5 Difference-Making Ladies in WI Women’s History


March is Women’s History Month, so it felt like a great time for me to dig in and learn more about some remarkable women who have come from our great state.  This will be a 2 part series – this first part will highlight 5 women in our state’s history, then the 2nd part (coming soon!) will feature 5 women who have made more modern history in WI.

It’s important to mention that in doing my research, I found many many women from WI who had made their mark on history – I could have read and researched for many more hours than I did and would not have read everything that was available.  In my writing, I tried to find women from different parts of the state, who were notable for different achievements.  I want every woman and every girl to know that they can make a difference – that their contribution means something in the fabric of our rich history of female leaders.

One of the things I am the most proud of is knowing that on June 10, 1919, WI became the first state to vote in favor of ratifying the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.  This alone is incredibly historic and deserves its own recognition.

young girl learning about women's history in the WI state capital

(This is a photo of my daughter from a couple of years ago, learning about women in WI history at the Capitol.  That device around her waist was for her arm, which was broken at the time.)

Without further ado, allow me to introduce you to some pretty special WI women in history!

Ho-poe-kaw (Dates of birth and death are unknown)

Ho-poe-kaw (Dates of birth and death are unknown) : WI Women's History

Ho-poe-kaw (Glory of the Morning) was the first woman described in the written record of WI and is the last known Ho-Chunk female chief.  She was chosen to lead her people around 1727, at the age of 18, near the area now known as Neenah/Menasha.  Her descendants would become one of the most prominent Ho-Chunk families and would serve as diplomats in treaty agreements with the US.

Elizabeth Baird (1810-1890)

Elizabeth Baird (1810-1890)

Elizabeth Baird was born in 1810 in Prairie du Chien and moved to Green Bay shortly after she was married at the age of 14, and her husband was the first practicing lawyer in the area.  She wrote news articles about pioneer life in the growing area of Green Bay and eventually went on to become the recorder of deeds.  After the Peshtigo Fire of 1871, people from all over the country sent relief supplies, and she was instrumental in distributing them to families in the area.  She lived in Green Bay until her death in 1890.

Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957)

Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957)

Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 in Pepin, where she lived until she was 7.  Her family moved to other states in the Midwest, but she never forgot the fond times she had as a child in WI, and wrote her first book at the age of 65, based on her young life in WI – it was called “Little House in the Big Woods”.  This book went on to sell millions of copies worldwide and is ranked as one of the top all-time children’s novels in history. (Let this be a lesson to those who say they are too old to start something new!)

Mildred Fish-Harnack (1902-1943)

Mildred Fish-Harnack (1902-1943) : WI Women's History

Mildred Fish was born in 1902 in Milwaukee.  She met her husband when she was an instructor at UW Madison, and they moved to Germany shortly thereafter.  She taught there and worked on her doctorate, and eventually, they joined a small Nazi resistance group called the Red Orchestra.  The group smuggled secrets about the Nazis to the US and Soviet governments, which ended up costing them their lives.  She was the only American woman ever put to death on the direct order of Adolf Hitler for her involvement in the resistance.

Vel Phillips (1924-2018)

Vel Phillips : WI women's history

Vel Phillips was born in 1924 in Milwaukee, and she lived a life of distinguished firsts.  She graduated from UW Madison Law School in 1951, making history as the first African American woman to do so.  She went on to become the first-ever African American member of the Milwaukee Common Council, the first woman judge in Milwaukee County, and the first African American judge in WI.  She would go on to make more history as the first woman and first non-white elected Secretary of State in WI, and briefly served as Acting Governor.  She was the highest-ranking woman to win state office in WI in the 20th century, and even in her retirement served on many boards and campaigns until her death in 2018.

I look forward to sharing my next post with you – I can’t wait to tell you about this other group of extraordinary women for Women’s History Month!  Read part 2 here: 5 More Women Making History in WI

(Author note: I researched each of these women’s history pretty extensively – I read many articles and stories about each and fact-checked quite a bit, but if there are details of each story that are not 100% accurate, please accept my apologies in advance.)

How are you celebrating Women’s History Month?  Let us know in the comments!