Belle Case La Follette

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Belle Case La Follette
Belle Case La Follette circa 1905
BornBelle Case
(1859-04-21)April 21, 1859
Summit, Wisconsin, United States
DiedAugust 18, 1931(1931-08-18) (aged 72)
Washington D.C., United States
EducationUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison
University of Wisconsin Law School
OccupationLawyer and women's suffrage activist
Robert M. La Follette, Sr. (m. 1881–1925)
ChildrenFola La Follette, Robert M. La Follette, Jr., Philip La Follette and Mary La Follette

Belle Case La Follette (April 21, 1859 – August 18, 1931) was a women's suffrage, peace, and Civil Rights activist in Wisconsin, United States. La Follette worked with the women's peace party during World War I. At the time of her death in 1931, The New York Times called her "probably the least known yet most influential of all American women who have had to do with public affairs in this country."[1]

She is best remembered as the wife and helpmate of Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette—a prominent Progressive Republican politician both in Wisconsin and on the national scene—and as co-editor with her husband of La Follette's Weekly Magazine.[2]


Belle Case was born on April 21, 1859 in Summit, Juneau County, Wisconsin. Her parents were Unitarian of English and Scottish descent. She attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison from 1875 to 1879 and, upon graduation, taught high school in Spring Green and junior high school in Baraboo.[3] One of her students in Baraboo was John Ringling, of whom she later wrote "... when John read a long account -- interrupted with giggles from the school -- of the side shows he and other boys had been giving every night, I lectured him and drew the moral that if John would put his mind on his lessons as he did on side shows, he might yet become a scholar. Fortunately the scolding had no effect."


In 1875, Belle Case left home for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with the financial support of her farming parents. She excelled as a student, never missing a class or arriving late while at the university.[4]

Even early in life, Belle did not shy away from protesting what she perceived as injustices, particularly those targeted at women. In regard to one of her speeches, local paper Madison Democrat wrote, "... she portrayed the vanity of many of us in trying to make an empty display and neglecting it for true stability and depth of sentiment." In another speech, "Children's Playthings," Belle conflated the convention of young girls playing with dolls with future expectations for womanhood, claiming these domestic "dreams" of girlhood would only lead to "impossible future happiness" and "dissatisfied, nervous, complaining [women]."[4]

Her senior oration is perhaps her most memorable. "Learning to See" highlighted natural curiosity and the danger of forcing children to conform to convention. It won her the Lewis Prize for best essay or oration produced by the graduating class.[4]

Belle Case La Follette would later return to the University of Wisconsin Law School and became the school's first female graduate in 1885.


Belle Case and Bob La Follette developed an early friendship at University of Wisconsin, their love of reform and rural backgrounds providing common ground for a potential courtship. Belle, however, only wished their bond to remain "free from sentiment," at least until they had left college.

While Belle excelled in her studies, Bob became notorious for poor grades but a clear, charismatic intelligence. While Bob helped Belle in her own speech-giving, Belle assisted Bob in his school work and other written projects (Bob would later only barely graduate, John Bascom himself having to provide the final say-so.) Their companionship eventually did blossom into an engagement. Bob would later say that, "Mamma laughed when I proposed to her."[5]

She married Bob on December 31, 1881. The ceremony was performed by a Unitarian minister and by mutual agreement, the word "obey" was omitted from the marriage vows. While Bob respected Belle's independence, intelligence, and beliefs, he still hoped for a domestic life, writing in his journal, "Oh hasten [the] time when I can see her the center of a home."[6] Belle remained an activist throughout her life, but did note that "the supreme experience in life is motherhood," and enjoyed taking care of their children.[7] Their first child, Flora Dodge La Follette, always called "Fola," was born on September 10, 1882. Fola married the playwright George Middleton on October 29, 1911.

Her other children were Robert Jr., born in 1895, who succeeded his father as Senator; Philip, born in 1897, who became Governor of Wisconsin; and Mary, born in 1899. Her sons began the Wisconsin Progressive Party, which briefly held a dominant role in Wisconsin politics.

Early career[edit]

Belle Case La Follette (left) reading with her family in February 1924.

Belle's first job upon graduating was as an assistant principal at Spring Green High School. During this time she didn't spend much time with her then fiancé, Bob, often to his chagrin. But Bob was equally busy serving as the new Dane County district attorney; so much so that he had to "remind" himself to attend their marriage ceremony.[4]

After the birth of their first child, Belle enjoyed motherhood but was also determined to retain a professional life. In 1885 she became the first woman to graduate from University of Wisconsin Law School. She never practiced law formally, but would assist her husband Bob in numerous cases and later political queries. Belle's role was anything but passive, even behind the scenes. In the 1890s, she penned a brief that broke new legal ground and won a case before the state's Supreme Court. Bob would later remark in his autobiography that she was his "wisest and best counselor,"

This is not partial judgement, the Progressive leaders of Wisconsin who welcomed her to our conferences would bear witness. Her grasp of the great problems, sociological and economic, is surpassed by any of the strong men who have been associated with me in my work.[8]


Belle lectured on women's suffrage and other topics of the day. In 1909 she edited the "Home and Education" column in the magazine started by her husband, La Follette's Weekly Magazine, which later became The Progressive. In 1911 and 1912 she wrote a syndicated column for the North American Press Syndicate. In 1914 Belle addressed the colored Young Men's Christian Association, raising an argument that segregation of colored people on street cars, public conveyances, and government departments was wrong. She added there would be no constitution of peace until the question is "settled right".

When suffragists made appearances at more than 70 county fairs in 1912, Belle Case visited seven of them in 10 days. In 1915 she helped found the Woman's Peace Party, which later became the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. After World War I, she was active in the Women's Committee for World Disarmament, and helped found the National Council for the Prevention of War in 1921. She and other women influenced governments to convene the Naval Arms Limitation Conference in 1922.

After her husband's death on June 18, 1925, his seat in the United States Senate was offered to her, but she turned down the opportunity to become the first woman Senator, perhaps because it would have upset the very balance between her public and private lives that she is esteemed for.[3]


She died on August 18, 1931 in Washington D.C., as the result of a punctured intestine and peritonitis following a routine medical exam.[2] She was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison.[9]

Published works[edit]

  • Belle Case La Follette and Fola La Follette (1953). Robert M. La Follette, June 14, 1855-June 18, 1925, 2 volumes. MacMillan. ISBN 978-1-299-79732-1.


  1. ^ ""Wisconsin's Matriarch"". The New York Times.
  2. ^ a b "Belle Case La Follette Followed Brilliant Career". The Milwaukee Journal. August 19, 1931. Retrieved 2012-10-11. La Follette, possibly the only woman American history with the distinction of having been the wife and mother of both governors and United States senators, ...
  3. ^ a b "Belle Case La Follette". Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved 2010-07-13. Born in Summit, Wisconsin (Juneau County), on April 21, 1859, Belle La Follette (nee Case), idolized her farmer parents who sacrificed everything to send their only daughter to college in 1875. ...
  4. ^ a b c d Unger, Nancy (1999). ""Belle La Follette"". Wisconsin Magazine of History.
  5. ^ "Robert M. La Follette, June 14, 1855 - June 18, 1925". New York. 1953.
  6. ^ Robert Marion La Follette, diary, entry for November 17, 1879.
  7. ^ Freeman, La Follette, and Zabriskie. Belle. p. 23.
  8. ^ La Follette, Robert (1913). La Follete's Autobiography. Madison.
  9. ^ "Wisconsin Mourns Mrs. La Follette. tate, City and County Offices at Madison Shut in Memory of Senator's Mother. All Flags At Half Staff. Professor Max Otto, at Simple Funeral Service, Terms Her a 'Part of Glowing History.'". The New York Times. August 22, 1931. Retrieved 2012-10-11. Under a huge oak tree in Forest Hills Cemetery, beside her famous husband, Mrs. Belle Case La Follette, mother of Wisconsin's Senator and Governor, was buried today.

Further reading[edit]

  • Freeman, Lucy, Sherry La Follette, and George A. Zabriskie. Belle: The Biography of Belle Case La Follette. Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse, 1986.
  • Kann, Bob. Bob and Belle La Follette: Partners in Politics. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2008.
  • Unger, Nancy C. Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.
  • Unger, Nancy C. "The Unexpected Belle La Follette". Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 99, no. 3 (Spring 2016): 16-27.
  • Weisberger, Bernard A., The La Follettes of Wisconsin Love and Politics in Progressive America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.