Each week for 26 weeks, I am publishing a post about women who are not widely known but should be—women who can inspire us, teach us, and encourage us to get out of our comfort zones and reach for our dreams. Week 2 of my A to Z challenge introduces us to Belle Case La Follette.
I teach women’s studies, and have always included the work of suffragists like Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. But it wasn’t until I picked up a book called American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women’s History and Culture in the United States (and how many people would pick up that book?) that I learned about Belle Case La Follette, a wife, mother, lawyer, journalist, editor, and suffragist who spent her life advocating for many liberal and progressive causes.
Belle Case was born in 1859 in Summit, Wisconsin. During the Civil War, she and her family struggled to get by (an interesting history of Wisconsin’s involvement in the Civil War—and the role of women—can be found here). Her parents were farmers intent on seeing their daughter attend college, which Belle did in 1875. It was there that she met her future husband, Bob La Follette. After graduation (she graduated near the top of their class, unlike Bob), Belle taught high school while Bob pursued a law degree. They married in 1881. While they had a conventional wedding in a Unitarian church, it’s interesting to note that Belle chose to omit the word “obey” from her wedding vows (Elizabeth Cady Stanton did this as well). Their first daughter, Flora, was born in 1882, and before she was even a year old, Belle decided to go back to school herself, becoming the first female graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1885. While she never formally practiced law on her own, she did put her degree to work, supporting her husband’s work as District Attorney by writing briefs and conducting other legal work (wisconsinhistory.org).
When Bob was elected to Congress, she followed him to Washington, DC, serving as his assistant for three terms, until his defeat in 1891. It wasn’t until they were back in Wisconsin that she decided to have more children, thirteen years after giving birth to Flora. She had three more children between 1895-1899, yet also found time to work as a physical education instructor. She served as president of the Emily Bishop League, a group which promoted exercise and pure foods, and she was an early proponent of running as a form of exercise for women (wisconsinhistory.org).
She again returned to Washington, DC when Bob became a US Senator in 1906, and she and her husband founded La Follette’s Weekly Magazine, which later became The Progressive. She served as a writer and editor, composing a weekly column that addressed political and social issues, including slum clearance, humane working conditions, desegregation, and women’s suffrage: “My basic reason for believing in equal suffrage is that it will make better homes….Home, society, government are best when men and women…share with each other the solution of their common problems….”How [could] mothers teach [children] to be good citizens when they have no knowledge themselves of public affairs? [Was it not] in the interest of the home, of society, of government that the people as a whole shall participate in making the laws that govern them as a whole?” (qtd. in Weisberger).
Belle was also a pacifist. She helped found the Women’s Peace Party (which eventually became the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom) during the First World War, and after the war she became involved with the Women’s Committee for World Disarmament, and the National Council for the Prevention of War: “The forces let loose seem so beyond control. All we can say or do seems like the chatter of birds against a hurricane” (qtd. in Weisberger).
When her husband died in 1925, his constituents urged her to run for his Senate seat, but she declined, insisting she never wanted such a public role for herself: “at no time in my life would I ever have chosen a public career for myself” (wisconsinhistory.org). Instead she began work on a biography of her husband’s life, which her daughter went on to complete after her death in 1931.
B is for Belle Case La Follette, a conformist rebel who worked from within to promote positive change for all.
Weisberger, Bernard A. “Changes and Choices: Two and a Half Generations of La Follette Women.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History. 76.4 (1993): 248-270.
Images courtesy of Wikipedia.