Let the record show that Wisconsin was the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment. A century ago, when women were about to get their right to vote, Wisconsin lived up to its state motto, "Forward, Wisconsin," and granted it first.
Women got us there. And women picked up the mantle to carry us further along the road. Women like Vel Phillips, the first African American woman to become Wisconsin's secretary of state, or Dickey Chapelle, a fearless photographer who covered the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II.
In August, America will mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, when women gained the legal right to vote. In commemoration of the occasion, the USA TODAY Network is naming 10 American women from all 50 states and the District of Columbia who've made significant contributions to their respective states and country as Women of the Century.
The women nominated were expected to have a record of outstanding achievement in one of several areas: arts and literature, business, civil rights, education, entertainment, law, media, nonprofits and philanthropy, politics, science and medicine, and sports.
The panel of women who assembled to choose Wisconsin's Woman of the Century was careful to keep in mind the candidate's ability to inspire others, as Phillips did in a lifetime of law; to be courageous, as Chapelle was in her photography career; or to motivate others, as Tammy Baldwin does by encouraging other women to run for public office.
Narrowing our list to 10 was a worthy struggle. It brought to light the many women who have raised their voices to change lives for the better, such as Ada Deer, who grew up in a log cabin on a Menominee Indian Reservation but went on to serve as assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior for Indian Affairs. Or Baldwin and her firsts – first Wisconsin woman elected to the U.S. House and later the U.S. Senate, and the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate.
It brought to light the efforts of others who didn't make the list but did make an impact. Women like Ingrid Washinawatok, who began her activism at age 14 but was murdered in Colombia by Revolutionary Armed Forces in 1999. Or Ardie Clark-Halyard, the first female president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP. We would have liked to include Katie Hamilton Pier, the first woman in the country to be given a judicial appointment, or Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber, whose short stories, novels and plays were fueled by the anti-Semitism and sexism she experienced.
In the end, the following women were the ones we selected as Wisconsin's Women of the Century.
Who is your Woman of the Century? Did we miss a woman you think should be on our list? We’d like to hear from you.
Velvalea “Vel” R. Phillips
Civil rights activist
Vel Phillips was a civil rights activist who smashed racial and gender barriers as the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin law school, the first woman to be elected to Milwaukee Common Council, the first appointed female judge in Milwaukee County and the first Black person ever elected to statewide office in Wisconsin.
As an alderwoman, Phillips drafted a strong open housing ordinance, introducing it every 90 days between 1962 and 1967, and marched with young members of the NAACP for 200 nights, facing down racist mobs who hurled threats, rocks and feces. Her proposed legislation helped inspire the national Fair Housing Act, approved in 1968. One month later, Milwaukee finally adopted her legislation, which was stronger than federal law.
A lifelong Democrat, Phillips became the first Black person elected to a major political party’s national committee, and the 2020 Democratic National Convention will nominate a presidential candidate inside a building near a street named for her. Asked what she wanted to be remembered for, Phillips said: “That I was always helping people who had less and needed more than they even dreamed of. That I was able to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Native rights activist
Born in Keshena, Wisconsin, in 1935, Ada Deer grew up in a log cabin on a Menominee Indian Reservation. She was the first Menominee to earn an undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin and the first Native American to receive a master's in social work from Columbia University. Deer also was the first woman to chair the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin.
Her efforts on behalf of the Menominee led to the Menominee Restoration Act of 1972, officially returning the Menominee Reservation to federally recognized status. Deer served as assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior for Indian Affairs and head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under President Bill Clinton.
Besides co-founding the Indian Community School in Milwaukee, she organized leadership workshops for Indian women, and helped kick-start Indian participation in the Peace Corps. She was the inaugural participant of the Culture Keepers/Elders in Residence Program, a new University of Wisconsin-Madison initiative to improve the experience of American Indian and Alaskan Native students by hosting Native elders on campus for extended visits and educational exchanges.
Deer has served as a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. In 2019, Deer was inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame. In 2020, Deer was one of two recipients of the City-County Humanitarian Award from Dane County and the city of Madison. Recipients of the combined City-County Humanitarian Award are selected by the City-County Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission for reflecting the values of the civil rights leader.
U.S. senator, first openly LGBTQ woman elected to Congress
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin is a woman of many firsts. Baldwin, a Madison Democrat, was the first Wisconsin woman elected to the U.S. House and later the U.S. Senate. She has also made history as an openly gay woman. In 1998, she became the first openly LGBTQ woman elected to Congress. Then, in 2012, she became the first openly gay person to be elected to the U.S. Senate.
Baldwin has talked often about being a recent college graduate in Madison who was inspired to pursue a career in politics in 1984 while watching Geraldine Ferraro take the stage at that year's Democratic National Convention. She has said that while watching Ferraro's speech, she teared up and told herself, "I can do anything."
Baldwin has gone on to encourage and inspire more women to get involved in politics. She recently said: "Government works best when legislatures reflect the people we work for, when they look like America. That's why it's important to increase the number of women who serve in public office. Women bring their life experience to the job and that helps inform debates, votes, and the policies that we deliver."
Activist, civil rights leader
In the midst of rampant and explicit housing discrimination that created one of the most segregated cities in the country, Ardie Clark-Halyard found unprecedented avenues to empower African American families to secure mortgages and organize for civil rights in Milwaukee.
Clark-Halyard was born to sharecroppers in Georgia, attended Atlanta University and moved to Milwaukee in 1923. While working for Goodwill Industries, she used her free time to work with her husband on starting the first African American-owned bank in Milwaukee, the Columbia Savings and Loan Association. It opened in 1925, allowing African Americans to apply for loans and obtain mortgages at a time when both were difficult.
Clark-Halyard is also credited with reviving the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. She became the first female president of the Milwaukee NAACP in 1951, and she started the NAACP Youth Council with Father James Groppi. The council would gain national fame in 1967 as they marched for 200 consecutive nights in support of Alderwoman Vel Phillips’ proposal to outlaw housing discrimination. It passed in 1968.
Golda Meir not only helped to create the state of Israel, she went on to serve as Israel's first female prime minister.
Born Goldie Mabovitch, Meir immigrated to Milwaukee from Kiev as a child with her family in 1906. Her early years in Wisconsin's largest city helped inspire her work as a political organizer and shaped the rest of her life. It was in Milwaukee that Meir helped to organize the American Young Sisters' Society to raise money to buy textbooks for needy children.
Meir's parents reportedly considered education for girls unimportant, but she defied them and continued to pursue her schoolwork. Her former grade school in Milwaukee is now named in her honor, and she went on to attend what is now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which has a library named for her.
After becoming a leader in the Milwaukee Labor Zionist Party, she immigrated to Palestine with her husband and joined a kibbutz. During World War II, she emerged as a prominent proponent of Zionism, and went on to work for the release of Jewish refugees who had violated immigration policies by settling in Palestine.
Meir was a signatory on Israel's independence declaration in 1948; later that year, she was appointed minister to Moscow. She was then elected to the Israeli parliament in 1949, serving there until 1974. Additionally, she also was Israel's minister of labor from 1949 to 1956, then appointed foreign minister in 1956.
Meir became Israel's prime minister in 1969 and led the country during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. She has faced criticism from both the left and the right, but she is also widely respected as a trailblazing female leader.
She was born Georgette Louise Meyer in Milwaukee, but her reputation was built as Dickey Chapelle, a fearless photojournalist who put herself into harm's way covering the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II and through the Vietnam War. She survived 52 days of imprisonment by the Russians, who branded her a spy.
This was not an era when editors sent women to document war, but Chapelle's reputation helped her find a way to chronicle unrest at the center of it all. She found a way to get behind the scenes of the Cuban revolution. One of the oft-told Chapelle stories has her talking her way into Iwo Jima, where she stood photographing Marines and listening to what she thought was the buzzing of wasps. The buzzing came from enemy bullets shooting past her.
Chapelle was the first American woman journalist to be killed in action. She was killed in 1965 while on a U.S. mission in Vietnam. A Marine walking in front of her tripped a booby trap, and the explosion blew shrapnel into her neck. Chapelle was just 47. Her body was returned to Milwaukee, where she was buried with full military honors, unusual for a civilian and a testament to her bravery and the importance of her work.
Mildred Fish Harnack
Human rights activist, Nazi resister
Mildred Fish Harnack, a Milwaukee native, founded an underground resistance group in Berlin with her German husband to spy on the Nazi Party, assist Jewish people and others targeted by Nazis, and distribute anti-fascist materials. Their group, called the “Red Orchestra” by the Gestapo, provided vital information to the Allied forces about the planned Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Before her husband was executed, he wrote her a letter saying that in his life, “the darkness was outweighed by the light” in large part because of their marriage.
After a secret trial, Harnack was sentenced to six years of hard labor, but Adolf Hitler was so infuriated by his military defeat at Stalingrad that he ordered a new trial to ensure she was sentenced to death, making her the only American woman executed on Hitler's direct order. Harnack, a scholar and writer, spent her final days translating Goethe in a prison cell. Her last words were: “I also loved Germany so much.” Her birthday, Sept. 16, has been designated Mildred Harnack Day in Wisconsin.
Olympic gold medalist
At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Gwen Jorgensen became the first American to win gold in the Olympic Triathlon, after she’d dominated the world triathlete circuit over the previous three years.
Jorgensen was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1986 and was a collegiate swimmer and runner at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned a master's degree in accounting and All-America honors in track and cross country. She didn't begin participating in triathlon until after graduation, when she was recruited by USA Triathlon. She began training while working as a CPA at Ernst & Young in Milwaukee, and in 2010 was selected as USA Triathlon's rookie of the year.
After a flat tire contributed to her 38th-place finish in the 2012 Olympics in London, Jorgensen went on to become the first triathlete to win four consecutive World Triathlon Series races in 2014, a streak that would extend to 12 in 2015. In 2016, she reached the pinnacle of her sport and won gold in Rio.
Jorgensen, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, retired from triathlon in 2017, had a baby and announced a new goal: pursuing Olympic gold in track and field and eventually the marathon.
Immigrant rights activist
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the daughter of Mexican and German immigrants, founded and still runs Voces de La Frontera, a Milwaukee organization that’s become a state and national leader fighting for the rights of immigrants and low-wage workers.
Neumann-Ortiz co-founded Voces in 1994 as a bilingual newspaper in Austin, Texas, focusing on the rights of factory workers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. When she moved to Milwaukee, she opened a Voces worker center to educate immigrants on their rights and support collective action. The volunteer-run center’s work led to changes including asbestos removal at several companies.
In 2006, Neumann-Ortiz organized the first local “Day Without Latinos” march, now an annual event that draws tens of thousands of people. She continues to serve as executive director of Voces, which also offers legal assistance, registers voters, fights deportations and police collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, advocates for access to driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, and provides a platform for youth organizing.
"It's been a long struggle, but I have to remind myself and others that social justice is not achieved overnight,” Neumann-Ortiz told the Journal Sentinel in 2010.
Indigenous rights activist
Ingrid Washinawatok was born in 1957 to the Menominee Nation. She started her activism at the age of 14, joining the movement to reestablish the Menominee as a federally recognized tribe.
After graduating from college, Washinawatok went on to found the Indigenous Women's Network, a nonprofit dedicated to uplifting indigenous women, their families and their communities, especially around the issue of sovereignty. In 1998, she became executive director of the Fund of the Four Directions, an indigenous philanthropic organization, where she worked to revive and promote indigenous languages. Washinawatok also served as a committee chairperson for the U.N.'s International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, lectured worldwide on indigenous rights and co-produced the documentary “Warrior.”
Washinawatok was working with two other activists to establish an education program in Colombia for the children of the country's indigenous population, the U'wa, when she was murdered by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 1999. Washinawatok left behind her husband, Ali El-Issa, and 14-year-old son, Maehkiwkasic. Her death was honored by the Menominee Nation with a full warrior's funeral.
Women of the Century: They didn’t succeed despite adversity, but often because of it
50 states: Learn about notable women from every state
Who is your Woman of the Century?: Let us know
Recognizing women past and present: See all of our coverage
Contributing: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters D.L. Davis, Mary Spicuzza, Chelsey Lewis, Ashley Luthern, Rory Linnane and Talis Shelbourne
Sources used in the Women of the Century list project include newspaper articles, state archives, historical websites, encyclopedias and other resources.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Women of Century Wisconsin: Vel. R Phillips, Tammy Baldwin, Golda Meir