Where Did A Progressive Wisconsin Go?

Statue of the spirit of Forward
People elsewhere, especially on the coasts, even many Wisconsinites, may not know it, but Wisconsin has been a leader in many historical, progressive, movements.

In his DNC address, Wisconsin Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes gave a shout out to a few of our accomplishments, but there are many more. 

After all, our very motto is, simply, 'Forward'. 

Read on to learn about the many accomplishments our state has been a part of.

"Progressive." For those of certain political leanings, it drums up an image. But in the end, it just means people who have an "idea of progress in which advancements in science, technology, economic development and social organization are vital to the improvement of the human condition". People who want things to be better, to make progress. There should be no stigma on people who consider themselves 'progressive' regardless of political affiliation. Shouldn't we all want our communities: cities, counties, states, our nation; to progress - to get better? 

At one time Wisconsin was at the forefront, whether we remember or want it to have been and be now and in the future. That hasn't necessarily been the case in recent years, decades. 

As a reminder, here are some of the many progressive things Wisconsin and its citizens have accomplished. Maybe it will remind people of what we have been and can still be: a leader. I am sure there are even more out there, these are just the ones that first came to mind, and a few were suggested by friends that I forgot about.

The 19th Amendment

It is touted that Wisconsin was the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment enfranchising women;s right to vote, but Wisconsin women were much more involved before that.

Although progress on the federal amendment stalled, women also campaigned for changes to state suffrage requirements to win the vote. An 1869 Wisconsin law allowed women to run for school board positions. The Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association (WWSA) successfully lobbied for legislation that allowed women to vote in elections related to school issues in 1884.

After decades of arguments for and against women's suffrage, Congress finally voted in favor of the 19th Amendment in 1919. After Congress passed the 19th Amendment, at least 36 states needed to vote in favor of it for it to become law. This process is called ratification. On June 10, 1919, Wisconsin made history by becoming the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution granting national suffrage to women.

Birthplace of the Labor Movement

As Wisconsin Historical Society reminds us: "Wisconsin's workers and reformers made significant contributions to the history of labor in the United States, helping to enact legislation such as workers' compensation and unemployment insurance that served as models for similar laws in other states." 

We even led, created, the very study of labor by UW economist John R. Commons. Industrial advances and manufacturing growth led to many unions, and we were leaders in organizing them by trades. 

Perhaps most importantly, with the biggest impact, the Milwaukee Labor Reform Association (later the Eight-Hour League) argued for the eight-hour day that we now take for granted, and also worked towards unemployment compensation.

Labor safety & OSHA

While OSHA was formed by the US government in 1970, Wisconsin led the way. The state legislature passed one of the nation's first Workmens' Compensation laws.

From U.S. Department of Labor:  "In 1911, Wisconsin became the first State to successfully establish a workers' compensation program. Within one year it was joined by nine other states and by 1921 most States had followed suit... A workers' compensation advocate, John R. Commons of the University of Wisconsin, found this system in use in Europe and urged its adoption in the United States. Wisconsin, in another pioneering move, created the first permanent State industrial commission which developed and enforced safety and health regulations, after hearing comments from labor, management, and others. This idea was widely accepted and became a guide for future State and Federal regulation of occupational safety and health."

The Wisconsin Idea

Our esteemed University of Wisconsin had an idea, one that would impact the state more than just educating our people. They created "The Wisconsin Idea", a general principle: that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

This meant doing more outreach to citizens with summer courses and other non-degree programs, as well as working with the state government to provide resources to consult on law-making, including some of the labor laws listed above.

Through this approach, Wisconsin developed a national reputation for legislative innovation.

It makes me sad that our current president has the exact opposite idea...

GOP: The anti-slavery Republican Party

Most people know that the philosophies of the two major US political parties evolved and flipped over time. The ideas that brought Lincoln to the GOP are not necessarily those of the party today, and for them to call themselves "The Party of Lincolns" is disingenuous. When it was founded - right here in Ripon, WI - it was definitely a progressive party, seeking a place for anti-slavery politicians. 

The first meeting to establish a new party to oppose the spread of slavery into the western territories was held here, and spread across the north.

Earth Day

Nationally celebrated and respected, Earth Day was started by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson who in September 1969 proposed a national teach-in on the environment to send a message to Washington that public opinion was solidly behind a bold political agenda on environmental problems. 

You can read more about Nelson's involvement and the impact of the event here.

Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Another case where you would think we would be behind, far behind, California and New York, but again, we were the first. In 1982, Wisconsin was the first state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, education, credit and all public accommodations. When Republican Governor Lee S. Dreyfus signed the law. 

Milwaukee's Socialist Mayors

Th S-word conjures up some big emotions in some people, many think they are against it and decry the theory. Many opinions are forged by the use of the word for the governmental or economic structure of nations they see as failed experiments at minimum, anti-US/Democratic at the worst. In reality the US has many examples 'socialist' tendencies. And that opinion wasn't always the case here in Wisconsin, especially Milwaukee.

Milwaukee has had 3 socialist mayors, and their influence on the city is, for the most part, in hindsight considered positive as this NPR story details. "Milwaukee's socialists fill in part of the lake to create more public access, they also cleaned up city government." One of our iconic skyline objects, the Hoan Bridge, is named after socialist mayor Dan Hoan. 


We may not be New York, or California, or even Chicago, but Wisconsin has had an influence on or even completed many 'progressive' advancements for the nation. We are proof that, at least in the past, you didn't have to be from the East or West Coast, you could be from the middle of the nation, and still be at the forefront of progressive ideals. Well, we are on the Third Coast, so maybe that's part of it. It does seem that people near large bodies of water have a different view than those landlocked. I hope we can somehow find that 'Forward' thinking across the state again.


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