April 17, 2016
Nancy C. Unger, PhD
The Unexpected Belle La Follette: Progressive Model for 2016
Nancy Unger is a Professor of History at Santa Clara University and the author of Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History, Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer, and Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer. She has made presentations to many audiences, frequently including the Humanists in Silicon Valley AHA Chapter.
She gave what everyone acknowledged as an outstanding talk to over 25 people on the life of Belle La Follette (née Case), whose husband was the great late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century progressive leader Robert La Follette.
Although often overlooked by standard history books and underestimated by journalist Lincoln Steffens, Belle was an important figure in her own right. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1885—the first woman to do so. She married Robert, who was a crusading attorney, in 1881. They were married by a Unitarian minister. She characteristically insisted in striking the word “obey” from the marriage vows.
Robert later served in the House of Representatives, became Governor of Wisconsin, and after that served the rest of his life in the United States Senate. He ran for President in 1924, carrying only his home state of Wisconsin.
As an attorney and political activist (like her husband), Belle was a strong supporter of the rights of labor, women’s suffrage, peace, and justice for people of color. She was also her Robert’s most trusted advisor. She was a syndicated newspaper columnist and later worked on La Follette’s Magazine (later The Progressive). She was in some ways more progressive than Robert and was very supportive when he espoused unpopular views, especially when he opposed American involvement in the Great War (WW I). Alice Paul said that Belle was the nation’s most consistent supporter of women’s rights.
Robert and Belle had a son who became Governor of Wisconsin and another who entered the United States Senate after Robert died in 1925. Belle died in 1931.
This meeting was a first for HAGSA, with a two-camera contract crew from 21 Lakes Media Group recording the presentation for later broadcast by C-SPAN American History TV.
Report prepared by Wayne Luney
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