More Than Exceptional
Highlighting the women who go beyond exceptional.
We outline 10 historical pioneers who made it possible for women to vote, become doctors, purchase homes and be present in the courtroom. Because of these women, young girls were able to imagine themselves as educated business owners and executive directors who have presence in any room. What makes all 30 women in this section unique is not that they are the only ones doing the work — but that they are encouraging other women to stand by their side and blaze the trail for the generation after them.
WWII Resistance Warrior
“And I have loved Germany so much.” Those were the last words spoken by Mildred Fish-Harnack before she was beheaded. The World War II resistance fighter was the only American civilian to die by Adolf Hitler’s direct order, sentenced to death for the crime of spying. Together with her husband and a small resistance group — known to Nazi secret police as the “Red Orchestra” — Fish-Harnack smuggled secrets and helped many Jews escape persecution.
Mildred Fish was born in Milwaukee in 1902. Growing up, she learned how to read, write and speak both German and English. A natural writer, she earned her bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin and taught literature in the English department. She wrote for the Wisconsin State Journal and the Wisconsin Literary Magazine.
At the UW, she also met her future husband, a student on fellowship from Germany named Arvid Harnack. He proposed at Picnic Point and they married on Mildred’s brother’s farm, two days after she passed her master’s degree exams.
The couple soon moved to Germany. Fish-Harnack earned her doctorate and taught at Berlin University, though she was fired a short time later for not being “Nazi enough.”
As Hitler and his regime rose to power, Mildred and Arvid were inspired to join the resistance. They published an underground newsletter, transmitted military intelligence to Moscow and helped Jews flee Germany.
German High Command discovered the pair’s espionage and arrested the Harnacks in 1942 while they vacationed near the Baltic Sea. Arvid was convicted of treason and hanged in December 1942. Mildred was originally sentenced to six years in prison, but Hitler himself ordered she be retried, and in February 1943, she was executed.
Because of their connection with Communism, much of the world didn’t know of the Harnacks’ heroism until after the Cold War. However, in 1986, Wisconsin established September 16 as Mildred Fish-Harnack Day, which is also her birthday. In 1994, the UW–Madison International Division established an annual lecture series in her name to honor her courage, idealism and self-sacrifice.
Last summer, a sculpture paying tribute to Fish-Harnack was dedicated at Madison’s Marshall Park, just across Lake Mendota from the campus where she and her husband fell in love nearly a century ago. At the dedication ceremony, artist John Durbrow said his sculpture recognizes “Mildred’s strength, courage and resolve to address early on the forces of oppression which eventually inflamed the entire world.”
A Woman Of Many Firsts
Vel Phillips holds a prominent place in Wisconsin history as a dedicated champion for racial equality and women’s rights. A pioneer in law and politics, the accomplished Milwaukee native achieved many firsts, which helped pave the way for others:
• In 1951, she became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School.
• She was the first woman and the first African American to be elected to the Milwaukee Common Council.
• In 1958 she became the first African American woman elected to the Democratic National Committee.
• In 1971 she was appointed the first female judge in Milwaukee County, also becoming the first African American to serve in the state’s judiciary.
• She was the first African American to win a statewide office when she beat eight primary candidates and was elected secretary of state in 1978.
Phillips helped lead the fight against unfair housing discrimination during the civil rights era, starting with her 1962 Fair Housing Law. The proposal, which would have made it illegal to discriminate against African American renters, was initially rejected by the Milwaukee Common Council. Growing more frustrated, Phillips, who was already active in the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, partnered with noted civil rights activist Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council to call out the fair housing issue. Together, they organized 200 days of marches, which were met by violent counterprotests and police who deployed tear gas. Phillips defied the mayor’s ban on marching and was arrested at one demonstration. “I felt nothing was going to stop us,” Phillips later said.
For six years, Phillips continued to reintroduce her fair housing proposal.
In April 1968, six weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Milwaukee Common Council finally passed Phillips’ fair housing law.
In the 2015 Wisconsin Public Television documentary about her storied career, “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams,” Phillips said this: “I just thought that I would have a chance to really make a difference.”
Phillips died in 2018 at the age of 94. Her legacy carries on, with a UW–Madison residence hall named in her honor, as well as a street in Milwaukee and the Juvenile Justice Center in Wauwatosa.
A Richland County Legacy
On June 10, 1919, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. Suffragist leader and social activist Ada James played an important role in that distinction by convincing her father, former state senator David G. James, to personally deliver the ratification papers by train to Washington, D.C., barely beating a messenger from neighboring Illinois.
James spent much of her life championing various causes and learned a great deal about organizing at home. Both of her parents were active in the women’s suffrage movement. Her mother founded the Richland Center Women’s Club, which in 1866 invited Susan B. Anthony to speak.
James herself formed a club while still in high school to advance the cause of suffrage. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, James co-founded the Political Equality League of Wisconsin in 1911 and served as its president for two years.
Employing some creative campaign tactics — including hiring a motorboat to distribute brochures along the river and dropping pamphlets on county fairs from an airplane — she fought for her father’s 1912 women’s suffrage amendment, which voters ultimately defeated in a statewide referendum.
After the passage of the 19th Amendment, James turned her attention to temperance, pacifism and world peace, among other social issues. She lobbied Richland County government officials to create a local children’s board to provide assistance for children in poverty, the first such organization in the state. Today, Ada James Place in Richland County offers affordable housing to people experiencing homelessness.
Native American Healer for All
Throughout much of her life, Betsy Thunder was known across west central Wisconsin as an extraordinary healer for using traditional Ho-Chunk medicine to treat both Native American and white patients.
Thunder was born near Black River Falls as a member of the Ho-Chunk tribe (also known as the Winnebago). Thunder married a medicine man several years her senior who trained her in traditional and ceremonial medicine, which included properly collecting, preparing and administering herbs and treatments. As her husband had hoped, she passed along her knowledge and skills to future generations; at least one son and one grandson became natural healers, as well.
Residents in Jackson County and beyond trusted her as a skilled medical practitioner. Patients often gave her clothing, food or blankets in exchange
for her services.
Despite knowing little English, Thunder also worked with many white patients. As the story goes, she treated the son of a prominent lumberman when the young boy became critically ill and doctors with more formal training couldn’t find a cure. The child recovered after Thunder treated him for a few days with herbs, roots, barks and berries. To show his gratitude, the businessman gave Thunder enough lumber to build a small cabin on her 40 acres of land, and the townspeople helped build it to show their similar appreciation for her years of service.
In the 1900s, the U.S. government ordered Thunder’s tribe to relocate to Nebraska. Thunder refused and hid in the hills of her ancestral land until she died. Her exact birthdate is unknown, but an obituary published in a 1913 Black River Falls newspaper reported her age at the time of her death to be an impressive 96 years old.
‘Emblem of Equality’
Wisconsin native Carrie Chapman Catt is a well-known figure in the women’s suffrage movement. She campaigned for the right to vote and, after the 19th Amendment passed, founded the League of Women Voters.
When Catt graduated from Iowa Agriculture College in 1890 with a degree in science, she was the only woman in her class. She worked in Iowa as a law clerk, teacher, school principal and her district’s first female superintendent. After moving to California, she co-edited her husband’s newspaper, wrote a weekly feature about women’s suffrage and eventually became San Francisco’s first female newspaper reporter.
Activist leader Susan B. Anthony invited Catt to testify to an all-male Congress about proposed suffrage legislation, and in 1900 Catt succeeded Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWFA), a position she held until 1904, and again from 1915-1920.
In a speech celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment, Catt remarked, “The vote is the emblem of your equality, women of America, the guarantee of your liberty. … That vote has been costly. Prize it!”
To assist the millions of women newly eligible to vote, Catt stepped down from the NAWFA and founded the League of Women Voters, which celebrates its 100th
First Female UW Valedictorian
In 1869, six women graduated from the University of Wisconsin. It was the institution’s first co-educational class. Clara Bewick Colby was among them and has the distinction of being chosen as the university’s first female valedictorian. A prominent journalist, Colby would spend her life advocating for the causes of women in higher education and women’s suffrage.
Colby was born in England but grew up in Windsor, Wisconsin. As a teenager, she taught at a Dane County school to earn money for her family. After graduating from the UW, she taught Latin and history to women students and continued her own education, taking classes in French, Greek and chemistry. She resigned from the university only a few years later, when administrators denied her request for a pay increase.
Colby and her husband, a UW Law School graduate, moved to Nebraska. There, she established a public library and worked as principal of a local school district, along with championing the rights of rural women. In 1883, she launched the Woman’s Tribune, a monthly newspaper for which she wrote, edited and set type. The Tribune became the official paper of the National Woman Suffrage Association.
Working with fellow suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she wrote and lectured about women’s voting rights. However, after a long separation and eventual divorce, national suffrage leaders shut her out of the movement, fearing she would stain their reputation.
She was, however, allowed to serve as a delegate to the International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance at Budapest in 1913. Sadly, Colby died in 1916, just four years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving white American women the right to vote.
Even as a young child growing up on a Sun Prairie farm, the woman who would become one of the most important and influential American artists of the 20th century knew exactly what she wanted to be.
Georgia O’Keeffe was inspired by the nature that surrounded her family home, from trees and flowers to barns and country life. Her sisters, Catherine and Ida, were also budding young artists. A local teacher and watercolorist who boarded at the O’Keeffe farmhouse gave the girls drawing lessons.
O’Keeffe began more formal art lessons at Madison’s Sacred Heart Academy, then learned from a high school art teacher who used flowers to demonstrate color and shape techniques.
When she turned 18, O’Keeffe left Wisconsin and began art training, first at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then at The Art Students League in New York. Unfulfilled by school, she tried traveling the country teaching but wound up back in New York, where she began painting full time.
In the first few decades of her career, O’Keeffe created some of her most innovative and iconic paintings, full of flowers and lush lakeside landscapes.
Her frequent vacations to New Mexico inspired a second phase of her career, painting open skies, rugged mountains and bleached animal bones, all tinted in her own distinctive color palette.
Toward the twilight of her career, her 1976 illustrated autobiography was a bestseller and President Gerald Ford awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died in 1986 at the age of 98.
Today, the city of Sun Prairie honors her with a historical marker and special events. The University of Wisconsin awarded her an honorary degree and she was given the Wisconsin Governor’s Award for Creativity in the Arts in 1966.
Public Education Pioneer
Even before Wisconsin became a state, Native American children and the white children of early settlers in the Fox Valley received a superior education thanks to Electa Quinney, the state’s first public schoolteacher.
Quinney, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, grew up in New York. Her spirit name in her native language was Wuh-weh-wee-nee-meew Quan-au-kaunt.
Passionate about education, she attended top-notch boarding schools, received her advanced education at a female seminary in Connecticut and taught for six years at a mission school.
When the U.S. government ordered the mass removal of native people from New York, Quinney’s brother led her tribe west to Wisconsin to relocate on Menominee lands.
A year after arriving in the area that’s now Kaukauna, Quinney opened the first public school in the Wisconsin part of Michigan Territory. Most of her students could not afford to pay educational fees, so the school relied solely on public funding instead. (Until then, most children learned under private tutors, at private schools run by churches or at military facilities.)
Quinney taught 40 to 50 students at one time, in a one-room log schoolhouse on the Fox River, which operated in connection with a Presbyterian mission. Though most of her students were Native American, everyone studied together in English, learning arithmetic, geography, history, language and penmanship. One former student said later the school was modeled after some of the best public schools in New England, inspired by Quinney’s own early education and teaching career.
In the 1830s, Quinney married a Mohican Methodist minister from Canada, his mission work taking them to Missouri for a time. After he died, she remarried — this time to a Cherokee newspaper editor — and moved back to Wisconsin, where she lived until her death in 1885.
The University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee created the Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education in her honor, praising her for using education to prepare young people to meet challenges in their communities. She’s also the namesake for Electa Quinney Elementary School in the Kaukauna Area School District. Last year, the state voted to proclaim November 1, Electa Quinney Day in Wisconsin.
Presence on the Bench
Respected as one of America’s sharpest legal scholars, Shirley Abrahamson achieved many firsts during her distinguished judicial career, paving a remarkable path for future generations.
Abrahamson was born in New York City to first-generation Jewish immigrants from Poland. She earned an A.B. magna cum laude from New York University. She finished first in her class at Indiana University School of Law in 1956 and was the only woman in her class.
She earned her S.J.D. at the University of Wisconsin Law School and was hired by La Follette, Sinykin, Doyle & Anderson as that firm’s first woman attorney. She practiced there for 14 years, eventually becoming a partner, while still teaching classes at the UW Law School.
At a time when there weren’t very many women in law school or at law firms, let alone on the bench, it was a major milestone when, in 1976, then-Gov. Patrick Lucey appointed her to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She would win reelection four times.
During a speech she delivered in 1980, Abrahamson shared her response when asked what being a woman brings to the bench. “My gender — or, more properly, the experiences that my gender has forced upon me — has, of course, made me sensitive to certain issues, both legal and nonlegal. So have other parts of my background. … Each of us is a person with diverse experiences. … If all judges were the same, why have seven?”
In 1996, Wisconsin native and then-chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, swore Abrahamson into office as chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, a position she held until 2015.
Abrahamson earned a reputation as one of the hardest-working judges around. Fellow justice Ann Walsh Bradley once told the State Bar of Wisconsin that Abrahamson worked so late, so often that she developed a close relationship with the night custodians at the Wisconsin State Capitol.
Abrahamson was the longest-serving justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in state history. Upon news of Abrahamson’s retirement last summer, longtime friend and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsberg released this statement: “Wisconsin was fortunate to have her steady hand at the helm of its Judiciary. During her long tenure, she has inspired legions of law graduates to follow in her wake to pursue justice, equal and accessible to all.”
Fair Housing Advocate
Many African American families in Milwaukee can thank Ardie Clark Halyard for helping them reach their dream of owning a home.
Throughout much of the 20th century, Halyard was an active community leader and tireless crusader against racial discrimination. Born to a family of sharecroppers in Georgia, she trained as a teacher and graduated from Atlanta University. She and her husband, Wilbur, moved to Milwaukee in 1923, and the following year they opened Columbia Savings & Loan, the first such business owned by African Americans.
At that time, many African Americans faced racism, segregation and redlining, unable to move into modern middle-class life through homeownership. The Halyards sought to tear down those immense barriers and fight back against discriminatory lending practices. For decades, Columbia Savings & Loan was the only place African Americans could turn for financial assistance. Today, it remains one of only a few black-owned banking institutions in the country and is a staple of the Milwaukee community.
Halyard helped organize the Wisconsin State Conference of the NAACP and, with Milwaukee civil rights activist Father James Groppi, established the NAACP Youth Council, an instrumental group behind the city’s fair housing movement. She served as the Youth Council’s first president and first treasurer. In 1951, Halyard was named the first woman president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP.
In addition to campaigning for fair housing, Halyard served on the Wisconsin State Board of Vocational, Technical and Adult Education for more than eight years. She was a member of the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, which advised state leaders on issues that directly impacted women, such as sexual assault, marital property and divorce.