Unsung hero: Meta Berger, longtime Socialist, served on Milwaukee School Board and fought for rights of female teachers
By Amy Rabideau Silvers
More than a decade before the 19th Amendment gave American women the right to vote, Meta Berger was elected as one of the first women to serve on the Milwaukee School Board.
She came to politics through her famous husband, Victor Berger, a leader in the Socialist Party. That was not enough to prepare her when the party nominated her as a candidate in the 1909 school board race, just seven years after women in Wisconsin won the right to vote in school board elections.
She was, in her own words, “surprised, shocked and frightened.” Meta wired her husband, asking him what to do.
“Do nothing, except to accept the honor,” came the answer. “You won’t be elected anyway.”
But win she did, part of a wave of Socialist victories that put her reform-minded party in control of local politics. She ran again despite her husband’s reservations.
“When I am alone and thinking the matter over—then it always comes to me again that I don’t want either you or the children to take a prominent part in public life,” he once wrote. “You are not adapted to it at all … although (I am sorry to say) that you have acquired a little taste for it through your work on the school board. When your term is over I don’t want you to run again.”
Meta ran and won reelection, going on to serve 30 years on the board, including as its president from 1915-1916. She also apparently won her husband’s acceptance of her political role, evident in a letter he wrote to one of their daughters.
“Sometimes I wonder whether you girls sufficiently prize the fact that your mother is the first women in America who has ever achieved the honor of being elected president of a school board. And the first Socialist president at that … man or woman.”
Through it all, Meta lived her Socialist values.
“As a school director, Meta supported progressive measures such as playground construction, 'penny lunches,' free textbooks, and medical inspection of schoolchildren,” according to Kimberly Swanson in the introduction to a memoir written by Meta in the last year of her life. It was published as A Milwaukee Woman’s Life on the Left / The Autobiography of Meta Berger, edited by Swanson and published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press in 2001.
“She was also a teachers’ advocate and worked for their tenure, a firm salary schedule, and a pension system,” Swanson continued in her introduction. “Though she was not always successful in her efforts—she failed, for example, in her attempt to provide free textbooks—her fellow school directors nonetheless respected her ‘clear thinking, fresh interest and enthusiasm.’”
One victory came at her very first school board meeting.
“My fear left me even before the close of the meeting over a question which had aroused my interest and indignation,” Meta wrote in her memoir. “The board was going to discriminate against women by ruling that no woman, no matter how qualified, could become the head of a department in any high school course and was going to replace a woman who had served in such a capacity for a number of years. …
“I forgot everything except that I must defend women and their rights, so made my first speech in the school board. It must have been pretty good for I won the fight and women there-after could hold positions equal in rank with men.”
Early life—and a political awakening
Meta was born in 1873 to a Milwaukee couple, Bernhard and Matilda Schlichting, who came to America from Germany as children. Her father briefly served as a Republican in the state Legislature and then in an appointed position with the Milwaukee schools.
Perhaps most importantly in Meta’s life, he also hired a young immigrant, Victor Berger, to teach German classes. Victor proved a friend to the family after Bernhard’s death in 1883. The family struggled financially, with her mother taking in boarders.
Meta graduated from the Wisconsin State Normal School, a forerunner to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in 1894. She taught for three years before resigning her position to marry Victor, 13 years her senior, in 1897.
Their marriage proved a loving relationship but not without its struggles, emotional and otherwise. Victor was an opinionated, sometimes volatile man. The family’s finances were often precarious at best, including as Victor struggled to keep his newspapers afloat and accomplish the work of the Socialist Party.
“Soon a change in my life took place,” Meta wrote in her memoir. “My husband came home saying he was to attend a Socialist national convention in Chicago (in 1904) within a few days. Again I felt I was left behind. … without saying a word I determined to attend that convention too. I didn’t know quite yet how it was to be managed, but go I would.”
She managed to do just that, turning up much to her husband’s amazement.
“The convention was a turning point in my life,” she wrote. “I was so interested, so excited, so fired with enthusiasm when I heard those scholarly speeches and arguments, some of which I understood and some I didn’t. But the general drift of the purpose of the convention slowly drifted into my consciousness.”
Meta resolved to attend all conventions with her husband, becoming increasingly active, which led to her school board nomination.
Other notable roles followed, including appointments to the Wisconsin State Board of Education (1917-1918), the Wisconsin Board of Regents of Normal Schools (1927-1928), and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents (1928-1934).
Meta grew in confidence, someone who would voice her own opinions in all kinds of settings, as she did at her first meeting as a normal schools regent. Budgets, she then said, were being figured too closely, schools allowed to deteriorate. The board was “trying to shield the poor legislators by not being too hard on them in our requests.”
“I for one would go before them and put the responsibility squarely on their shoulder. If we maintain a fire-trap then the refusal for the money to repair such conditions must be theirs,” the new regent told her fellow board members. “I guess I threw a bomb alright enough. The whole board was up in arms at once and didn’t know just what to do with such an unruly member.”
She was actively involved in the suffrage and peace movements, although she sometimes felt a level of scrutiny for her Socialist ways and found those activists to be “well meaning but not courageous.”
“Socialist women—even those of middle-class origin, like Meta—identified with the working class and questioned economic arrangements … (and) social traditions,” Swanson said in her writing.
“She demonstrated her commitment to expanding women’s roles through her educational and suffrage work, for example, by defending the right of married women to teach,” according to Swanson. “She once criticized a fellow Socialist for making a ‘purely moral’ argument in favor of woman suffrage, meaning that she disapproved of arguments for change based solely on supposed moral differences between men and women. A firm proponent of equal rights, Meta may have sensed that emphasizing differences hindered rather than furthered women’s integration into public life.”
Washington and wartime politics
In 1910, Victor Berger was elected to the U.S. Congress on the Socialist ticket, necessitating the family’s move to Washington, D.C.
“My husband had to resign as alderman in order to represent the Fifth District of Wisconsin in Washington,” according to Meta. “Now not only local problems but national problems were brought into the home. … Naturally everyone in the whole country wanted to know who this lone Socialist congressman elect was and what he was like.”
He served until 1913 but was elected again in 1918. Nothing about that victory proved simple.
Victor was elected after his indictment under the Espionage Act of 1917, passed soon after the U.S. entered what is now called World War I. His fellow congressmen refused to allow him to take his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Victor and four other defendants were tried in federal court in Chicago. Victor was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Then they learned the conditions for bail pending an appeal. Each man would be released only on $100,000 bond, secured by unencumbered real estate in Illinois. The bail would have to be raised within hours, by the end of the day, or they would be taken to prison.
Meta and their Socialist Party friends began raising money.
“We began at once to telephone friends and known liberals,” Meta wrote. “I had to call up perfect strangers and say something like this … ‘I am the wife of Victor Berger who was sentenced to serve twenty years in the penitentiary. My husband and the four other defendants must go to prison tonight unless we can raise the sum of $500,000 in unencumbered real-estate. I am told that possibly you would be willing to sign for part of the bond. Will you? Will you keep five men out of prison, pending an appeal of the case?’”
The effort worked, with supporters helping to raise more than the $500,000 needed.
“We finally got back to the office of the bonding clerk to discover the room filled with people, the legal looking deeds to their property held in their hands or protruding from their pockets,” she said in her writing.
A few quick postscripts are in order here.
Congress declared Victor’s seat open, necessitating a special election late in 1919. He won with even more votes, but again Congress refused to seat him. Yet another election followed, and Milwaukee voters finally choose a non-Berger candidate to be represented in Washington.
In 1921, the conviction was voided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that the judge, who had publicly made anti-German and anti-Socialist remarks, should not have heard the case. Victor ran again for Congress, serving from 1923 to 1929.
The final chapters
Meta became a widow during the summer of 1929. Her husband was struck by a streetcar while crossing the street outside his newspaper office. He died of his injuries three weeks later. Victor Berger’s body lay in state at Milwaukee City Hall, and 75,000 people came to pay their respects.
In the following decade, Meta did not hew to the official Socialist Party lines. She explored Communist affiliations and friendships, even traveling to Russia, though she never joined the Communist Party. While the Socialist Party had long had its own philosophies and factions, Meta’s actions were no longer acceptable. In 1940, after she was asked to withdraw from “communist-front” organizations, she instead chose to resign from her longtime party.
She died in 1944 at a family home in Thiensville.
“Meta Schlichting Berger served her community and her country, as well as her husband and family, by helping to shape her century for the better,” wrote historian Genevieve G. McBride in the forward to Meta’s memoir. “There is no better testament to a life lived well, nor to the lessons she left for the next generation.”
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