Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

A Woman Who Fought to Change the Rules

A Brief Biography of Belle Case La Follette

Belle Case La Follette | Wisconsin Historical Society

Note: This is a grade-level appropriate biographical essay about a significant figure from Wisconsin's past and was originally part of the "Essays for the Elementary Student" series.

EnlargeFormal studio portrait of Belle Case La Follette wearing a black lace dress.

Belle Case La Follette

Formal studio portrait of Belle Case La Follette wearing a black lace dress. This photograph was taken about 1885, the year her husband, Robert M. La Follette, Sr., first went to Washington, D.C., as a Republican congressman. It is probably a dress that she wore to official parties and gatherings in the capital. View the original source document: WHI 3841

No voting. No working for yourself. No owning a house or land. No wearing pants, only dresses. That’s what life was like for women in the 19th century. Does that seem fair to you? Luckily, Wisconsin had many brave women who fought to change the rules for the better. One of them was Belle Case La Follette.

Childhood and Education

Belle Case was born in 1859. Back then, women couldn’t vote or own property. Women weren’t even allowed to dress the way they wanted. Belle set out to change that. When the world said, “No, you can’t,” Belle said “Yes, I can.”

Belle’s grandmother, Lucetta Case, helped take care of her grandchildren. Lucetta believed Belle deserved a good education. She made sure Belle understood she could do anything that she put her mind to. Belle was never late for school. She only missed class when she had the measles. While most children didn’t go to school past the age of 12, Belle started college when she was only 16 years old. Belle wanted to make her family proud.

Belle and Bob

EnlargePortrait of Robert M. La Follette, Sr., during his tenure as U.S. senator from Wisconsin.

Fighting Bob La Follette

Portrait of Robert M. La Follette, Sr., during his tenure as U.S. senator from Wisconsin. View the original source document: WHI 10650

Belle was a top student at UW–Madison. Belle met her future husband, Bob La Follette, while they were both college students in Madison.

Belle and Bob were very different people. Bob loved speaking in public. Belle loved writing. But they believed in many of the same progressive ideas. Together they made a great team. Bob went into politics after they were married. Belle helped write many of Bob’s best speeches. Bob called her the “brainiest member of the family.”

Bob and Belle started “La Follette’s Magazine” in 1909. Belle wrote stories about modern life, women’s rights, exercise and women’s clothing.

 Belle dressed how she wanted to. She wanted other women to do the same. Belle believed women should decide for themselves what they wanted to wear.

Belle the Athlete

EnlargeBelle Case La Follette addressing a group of farmers

Belle Case La Follette speaking to farmers

Belle Case La Follette, wife of Robert M. La Follette, Sr., addressing a group of farmers during a tour on the Chautauqua circuit during which she frequently spoke about woman suffrage in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, circa 1915. View the original source document: WHI 2415

Belle also loved to run. She wanted more people to exercise. Belle brought teachers from New York to talk about how good exercise was for everyone. And Belle was fast. An old story tells how Bob challenged her to a footrace. No one knows who won. Bob never told.

Many people thought that women should stay home and raise families. Belle believed women could have a career and raise a family too. Belle had three children of her own and knew what she was talking about.

Winning the Right to Vote

Belle believed women should have the right to vote. She gave over 70 speeches on women’s suffrage. Belle’s greatest victory came in 1920 when women won the right to vote. That's when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.

Belle also believed that African Americans deserved their civil rights. And Belle believed world peace was a lot better than world war. So Belle gave speeches to end war. She fought hard for the things she believed in. Belle Case La Follette died in 1931 after a lifetime of making life better for everyone.

Reading Level Correlations

  • Level R (4th Grade)

Learn More

Read more about Belle Case La Follette in the Badger Biographies book "Belle and Bob La Follette: Partners in Politics" available now from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

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