By Amy Rabideau Silvers
While Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette may now be the more familiar name to Wisconsin ears, his wife should be regarded as an equally remarkable person in Wisconsin law and progressive politics.
Her name was Belle Case La Follette. In 1885, she became the first woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, starting law school after she was already a wife and mother.
She earlier helped husband Bob with his studies and then with legal briefs, including one brief in the 1890s “that broke new legal ground and won his case before the state’s supreme court,” according to an article by historian Nancy Unger in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Wisconsin Magazine of History.
“Justice William P. Lyon complimented Bob on the brief,” Unger explained, speaking in an interview with the Wisconsin Justice Initiative. Bob La Follette proudly and matter-of-factly told the court that his wife had written it.
Belle La Follette never formally practiced law, but she practiced plenty of activism. She wrote, lectured and agitated for progressive causes, including women’s suffrage, child labor reform and racial justice. In 1909, her husband began La Follette’s Weekly, later La Follette’s Magazine and now The Progressive. Belle La Follette served as its first editor and as columnist, expanding the boundaries of what was considered appropriate for women readers. Her writing was nationally syndicated as brief “Thought for the Day” articles in newspapers in 20 states.
“She was a tremendous voice for women’s suffrage,” Unger says. “She was instrumental in women getting the vote and changing minds.”
In 1912, that included testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Women’s Suffrage, where she declared that suffrage was “a simple matter of common sense.”
“You know how Lincoln defined government at Gettysburg. ‘Ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,’” she said. “And are not women people?”
That same year, she went on one of her barnstorming tours for suffrage, giving 31 speeches in 12 days across 14 Wisconsin counties. In 1914, she spoke for 63 consecutive days in states including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.
Belle La Follette and friends listened from the Senate gallery as the Nineteenth Amendment was approved on June 4, 1919.
Her next action was likely one of the reasons that Wisconsin became the first state to officially ratify on June 10, 1919. She sent telegrams to representatives back home with the news. Once ratified, then-Sen. Bob La Follette announced Wisconsin’s vote and had it read into the Congressional Record. (For the record, Illinois technically passed a resolution first, but that was found to be invalid.)
“And it was no mere state pride that caused me to thrill with joy when Mr. La Follette made the announcement in the Senate,” she later wrote in La Follette’s Magazine. “It was the conviction that a great service had been rendered. With Wisconsin as an example—an object lesson—ratifying so speedily, almost unanimously, the opposition was beaten at the very beginning of the race—left dashed and hopeless at the very start!”
The Nineteenth Amendment became law in 1920.
“And now the 17 million women of the United States are fully enfranchised,” Belle La Follette wrote in celebration. “… For the first time in American history, women may vote in every state in the Union for candidates for all offices ... and women may hold any office now held by men, whether appointive or elective.”
The new constitutional amendment meant that the University of Wisconsin’s first female law graduate could finally vote. She was 61.
A progressive family tree
Belle Case was born in 1859 in Summit, Wisconsin, the daughter of Anson and Mary Nesbit Case, and grew up in Baraboo. Her mother was moved by a lecture on women’s suffrage and spoke to her children about such matters. Her parents valued education, including for their only daughter. An eager and brilliant student, Belle was accepted at the University of Wisconsin, which was where she caught the eye and heart of a student named Bob.
After graduation, she taught for two years before agreeing to marry in 1881. At Belle Case’s request, the Unitarian minister omitted the word obey from their marriage vows.
They were true partners in life and progressive politics. During his long career, her husband served as Dane County district attorney, congressman, private attorney, three-time governor of Wisconsin, and U.S. senator, as well as founder of La Follette’s Weekly and as a Progressive Party presidential candidate. Belle La Follette is credited with some measure of his success, sharing her progressive arguments, legal skills and political savvy through the years.
She was, Bob La Follette declared in his autobiography, his “wisest and best counsellor.” He also spoke of “when we were governor.”
“And though she did not enjoy all of the trappings that came with being a politician’s wife (she particularly hated Washington small talk), she saw great value in women becoming politically aware,” according to Unger, a professor at Santa Clara University, who has written extensively about the La Follettes, including two books that received Book of Merit Awards by the Wisconsin Historical Society. “She urged all women to recognize that the problems they thought of as personal were in fact political and therefore required women’s political activism.”
After her husband’s death in 1925, La Follette was asked to finish his term in the U.S. Senate, which would have made her the first woman to actually serve as senator. (Rebecca Latimer Felton, 87, of Georgia, was sworn in as a member of the Senate in 1922. She served just one day. No woman would be elected until 1932.)
La Follette declined and son Robert La Follette Jr. ran instead. For the ever-practical and political Belle, it made sense to have someone younger take up the family’s progressive banner. Robert Jr. served more than 20 years in the Senate; another son, Phil, was elected Wisconsin governor three times.
She also encouraged her daughter-in-law, Isabel “Isen” Bacon La Follette, to give her opinion of a draft platform by husband Phil as he began running for governor, according to an article by historian Bernard A. Weisberger in the Wisconsin Magazine of History. Belle La Follette did not buy Isen’s argument that she knew nothing of politics.
“You are an intelligent woman,” Belle La Follette told Isen. “If what Phil writes doesn’t appeal to you, rest assured it will not appeal to others.”
True to her convictions
La Follette continued her writing and speaking, advocating on a wide variety of issues for the rest of her life. For reasons of health and comfort, she gave up corsets and stays and told other women they should, too. She believed in exercise for all, including women. Women should not, La Follette contended, have to change their names when they marry.
She decried racial injustice, speaking before and in support of Black communities and making headlines for it. “She Defends Negroes—Wife of Senator La Follette Denounces Segregation—Says U.S. Government Errs,” read a 1914 front-page story in The Washington Post.
“It seems strange,” she once wrote, “that the very ones who consider it a hardship to sit next [to] a colored person in a streetcar, entrust their children to colored nurses, and eat food prepared by colored hands.”
Civil rights activist Nannie Helen Burroughs introduced her as “the successor of Harriet Beecher Stowe.” La Follette also supported rights and respect for American Indians.
La Follette especially deplored violence in all forms, from corporal punishment for children to capital punishment for crime. She was a founder of the Women’s Peace Party, which later became the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was outraged by its public stance, writing a scathing assessment of the WPP and calling it cowardly and foolish. Unger tells what happens next.
“Belle La Follette fired back in La Follette’s Magazine that Roosevelt assumed ‘that War is the only means of settling international differences and moreover that War is bound to settle them right. … History demonstrates that [even] imperfect and temporary plans of mediation, conciliation, and arbitration have been more effective than war in securing justice ….’”
“Was Christ cowardly? How long did the agitation against human slavery last before it was abolished?” La Follette wrote.
A legacy hailed and then long forgotten
Belle La Follette died in 1931. She was 72. She rated obituaries in newspapers across the country, including The New York Times, which called her perhaps “the most influential of all American women who have had to do with public affairs in this country.”
Mostly, though, her life was told through the lens of “the little woman behind the great man,” according to Unger. “Only a few go so far as to recognize her as an important reformer in her own right.”
In 1993, the State Bar of Wisconsin’s charitable arm, the Wisconsin Law Foundation, began its Belle Case La Follette Awards in recognition of her accomplishments. The annual awards now honor three bar members working in Wisconsin and representing underserved populations, one each from the UW Law School, Marquette University Law School and an out-of-state law school, said Joe Forward, communications director for the State Bar.
La Follette was, at heart, a bit of a homebody and somewhat shy, but she believed in standing up and speaking out, something she thought all citizens should do. Perhaps more than her politician husband could, she claimed a measure of greater freedom in pushing progressive ideas, says Unger.
“She’s a bit like Eleanor Roosevelt,” Unger says. “She wielded tremendous influence as a journalist and public speaker, and the nation improved because she did. She didn’t pull any punches in her sweet ladylike way.”
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