One of the Nation’s Greatest Women

One of the Nation’s Greatest Women

She was an extraordinary advocate and leader in the Progressive Era. Her husband even used to talk about “when we were governor.”

Recognize her? In 1931, this woman’s death at the age of 72 was front-page news. She was memorialized as one of the greatest women in U.S. history. Today? Very few people have heard of Belle Case La Follette. And those who have usually view her as the estimable wife and helpmate of Progressive icon, Wisconsin governor, and U.S. Senator Bob La Follette, or, possibly, as the involved mother of the succeeding generation of Wisconsin Progressive leaders, Phillip and Robert, Jr.

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Robert M. La Follette and Belle Case La Follette at Roe Farm. Image courtesy the Library of Congress

Nancy C. Unger, professor of history at SCU, once held a similarly reductive view of Belle La Follette’s role in American history—this despite having devoted a chapter to Belle in the biography Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer. The Routledge Historical Americans series has given Unger an opportunity to reassess Belle La Follette’s contributions. What she finds is “that the facts reveal a far more complicated and independent Belle Case La Follette.”

Belle La Follette’s egalitarian activism was heavily influenced by her close relationship with her grandmother, who shared the hard work of 19th-century farm life in rough equality with her husband. A fascinating aspect of Unger’s new book is her brief and vivid depiction of how the shift from farm life to an urban life—where men worked for wages and women stayed home—resulted in a dramatic change in the cultural view of the fairer sex. It wasn’t a view Belle La Follette—or her husband—shared. She was the first woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School at time when there were only 56 women attorneys in the United States. She was so deeply engaged with Robert La Follette’s political career that he sometimes said “when we were governor.”

She was also shy. To the disappointment of many contemporary feminists, she turned down the chance to succeed her husband as U.S. Senator, opting to continue a Progressive dynasty through the candidacy of her son. She wrote frequently about parental roles that promoted independence for children but was herself a very controlling mother. She and her husband had a very close relationship. But she put off marrying Bob until she had earned money of her own. And, Unger wryly observes, “the La Follettes presented their marriage as one virtually untouched by disagreement because they viewed an unspoken disagreement as a nonexistent one.”

Belle espoused causes ranging from an opposition to capital punishment to the right of a woman not to take her husband’s name upon marriage. At the time, these views were far outside the mainstream.

In this compact biography, Unger’s focus is more thematic than chronological. We learn about Belle La Follette’s upbringing and atypical marriage; her lifelong fight for women’s suffrage (La Follette could not vote until she was 61 years old); her fierce opposition to racism (she was a vigorous critic of President Wilson’s acceptance of the re-segregation of the U.S. Civil Service); and her uncompromising pacifism (her and her husband’s opposition to America’s entry into World War I made them political pariahs for a while).

Like other books in the Routledge series, this volume includes primary documents to provide context and support for Unger’s view that “Belle La Follette was a sturdy and remarkable progressive [one who was] simultaneously old-fashioned and forward thinking [and] contributed significantly to her nation.”

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Pledge time: peace, labor, living costs, law enforcement. Photo courtesy Nancy Unger
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