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10 Wisconsin Women Overlooked by History

10 Wisconsin Women Overlooked by History | Wisconsin Historical Society

Overlooked Women

Wisconsin women have made many contributions to state and national history, yet our textbooks often reduce women's history to the campaign for suffrage at the expense of everything else. While the right to vote was indeed an important victory for women, it's just one of many issues that women have sought to change. Wisconsin women of many races, classes and ethnic groups left their mark on our history.

This article explores the stories of 10 Wisconsin women overlooked by history. We hope it inspires you to take a deeper dive into the lives of the amazing women who shaped, and continue to shape, our state.

Ho-poe-kaw “Glory of the Morning”

1700s
EnlargeHo-poe-kaw

Ho-poe-kaw was a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, who according to oral traditions have been in Wisconsin for time immemorial. Ho-poe-kaw was the first individual woman ever documented in French immigrant historical records. According to oral history, Ho-poe-kaw was the daughter of a powerful Ho-Chunk chief. Around 1727, she was selected to succeed him and lead the largest Ho-Chunk village, which was east of Lake Winnebago near modern-day Neenah. A year later, she married a French officer named Sabrevoir Descaris, who was in Wisconsin fighting in the Fox War. He resigned his commission with the French army and lived as a fur trader.

"Around 1727, she was selected to succeed him and lead the largest Ho-Chunk village"

Under Ho-poe-kaw’s leadership, the Ho-Chunk sided with the French against the Meskwaki in several battles during the Fox War. Ho-poe-kaw’s husband left with their daughter after several years and enlisted in the French army against the British over Canadian territory, and he died in battle. Ho-poe-kaw stayed in her tribal land with her two sons and led her people for about forty years. Although her daughter never returned, both of Ho-poe-kaw’s sons succeeded her as chief during the turbulent times of the Ho-Chunk’s forced relocation from Wisconsin by the U.S. government. Ho-poe-kaw’s descendants, known as the Decorahs (an alternate spelling of their paternal last name), became one of the most prominent Ho-Chunk families and served as diplomats in treaty agreements with the U.S.

Electa Quinney

1798 – 1885
EnlargeElecta Quinney

Electa Quinney

Electa Quinney was a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians. She grew up in New York with a passion for education, attending some of the best boarding schools in the area. She moved to the Kaukauna area of Wisconsin during the mass removal and migration of native peoples from New York in 1827. A year after arriving, Quinney opened a school — the first one in Wisconsin that did not charge an enrollment fee. She taught both Native and white children, many who could not have attended school if there had been a fee, and had forty to fifty children in her class at a time. She moved to Missouri for a time because of her husband’s work, but after his death, she moved back to Stockbridge, Wisconsin, and lived there until her death in 1885.

"A year after arriving, Quinney opened a school — the first one in Wisconsin that did not charge an enrollment fee"

Betsy Thunder

1850s – 1912
EnlargeBetsy Thunder

Betsy Thunder

Betsy Thunder was born near Black River Falls in the 1850s, although her exact birth year is unknown. She was a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, also called the Winnebago Sky Clan. She was a descendant of the Decorah family, whose founding mother was Ho-Chunk chief Ho-poe-kaw (Glory of the Morning). Thunder married a medicine man who was much older than she was. He taught her how to collect, prepare, and administer traditional and ceremonial medicine, and hoped that she would pass the knowledge and skills on to the next generation after his death.

"Thunder became well known in the area for her skill with medicine. She treated both Ho-Chunk and white patients, despite knowing little English."

Thunder became well known in the area for her skill with medicine. She treated both Ho-Chunk and white patients, despite knowing little English. As was the custom for Ho-Chunk healers, Thunder received gifts of clothing, food, or blankets as payment for her work. One of her patients gave her lumber to build a small cabin in the town of Shamrock, and the people of the town built the cabin in appreciation. In the early 1900s, the U.S. government ordered Thunder’s tribe to be moved from Wisconsin to Nebraska, but she refused to leave her ancestral land. Thunder hid in the hills of Jackson County and remained in Wisconsin until her death.

Ardie Clark Halyard

1896 – 1989

EnlargeArdie Clark

Ardie Clark

 

Ardie Clark Halyard was born in Covington, Georgia, to a family of sharecroppers. She graduated from Atlanta University and settled in Milwaukee with her husband in 1923. They opened the first African American-owned S&L — Columbia Savings and Loan — with just a ten-dollar bill. This Milwaukee establishment helped many African Americans secure home loans free from discrimination based on race and thus have the same home-owning opportunities as whites. By day, Halyard was employed at Goodwill Industries, where she worked for 20 years, and by night she donated her time to the S&L.

"This Milwaukee establishment helped many African Americans secure home loans free from discrimination based on race and thus have the same home-owning opportunities as whites."

Halyard is also credited for reviving the NAACP in Milwaukee and in other cities in Wisconsin. With Father James E. Groppi, she established the NAACP Youth Council, whose members were leaders in Milwaukee’s fair housing movement. In 1951, Halyard became the first woman president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP. She served on the Wisconsin State Board of Vocational, Technical, and Adult Education for more than eight years. Halyard was also a member of the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Dr. Fannie Hicklin

1918 - 2019
EnlargeDr. Fannie Hicklin

Dr. Fannie Hicklin

 

"But we never felt inferior because we were being taught to respect ourselves. The Whites who were teaching were telling us things about life elsewhere."

Among her many lifetime achievements and distinctions, at least two will stand the test of time as historic: In 1964, Hicklin became the first African American faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater by accepting a theater professor position, and in 1991, she became the first African American president of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Board of Curators.

She was born to Demus and Willie C. Frazier on the campus of Talladega College, Alabama’s first Black university, founded in 1867 by former slaves. The family lived on campus because Hicklin’s father—a graduate of the college—managed its 120-acre farm and dairy operation. Hicklin spent her first 21 years there, graduating as the campus high school’s valedictorian before earning a college degree in foreign languages. The integrated campus provided a safe cocoon in a part of the country raging with segregation and discrimination. But Hicklin and her classmates weren’t ignorant to the reality off campus.

“We were fully aware of segregation. Fully aware,” Hicklin says with emphasis, recalling “Whites only” signs seen during trips downtown and stories of Ku Klux Klan rallies. “But we never felt inferior because we were being taught to respect ourselves. The Whites who were teaching were telling us things about life elsewhere.”

Hicklin went on to teach speech and languages at high schools in Mississippi and South Carolina before earning a master’s degree from the University of Michigan and a doctorate from UW-Madison. She never saw a reason to leave after settling in Madison to raise her daughter and being embraced by UW-Whitewater. Despite a 100-mile roundtrip commute, she taught for 24 years, directed more than 50 productions, became chair of the theater department, and was selected as the school’s first associate dean of faculties. In 1996, the school honored her by naming a campus performance space the Hicklin Studio Theatre.

“Not once did I feel any type of discrimination by faculty, staff, students or parents,” says Hicklin, who was the lone Black professor on campus for five years. “Whitewater is very dear to me. I am so proud to tell people about it.”

She has similar feelings for the Society, which she served as a member of the Board of Curators for 27 years (1977–2004) and as its trailblazing president from 1991 to 1995.

Ellen Ainsworth

1919–1944
EnlargeEllen Ainsworth

Ellen Ainsworth

Ellen Ainsworth was born in 1919 and raised in Glenwood City, Wisconsin. She graduated from nursing school in Minneapolis in 1941. In March 1942 she enlisted in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, in which she served as Second Lieutenant. She served in Tunisia, a country in North Africa, before being sent to Anzio, Italy, where American and British troops were planning a surprise attack on Germany. The 56th Evacuation Hospital she worked in was hit by a German artillery shell on February 10, 1944. Despite being struck in the chest by a piece of shrapnel, Ainsworth and three other nurses worked to evacuate forty-two patients to safety.

"Despite being struck in the chest by a piece of shrapnel, Ainsworth and three other nurses worked to evacuate forty-two patients to safety."

Six days after the attack, Ainsworth died from her injuries. She was buried in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial in Nettuno, Italy. After her death she was awarded the Red Cross Bronze Medal, a Purple Heart medal, and, along with the other nurses involved in the attack, the Silver Star medal — the third-highest honor awarded by the military — for bravery. These nurses were the first women to receive this commendation from the Army. A residence hall at the Wisconsin Veterans Home in King, Wisconsin, a health clinic at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York, a conference room at the Pentagon, and the American Legion Post in Glenwood City are named for Ainsworth, who was the only woman from Wisconsin to die from enemy fire in World War II.

Margaret Danhauser

1921-1987
EnlargeMargaret Danhauser

Margaret Danhauser

Margaret Danhauser was born in Racine, WI, on June 9, 1921. She is best known for her performance as a member of the Racine Belles All-American Girls Professional Baseball team. The women’s league was created in Spring 1942 because of concerns that baseball enthusiasm would fade with so many male baseball players drafted to fight in World War II. Philip K. Wrigley, chewing gum tycoon and owner of the Chicago Cubs, was the league’s major backer. The initial four teams represented cities close to the league headquarters in Chicago: Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin; Rockford, Illinois; and South Bend, Indiana. Danhauser, who had played on two state championship teams (in 1936 and 1937), was the first Racine native to play for her hometown team in the league. As a first base player for the Belles, she had a .982 fielding average and a .144 batting average. In the league’s first year in 1943, the Racine Belles beat the Kenosha Comets three games to zero in a best-of-five series to win the first All-American Girls Professional Baseball League World Championship.

"Danhauser, who had played on two state championship teams (in 1936 and 1937), was the first Racine native to play for her hometown team in the league."

Danhauser played eight seasons for the Belles before refusing to relocate with the team from Racine to Battle Creek, Michigan. She later married and changed her last name to Brown. Margaret Danhauser Brown died on January 6, 1987.

The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League dissolved in 1954. The 1992 film A League of Their Own is based loosely on the Racine Belles and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Milly Zantow

1923 – 2014
EnlargeMilly Zantow

 “Waste is not waste until it is wasted.” 

Milly Zantow was born Mildred Louise Taylor in 1923 on an Oklahoma farm. After high school, she gave up several college scholarships to care for a sister in Virginia who was sick. She took night classes there, sometimes going without eating to afford school — and when World War II broke out, she went to work for the federal agency now known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In 1944 she married Wayne Stevens, and after his death in the 1960s, she married Forrest “Woody” Zantow and moved to Wisconsin. She had three sons.

Zantow got involved with the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo in the 1970s and was the organization’s first volunteer administrator. On an ICF trip to Japan in 1978, she was impressed by their system of recycling after watching people set out sorted waste materials every day.

Back in Wisconsin, Zantow discovered that her county landfill was closing early and there was no new one ready to take its place. When she studied the heaping piles of waste material at the landfill, she noticed how much of it was plastic, so she became determined to make plastic recycling possible. She did a lot of research, figured out how to identify different kinds of plastic, and convinced a local manufacturer to use recycled plastic when making new products. Then she and her friend Jenny Ehl started a recycling collection center in Sauk County. In addition to the hard physical work of processing recyclable materials at their center, they spoke to schools and community groups, explaining the benefits of recycling and helping people set up their own local programs. They even inspired one of their volunteers, Liz Nevers, to go back to school and earn a master’s degree in recycling and solid waste management!

Zantow helped write Wisconsin’s first mandatory state recycling law, which was passed in 1990. She also developed the system that is now used worldwide to identify and separate the seven different types of plastic for recycling. (Look for the numbered triangle on the bottom of the next plastic product you buy!)

"She also developed the system that is now used worldwide to identify and separate the seven different types of plastic for recycling."

Milly Zantow died in 2014, leaving an inspiring legacy that includes her well-known saying, “Waste is not waste until it is wasted.” She was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in April 2017. 

Anita Herrara

1935 – 2019
EnlargeAnita Herrera

Anita Herrera

 

Anita Herrera was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1935. She was the 7th in a family of 9 children whose parents had also been born in Texas; their grandparents were born in Mexico. When Anita was 6 years old, her family became migrant farm workers. For 9 years they traveled back and forth between Texas and Wisconsin, but Anita’s father became ill, so in 1951 they decided to stay in Wisconsin to get better health care for him. To this day, however, the family still owns property in Texas.

As a child Anita worked in the fields with her family, picking fruits and vegetables. When she started ninth grade, they were living out in the country, and she had to walk a mile to get to and from the bus that went to her high school in Kenosha. Her mother was afraid for her to be walking by herself and told her she could quit school, but Anita was determined to improve her life by continuing her education. When winter weather made it difficult to live in the poorly insulated housing for migrant workers near Kenosha, the family moved to Racine, where Anita attended racially integrated inner-city schools and “embraced everyone that was around me.” She then went to Dominican College of Racine for a year before getting married and starting a family. After all of her five children had started school, she finished her bachelor’s degree and also a master’s degree.

"In 1980 she became the Governor’s Advisor on Ethnic and Minority Initiatives, where she worked with Latino, African American, American Indian, and Asian advisory councils." 

Herrera directed the Spanish Center of Racine, Kenosha, and Walworth Counties, where she was an advocate for employment opportunities for Latinos, African Americans, and others. In 1980 she became the Governor’s Advisor on Ethnic and Minority Initiatives, where she worked with Latino, African American, American Indian, and Asian advisory councils. Later she directed a weatherization program for the Racine Spanish Center. In the 1990s she returned to Madison, where she was the director of development and training for the Wisconsin Education Association Council and helped start Madison’s first bilingual charter school. Herrera once said that she was proud to have been “a role model for young people who are going to become leaders.”

Ingrid Washinawatok

1957 – 1999
EnlargeIngrid Washinawatok

Ingrid Washinawatok

Ingrid Washinawatok was a member of the Menominee Nation. At age 14, she joined the movement to re-establish the Menominee as a federally recognized tribe. Three years later, she traveled to New York City as an intern with the International Indian Treaty Council, which monitors Indian rights in the Western hemisphere. After graduating from high school in 1975, Washinawatok attended University of Wisconsin (UW) and then the University of Havana, Cuba. She helped found the Indigenous Women’s Network (IWN) in the 1980s, and worked for the indigenous philanthropy organization Fund of the Four Directions, which named her executive director in 1998. During that time, she served as a committee chairperson for the UN’s International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and was an active member of the Indigenous Initiative for Peace. She also lectured worldwide on indigenous rights and co-produced the documentary film Warrior.

"At age 14, she joined the movement to re-establish the Menominee as a federally recognized tribe."

In 1999, Washinawatok and two other advocates were invited to the South American country of Colombia to help an indigenous community establish an education program for children. On their return trip, she and her two colleagues were kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC, which has been in armed conflict with the Colombian government for decades. All three were killed several days later. The Menominee Nation honored Washinawatok with a full warrior’s funeral.

Laurel Clark 

1961-2003
EnlargeLaurel Clark

Laurel Clark

"I joined the Navy and was exposed to a lot of different operational environments, working on submarines and working in tight quarters on ships, and learning about radiation medicine"

Laurel Clark grew up in Racine and graduated from William Horlick High School. She enrolled at the UW-Madison, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1983 and a doctorate in medicine in 1987. She joined the U.S. Navy and underwent extensive training as an undersea medical officer. Assigned as medical department head for a submarine squadron, she performed numerous dives to evacuate U.S. submarines in medical emergencies. “I joined the Navy and was exposed to a lot of different operational environments, working on submarines and working in tight quarters on ships, and learning about radiation medicine,” Clark recalled. After that assignment, she trained in aeromedicine and became a naval flight surgeon, practicing medicine in the most challenging environments.

NASA selected Clark for astronaut training in 1996. Although she qualified for flight after two years of training, she worked for several years in the Astronaut Office Payloads/Habitability Branch before going on her first flight in January 2003, as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Columbia on its STS-107 mission. On the 16-day mission, the STS-107 crew successfully conducted more than 80 experiments, including astronaut health and safety studies and technology development, and Clark helped create an astronaut treadmill for the international space station. As it returned to Earth on February 1, 2003, however, the Columbia broke apart over Texas during re-entry, just 16 minutes before it was due to land in Florida. Clark and the six other crew members of the STS-107 mission perished.

Mee Moua

1969 – Present
EnlargeMee Moua

Mee Moua

 

Moua was born in the Southeast Asian country of Laos. During the Vietnam War, she and her family fled Laos for a refugee camp in Thailand and then, after four years, relocated to the U.S. when she was nine years old. After living in Rhode Island for a short time, they settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, where they were one of few families of color in an area where most residents were white and Catholic. The adjustment was challenging, and Moua clung tightly to her Hmong roots for strength. She also joined the Girl Scouts, the debate club, and the basketball team, and sang in the choir at the Catholic church. She attended Brown University in Rhode Island to study medicine, but when she discovered her passion for politics, she switched her focus to public policy and studied issues of poverty, welfare, and Medicare. Moua became a junior fellow at Princeton University in New Jersey, and she received a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to study public policy at the University of Texas-Austin.

"She won the special election with 60 percent of the vote. She was re-elected two more times and served a total of nine years in the Minnesota Senate."

In 1997, Moua began to study law at the University of Minnesota. She got a taste for running a political campaign when she helped her uncle, Neal Thao, get elected to the St. Paul School Board. She also served as leader of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce and the Hmong Bar Association. When a Minnesota Senate seat became vacant in 2002, Moua decided to run. She won the special election with 60 percent of the vote. She was re-elected two more times and served a total of nine years in the Minnesota Senate. Moua chaired the Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee and was a voice for civil rights, education, housing, economic development and safety. After retiring in 2010, she became the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, an organization that works to promote human and civil rights for Asian Americans and social equity for all.

 

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