History Lesson: Fighting Belle Case La Follette

There’s a good chance that even if Belle Case La Follette hadn’t become half of one of Wisconsin’s most famous power couples, history would have learned her name anyway.
Belle La Follette with her daughter
Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society

There’s a good chance that even if Belle Case La Follette hadn’t become half of one of Wisconsin’s most famous power couples, history would have learned her name anyway. This is a woman who, upon marrying Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette in 1881, requested the word “obey” be stricken from their vows. Already a University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate with two years of teaching under her belt (not corset, which she refused to wear), Belle gave birth less than nine months later. After Flora Dodge “Fola” La Follette was born (shown here with her mom in this 1886 photo), Belle went back — and became the first woman to graduate from the UW–Madison Law School.

Belle said “the supreme experience in life is motherhood,” though it would be another 13 years before she had her next child. She thought society, not motherhood, held women back — and she believed people were capable of change. While her husband became a governor, U.S. senator and presidential candidate under the newly formed and short-lived Progressive Party of 1924, she became a lawyer, journalist, editor, suffragette, activist and grandmother. She scaled a 12,000-foot Costa Rican volcano and ran miles before breakfast. She helped found the Women’s Peace Party and rallied for decades for women’s right to vote before she could cast a ballot herself, for the first time, at age 61. When her husband of nearly 44 years described his time in office, he said things like “when we were governor.” Yet you hardly hear her name today.

Belle’s notable contributions included her children. Fola, also a UW–Madison alumna, became a writer and actress who used her platform to further her parents’ progressive causes. Mary became an artist and consultant, retiring after 31 years of federal service. Robert Jr. was a U.S. senator for 22 years, and Phillip was a two-term Wisconsin governor. Bob gets credit for a movement, a magazine and a famous festival, but Belle did more than her fair share of fighting in her 72 years.

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