Timeline of Wisconsin Women’s Suffrage

This timeline is a work in progress.


  • Debates about enfranchising women and/or African Americans occurred at Wisconsin constitutional conventions.


  • Wisconsin entered the union as a free state but the state constitution contained no provisions for enfranchisement for women or Blacks or protecting property rights of women. White men could vote regardless of citizenship status; Native American men could vote as long as they renounced their tribal affiliation.
  • Women’s suffrage convention at Seneca Falls, NY, in July. Attended mainly by upper class white women and lacked attention to needs of working class women and women of color. According to her own story told in 1920, Wisconsin resident Louise J. Smith was an attendee at the meeting when she was 12 years old.


  • May 31: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel proclaims, “Women are confessedly angels, and angels do not vote.”


  • WI state law passed giving property rights to married women.


  • National leaders Clarina Howard Nicholson and Lydia Fowler tour Wisconsin calling for temperance but also spreading word about women’s suffrage.


  • Organized by Mathilde Anneke, Lucy Stone visits Wisconsin to discuss slavery and suffrage:
    • November 9 – 11 in Madison,
    • November 21 – 23 in Kenosha.


  • First women’s club for suffrage in Wisconsin created in Richland Center.
  • Two WI suffrage papers in existence:
    • Southport Telegraph of Kenosha owned by CJ Sholes
    • Oshkosh True Democrat


  • The Wisconsin Chief is started by Emma Brown.
  • Brown is the first woman newspaper editor and publisher to last.

1861-1865: US Civil War

  • By and large, women work to support the war effort in the Sanitary Commission or go to work outside the home, in the field, or at university.


  • Black men in Wisconsin receive the vote: after being denied the ability to vote in an 1865 referendum, Ezekiel Gillespie sued and the state Supreme Court ruled in his favor.


  • October 9-10 – First Wisconsin state convention for suffrage held in Janesville:
    • Led by John T. Dow, Joseph Baker, LR Stewart, and others.
    • Worked on forming a state organization – formed executive committee and finance committee.


  • Woman Suffrage Association of Wisconsin (WSAW) formed.


  • Nationally, the suffrage movement divided over issues of tactics, philosophies, and the 15th Amendment granting suffrage for African American men. Two organizations were formed: National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).
    • NWSA – Created in NYC by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Considered more radical and took on a wide range of issues than just suffrage to guarantee women’s total equality. Opposed the 15th Amendment only including African American men. They prioritized suffrage of women and fought for the 15th to include them. Focused on national amendment to the Constitution and was women-led. Newspaper: The Revolution.
    • AWSA – Created in Boston by Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, Julia Ward Howe, and TW Higginson. Considered more moderate and supported the 15th Amendment. Focused only on the vote and on state level organizing as the primary method. Led by women and men. Newspaper: The Woman’s Journal.
  • February: Second convention held, unrelated to the first, in Milwaukee:
    • Organized by Dr. Laura Ross and Lila Peckham.
    • Mary A. Livermore, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were in attendance.
    • Dr. Ross elected president of Woman Suffrage Association of Wisconsin.
  • First women graduate from UW Madison.


  • Black men win the right to vote with the passage of the 15th Amendment.
  • March: Third WI suffrage convention held: Lila Peckham was a featured speaker.


  • Sojourner Truth speaks briefly at the second annual convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in Boston.


  • Madison Equal Suffrage Association formed with Emma Bascom of Madison as president.
  • Olympia Brown comes to WI and becomes Pastor of the Universalist Church in Racine.


  • Marathon County Woman Suffrage Association formed.


  • May: Mukwonago Woman Suffrage Society formed.


  • September 7: John Bascom opens convention in Madison:
    • Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell in attendance.
    • State suffrage association reorganized as Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association (WWSA).
    • Dr. Laura Ross was chosen as president, Reverend Olympia Brown was also chosen as an officer.
  • Suffrage clubs formed:
    • Grand Rapids and Centralia Equal Suffrage Association
    • Woman Suffrage Association at Mosinee
    • South Side Woman Suffrage Association (Milwaukee)
    • Olympic Club (North side of Milwaukee)
    • Whitewater Woman Suffrage Club


  • March – Woman’s Council at Racine formed.


  • Women allowed to vote on school matters (would be rescinded by the state Supreme Court in 1888).
  • September – Annual state suffrage convention held in Richland Center.
  • Auxiliary clubs formed in Milton and Evansville.


  • Auxiliary clubs formed at Albany and Boscobel.


  • Olympia Brown attempted to vote in spring municipal elections and was rejected. Circuit court would allow her vote but the state Supreme Court ruled against her, on the basis that it wasn’t what the legislature intended in 1869. Also ruled that women couldn’t vote on ballots that included anything other than school offices/issues because it couldn’t be guaranteed that they weren’t voting on these other offices/issues. School suffrage was effectively nullified by this decision because the legislature didn’t allow municipalities to print separate school-only ballots.
  • Wisconsin Citizen, the monthly publication of the WWSA, was established; would end in 1917.

By this time, advocates such as Theodora Youmans and Ada James began work in the women’s movement. Much of the focus shifted to incremental civic changes more broadly, with the leadership of established women’s clubs.


  • The two major national suffrage organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), merge to form National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
    • NAWSA would exclude African American women in their fight to vote because existing racism threatened their overall goal of white women gaining enfranchisement. NAWSA pushed the idea that women needed to be educated in order to vote, thus effectively barring many impoverished women and women of color.
  • Theodora Winton Youmans became an editor of The Waukesha Freeman.
  • Wyoming becomes the first state to grant women equal political rights in the state constitution.

The women’s club movement grows throughout the 1890s.


  • June: Colored Women’s League formed in Washington, DC, under president Helen Cook.


  • First National Conference of Colored Women of America held in Boston.
  • National Federation of Afro-American Women (NFAAW) founded at the conference. The group’s goal was to raise lower class standards and improve the standing of African American women in the US through cultivation of middle class domestic values. Harriet Tubman delivered a keynote address.


  • National Association of Colored Women (NACW) created to overcome factionalism of various groups and the National Federation of Afro-American Women (NFAAW) was dissolved. Led by Mary Church Terrell.

Between 1899 and 1915 there were no fewer than 21 attempts in the Wisconsin state Senate and Assembly to enfranchise women in various ways but each attempt failed.


  • WI legislature authorized separate school ballots so women are again allowed to vote on school-related issues and offices.


  • Suffrage headquarters established in Madison.


  • Mary Church Terrell in a speech before NAWSA members: ““My sisters of the dominant race, stand up not only for the oppressed sex, but also for the oppressed race!”


  • Susan B. Anthony dies.
  • National suffrage efforts concentrated on state legislation until 1912.


  • In large part due to the work of Ada James and her father, state Senator David James, a suffrage bill passed Wisconsin Senate and Assembly to be voted on by a statewide referendum.
  • Ada James leaves the WWSA to form the Political Equality League (PEL):
    • Theodora Youmans joins.
    • Comprised mainly lobbyists interested in suffrage and other proposed legislation.
    • Similar goals to WWSA but different tactics – WWSA more conservative, “civil”.

1911 – 1912

  • Lots of activity around WI to raise awareness of women’s suffrage referendum vote to be held in November 1912.


  • November 5: WI women’s suffrage referendum failed in large part due to schisms within the women’s movement and brewery/liquor interests:
    • 135,736 for,
    • 227,054 against.
  • National concentration shifts from state legislation to national amendment.


  • January: Alpha Suffrage Club founded in Chicago. Created by Ida B. Wells and Belle Squire, it is believed to be the first suffrage club for African American women. Newspaper: Alpha Suffrage Record.
  • March 3: Organized by NAWSA, a woman suffrage parade was held in Washington, DC. Fearing offending Southern supporters, NAWSA relegated Ida B. Wells and other African American suffragists to march at the end of the parade. Wells refused. She watched the parade and when the Illinois delegation came around, she joined them.
  • Alice Paul, chair of the Congressional Committee of NAWSA, creates the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage.
    • Pressed political parties to espouse women’s suffrage in their platforms.
    • Later that year, NAWSA cut ties with the CU.
    • The CU would become Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1916-17.
  • In WI, PEL and WWSA merged:
    • Kept WWSA name.
    • Olympia Brown steps down and Theodora Youmans becomes president.
    • Ada James became Executive Secretary.
    • Zona Gale chosen First Vice President.
    • Yearly budget was $6,000.
  • WI legislature authorized another referendum but it was vetoed by Governor Francis McGovern.


  • June 18-24 – Suffrage School held in Madison:
    • Other states had held similar events.
    • 66 attendees at day classes and hundreds at supplemental evening activities.
    • Received instruction in organizing, marketing, history, legal status of women, citizenship, press.
  • December: Annual convention held.

Between 1899 and 1915 there were no fewer than 21 attempts in the Wisconsin state Senate and Assembly to enfranchise women in various ways but each attempt failed.


  • Another WI referendum bill was rejected by a more conservative legislature.
  • Annual NAWSA convention:
    • Carrie Chapman Catt becomes NAWSA president.
    • Popularity of national amendment grew among state’s clubs.
  • WWSA began cooperating with the Congressional Union.


  • July – Annual NAWSA convention in Chicago:
    • The Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage created the National Woman’s Party (NWP) under the leadership of Alice Paul.
  • National political party conventions held; both major parties declared support for suffrage and for the first time, the Prohibitionist, Socialist, and Progressive parties declared support for the amendment.


  • With World War One, WWSA, like NAWSA, threw support behind the war government and suffrage groups were very active in the war effort.
  • The National Woman’s Party (NWP) continued the struggle for suffrage and began picketing the White House. In November, 30 of these “Silent Sentinels” were imprisoned for obstructing traffic and suffered brutal treatment in Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, VA, outside of Washington, DC. Wisconsin women didn’t participate in the pickets much; Olympia Brown, then in her 80s, did on March 4, 1918.
  • NAWSA (and WWSA) stopped cooperating with NWP at this time due to the disapproval of their tactics.
  • A branch of NWP was created in Wisconsin; members included Reverend Olympia Brown, Meta Berger, Ada James, and Maud McCreery.
  • Theodora Youmans and Jessie Jack Hooper continue war work with NAWSA; calling the NWP the “lunatic fringe” of the suffrage movement.


  • January 10: US House passed federal suffrage amendment, 274 to 136. Eight of ten Wisconsin House representatives favored the suffrage amendment. A quarter of states at the time had enfranchised women completely.
  • US Senate vote fails.
  • Picketing by NWP continued.


  • By 1919, 16 US states and 13 countries granted full suffrage for women.
  • March – National NAWSA conference held in St. Louis; delegation of 10 Wisconsin women attended led by Jessie Jack Hooper who was elected a national director.
  • May 19 – President Wilson called a special session of congress because “the amendment must pass”. At this time, Theodora Youmans traveled to DC to help lobby for support.
  • May 21 – Amendment passed the US House 304 to 89.
  • June 4 – Amendment passed the US Senate 64 to 29.
  • June 10 – Wisconsin legislature ratifies national amendment shortly before noon, 24 to 1 in the Senate and 52 to 2 in the Assembly. Illinois ratified a few minutes prior but because of a mistake, it had to be re-ratified on June 17. Ada James’ father, DG James, helped in getting it certified, traveled to DC, received official statement that Wisconsin’s ratification was the first to be received at the State Department, and took it back to Wisconsin.
  • October 29 – WWSA annual convention held; discussions centered on NAWSA’s change to League of Women Voters, with concentration on Americanization and good citizenship training.
  • By December 10, 22 states had ratified.


  • February 12-19 – NAWSA holds Jubilee Convention in Chicago; NAWSA changes to League of Women Voters (LWV).
  • February 20 – WWSA dissolved at a meeting in Milwaukee. A Wisconsin LWV is organized with Theodora Youmans as president.
  • August 26 – 19th Amendment fully ratified when Tennessee became 36th state to support it.
  • Fall – US women vote in elections. Many African American women, especially in the South, found it challenging to register, had to wait hours to vote, were required to pay poll taxes, or were required to pass Constitutional knowledge exams. Some were subjected to violence and imprisonment.
  • Theodora Youmans was named Wisconsin’s first woman presidential elector.


  • Theodora Youmans dies.


  • Wisconsin constitution amended to include women’s suffrage.

Sources: Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Directory (1885); Encyclopedia of Milwaukee; Wisconsin Historical Society; McBride, G. (1994), On Wisconsin Women; Graves, L.L. (1954), The Wisconsin woman suffrage movement. See the Resources section of this guide for more information.