee in 1949. She was instrumental in the opening of the YWCA branch on the city’s North Side – renamed in 1974 for fellow trailblazing Milwaukeean Vel Phillips.


Mathilde Franziska Anneke

THE REFORMER | 1817-1884

Remembered by Milwaukeeans as the editor of Deutsche Frauen-Zeitung (German Women’s Times), a feminist newspaper that rocked the status quo upon its debut in 1852, Mathilde Franziska Anneke began her journey as an internationally known equal rights activist years earlier in Germany.

Born into a noble Westphalian family, Mathilde was an educated girl whose early marriage was arranged for the financial benefit of her relatives. At 19, she found herself unhappily married to an abusive alcoholic, and mother to an infant daughter. Discontent, she filed for divorce, a taboo act that drew protests from her Catholic family and social ostracization. After six years of judicial wrangling, she finally was granted the divorce and custody of her daughter, but she fell from the German elite into poverty. The episode, however, galvanized her spirit and advocacy for women’s rights.

She married her second husband, Fritz Anneke, in 1847, and the couple were active participants in the German revolution of 1848. Fleeing political persecution after the revolution failed, the couple left Europe and settled in Wisconsin. By 1850, Mathilde Anneke was speaking on gender equality to packed crowds of German immigrants in Milwaukee. At this time, Milwaukee’s German population was well-established: The city had two German language newspapers, a German language church and scores of German social clubs. Wisconsin’s 1850 census counted 38,064 people – more than 12% of the newly forged state’s population – who were born in Germany, and many of them resided in Milwaukee.

Her popularity caught the attention of notable feminists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; soon, Anneke was translating the famous women’s works into German and stating the case for equal rights throughout the Midwest. She launched her Milwaukee- based version of Deutsche Frauen-Zeitung on March 30, 185 2, with a staff of mostly women, including the traditionally male role of typesetter because men refused to work for the feminist newspaper. The act enraged local typesetters, who reacted by organizing one of the nation’s first typesetter unions in an effort to keep the trade exclusively male. Through targeted pressure on businesses that worked with Deutsche Frauen-Zeitung, the union was instrumental in the newspaper’s demise.

Anneke’s cause expanded beyond gender equality to the abolition of slavery, and soon she saw herself as an advocate not just for women’s rights, but human rights. She was an internationally known activist by 1865, when she opened the Milwaukee TÖchter Institut, a German language school for girls. The institute attracted pupils from Milwaukee’s most prominent families and focused on the intellectual development of the girls, providing little instruction in the traditionally feminine subjects of religion and domestic arts. Anneke ran the popular school until her death in 1884.


Josette Vieau Juneau

Phtoo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Museum

Josette Juneau is considered by many to be Milwaukee’s “founding mother” to the city’s founding fathers of Kilbourn, Walker and Solomon Juneau. Born in Green Bay in 1804 into a family with French-Canadian and Menominee heritage, she arrived in Milwaukee after her 1820 marriage to her fur-trapping father’s employee Solomon Juneau.

As the first white settlers in the area, the couple were able to work and communicate with their new neighbors because of the young woman’s familiarity with Native American languages and culture. Juneau often served as a friendly and respectful interpreter in the growing town. She frequently wore Native dress and encouraged any Natives in need to help themselves to the barrels of flour and sugar she kept on her porch. According to the most legendary of her stories, in 1835 she discovered that the Potawatomi, angered by white squatters, planned a raid on the white settlement. She stood guard, bravely patrolling throughout the night while her husband was out of town, and peace was maintained.

Celebrated for her kindness and generosity, Juneau was a devout Catholic, and her missionary work included holding the city’s first Mass in her parlor, though she welcomed those of all religions into her home. Juneau aided as a midwife, tended to the sick and provided for the needy, whether white or Native.


Nellie Wilson

THE UNION BOSS | 1916-2008
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society

By 1940, young Nellie Wilson was a single mother of two, trying to make a living in a city where opportunities for African American women were scarce. The discrimination was so blatant that hiring managers would refuse her application, saying they had nothing open, only to call the white woman behind her in line for an interview.

In 1943, with the workforce depleted by the war, Wilson secured a job in an A.O. Smith defense plant, a company that was known to shun non-white applicants. But with the war on and with union backing, Wilson found the workplace a “pure job utopia.”

Wilson became active in the union and, despite being told she was running for a “job for a white man,” won election as a department steward. She worked to remove barriers for women in the workplace and founded the women’s committee of the Wisconsin chapter of the AFL-CIO. She later became the first woman ever elected to the union’s executive board and, after retiring from A.O. Smith, worked with the union to secure better jobs for women and minorities.

“Nellie used the power of the union to advocate for co-workers and tear down many of the sexist, unjust barriers facing women and women of color in the workplace,” says Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Stephanie Bloomingdale. “She never stopped fighting for the working class.”


“Women Who Made MKE” appears in the November 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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