Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Wisconsin and suffrage: The real story
Do you think Wisconsin was progressive when it became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1919?
It was only a fluke that Wisconsin was the first state to grant women the vote, according to retired history professor Genevieve McBride.
In fact, for decades before ratification, Wisconsin did as much, if not more, than most states to suppress women’s suffrage, she said.
“We were a very backward state for women in politics,” said McBride, who will be the featured speaker during Women’s History Month virtual program, presented by the Federal Women’s Program.
It begins at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, March 25, streaming on Microsoft Teams.
“Some states had women’s suffrage as early as 1869. Does Wisconsin? No,” she said. “Many other states won women’s suffrage before Wisconsin. By the time we get to the end, Wisconsin is one of the very few states without it.”
So how did Wisconsin go down in history as a trail-blazing state for women’s suffrage? Fortuitous timing, McBride said.
The 19th Amendment was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, opening the doors for required ratification by at least three-fourths of the states.
The Wisconsin Legislature was still in session in June, battling over the budget, while many other state legislatures had adjourned for the summer. By then, the amendment was a foregone conclusion, and Wisconsin passed it.
Even though it was the first to pass the 19th Amendment, Wisconsin didn’t allow state-level suffrage for women until the amendment was officially ratified by the required number of states, in August 2020, McBride said.
“Men passed the 19th Amendment, only because they were dragged there kicking and screaming,” McBride said.
During her talk, McBride said she will juxtapose what was happening in Wisconsin vs. nationally as the nearly century-long campaign for women’s suffrage rolled through the country.
In 1884, women in Wisconsin were allowed to vote only on school issues – using a separate ballot box -- but that was revoked by courts in 1887.
In 1886, a referendum was passed allowing women’s suffrage in Wisconsin, but the state Supreme Court threw it out on a technicality, McBride said.
There’s another referendum in 1912, but it is defeated by a 2-to-1 margin, McBride said, noting that the secretary of state required a separate, pink ballot for the referendum to be placed in pink ballot boxes.
“Your head just spins like you're Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist,’” she said.
McBride will also discuss how women in the 19th century weren’t allowed to write or to speak in public, which severely limited their ability to advocate for themselves.
“They learned how to change public opinion through other reform campaigns,” she said, noting women were active in abolitionist and temperance movements, which led to other constitutional amendments.
Women also became key fundraisers for various projects and political campaigns in their communities, McBride said.
“All those things are training for women,” she said, noting those campaigns helped women “gain the respect and admiration of the public, so that they earned it.”
The presentation will also touch on how women played a key role in the creation of the Milwaukee Soldiers Home (“Old Main”) on the Milwaukee VA grounds, which became one of the first facilities for Civil War Veterans.
To access the program via audio only, call 1-872-701-0185 and input 625577704#.
Genevieve McBride is Professor Emerita of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is a founder of the Midwestern History Association, member of the Board of Curators of the state historical society, an expert resource for the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission and a founding member of the Academy Advisory Board of the National Museum of Women’s History in Washington, D.C., and for the Library of Congress.