When We Were Governor

Wife, mother, progressive icon. Nancy C. Unger revives the legacy of Belle Case La Follette.

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. Nancy C. Unger, professor of history at SCU, can sympathize—though she would also like to change that.

Those who have heard of Belle La Follette 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.

Unger once held a similar view of Belle La Follette’s role in American history—despite having devoted a chapter to Belle in the biography Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer. Now Unger has reassessed, and writes: “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, Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer, 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 or her husband shared. She was the first woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School at a 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. She 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.

She fiercely opposed racism and was a vigorous critic of President Wilson’s acceptance of the re-segregation of the U.S. Civil Service. Her uncompromising pacifism—with her and her husband’s opposition to America’s entry into World War I—made them political pariahs for a while. After leading a lifelong fight for suffrage, finally, at age 61, she was allowed to vote.

post-image Meet me at the Fox River Fair: Belle La Follette in 1912. View full image. Photo courtesy Nancy Unger
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