Women Celebrate Kick-Off of Suffrage Centennial at Capitol

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MTT News's picture
Katherine Perreth

MADISON–With great joy and possibly even greater creativity, hundreds of white-clad women and girls, many wearing period clothing, hats, and sashes of the early 20th century, descended upon the state capitol on June 10. It was the Women’s Suffrage Centennial kick-off, celebrating Wisconsin as the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, ultimately granting women the right to vote.   

Alternating between festive and somber, the capitol atmosphere felt electrified. Rebecca Alwin, 71, one of a group of women known as a “gaggle of grannies” with the “Raging Grannies,” singers for social justice and peace, had dressed in grandmotherly attire and serenaded a group of female legislators posing for photos.

“With the least provocation we do break into song,” Alwin, a Middleton native confessed. Serendipitously running into the legislators prompted a rousing chorus from The Vote Song: “If you can’t be bothered voting, think again!”

State Representative Dianne Hesselbein applauded heartily and then stated, “It’s great to see so many from Middleton here, and so many of all ages coming to celebrate. It’s nice to look back and reflect, but we have a lot more work to do.”

Peggy Marxen, 71, sporting her white button-down shirt and bonnet, brought a homemade Votes For Women flag to wave. She attended the ceremony, she said, “to honor the women who had fought so hard” over 100 years ago, marching for suffrage in white dresses and Votes For Women sashes. “It feels good to be part of what women worked for, and I hope women speak their voices and vote, to honor the women who came before.”

Rose Sime, 72, wearing her white 42-year-old wedding dress, chimed in, “So many of them suffered, and I’m so proud that Wisconsin was progressive enough to desire to be the first state to ratify.” She added, “We are not idiots, lunatics, or children,” referring to the speech Justice Ann Walsh Bradley delivered. In it, Bradley explained the mid-1800s law preventing certain groups of people from voting on the basis of lacking “sound judgement,” namely, “idiots, lunatics, children and women.” 

Bradley gave a brief lesson in law, citing two historic cases from the 1800s involving female leaders in the suffrage movement. One had moved to Wisconsin in 1871, studied at a Janesville law firm and was found competent to practice law in the Rock County Circuit Court, Bradley said. However, the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied her ability to argue any case to them. The chief justice at the time wrote his opinion, Bradley said, “‘There are many employments in life not unfit for the female character, but the practice of law surely isn’t one of them.’” Bradley speculated he may be rolling in his grave as six of the seven justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court are now women.

Bradley also referred to her Richland Center roots, noting that when growing up she had no idea her town had been a “hotbed of radicalism” in the 1800s. In 1886, Susan B. Anthony had been a guest at the James residence. The woman of the house went on to found a Women’s Club, purportedly discussing “home duties,” but in reality, “plotting and planning,” Bradley said. The mother “passed the torch” to her daughter, Bradley added. During the ceremony female descendants of those women unveiled Congress’s official resolution document amending the constitution for women’s suffrage. The document was displayed for a short time in the rotunda, along with the Wisconsin Historical Society Women’s Suffrage display which will remain for several months.

Executive Director of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission Rebecca Kleefisch also spoke, giving an overview of suffrage and ratification history. Three states vied for position to be the first state to ratify, she said, and after Illinois politicians telegraphed they had accomplished the feat, Wisconsin legislators quickly ratified, collected money and dispatched a colleague to Washington DC with the documentation, arriving before any other state. 

“Wisconsin beating Illinois became a tradition because of women’s right to vote!” Kleefisch crowed to a cheering crowd. 

Today, Kleefisch said, 85 percent of consumer household decisions are made by women, women head four of 10 households, women comprise 53 percent of the electorate, and since the 1980s, women have outnumbered men at the polls.

Three women of color, Latina American State Representative Jessie Rodriguez, African American State Representative Sheila Stubb, and Native American Shannon Holsey, President of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican, gave brief remarks citing the difficulties women of color still face. 

Holsey received a standing ovation after declaring on behalf of all women of color, “We will make our voices heard in the polls…to form a better Wisconsin!”

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