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A Seat at the Table: 100 Years of Wisconsin's Equal Rights Act

June 28, 2021 10:19 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

by Christine Lidbury, Executive Director, Wisconsin Women's Council

July 2021 marks the 100th Anniversary of women in Wisconsin gaining the right to hold public office. The provision came fifth in a list of “rights and privileges” extended to women in the landmark 1921 Wisconsin Equal Rights Act, with the preamble, “[t]o remove discriminations against women and give them equal rights before the law.” The first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, a year later, Wisconsin was again recognized nationally for passing the first equal rights bill in any U.S. state.

In 1923, a UW-Extension survey of Wisconsin cities and villages identified Wisconsin’s first “Lady Mayor” (Crandon), county board supervisor (Brown County), alderwomen (Clintonville, Janesville, Marshfield, Mellon, Phillips, Platteville, Waukesha, Wausau), more than a dozen village trustees and nearly three dozen municipal clerks and treasurers. In 1924, the first women were elected to the Wisconsin State Legislature as “Assemblymen.” It wasn’t until 1975 that a woman was elected to the State Senate.

That was then, where are we a century later? Women’s representation in public office still lags. Often significantly. The influx of women into elected office began in numbers in the late 1970s, making slow progress to the current day. Today, women in elected office in state and local government still account for less than a 25% of office holders and only about 12% of leadership positions.

Marking this Centennial, women sworn into the 2021 State Legislature exceed 30% of all Legislators for the first time and passed the previous record of 29% set more than three decades ago, in 1989, and again in 1993 and 2003. In fact, the share of women in the State Legislature had hovered around 25% for more than 30 years. “First” for women holding office in Wisconsin state and federal elected offices gained momentum starting in the 1970s and continue today – with some yet to come.
See a timeline here

In a new report from the Wisconsin Women’s Council, more than 3,000 women serve in elected office across state and local governments in Wisconsin. Today, women’s representation in elected office includes, 25 mayors (14%), 41 state legislators (31%), and about 250 county board, 400 city council and 650 village board members. Women represent most of the state’s elected and appointed local government clerks  and treasurers.

The 1921 Equal Rights Act did not live up to the hopes of reformers, having included loopholes that quickly undermined reforms. Nonetheless, on the heels of suffrage, it presaged a modern era for American women and set Wisconsin women on a new path as government leaders.

Women’s place in public office in this next century starts today. What happens with that is up to us.


  • July 01, 2021 9:23 PM | Anonymous member
    Hi Christine,
    Nice timeline..impressive women. Do you keep a list of local elected officials (city/town/village) serving as the first in the state or municipality? Brown Deer Village President - Wanda Montgomery (1st African American); 30 years ago City of Fitchburg Mayor Frances Huntley-Cooper (1st African American) in the State's history (1991 - 1993). Ada Deer first Native American to run for Congress. Can you share that document? Thanks so much for all you are doing. Frances
    Link  •  Reply
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