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Wisconsin a state of firsts for rights of women, LGBT

Wisconsin a state of firsts for rights of women, LGBT

From the Agents of change: Meet the people who helped make the Capitol's 'experiment in democracy' happen series

In the civil rights struggles of the last 100 years, some notable firsts occurred in the Wisconsin state Capitol.

In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The law, sponsored by state Rep. David Clarenbach and signed by Gov. Lee Dreyfus, barred discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing or public accommodations.

Its passage, for a time, earned Wisconsin the title of "The Gay Rights State." Seven years passed before the next state, Massachusetts, followed suit.

Clarenbach, in a recent interview, said "laws unto themselves don't effect social change, but they're a necessary prerequisite."

"As a result, Wisconsin is a lot more tolerant today because of what the Legislature did 35 years ago," Clarenbach said.

Wisconsin also was the first state to pass an equal rights law for women, signed by Gov. John J. Blaine in 1921. It called for women to have equality with men in voting, contracts, holding office, property and child custody rights and other matters.

This followed the ratification of the 19th Amendment in which women obtained the right to vote, which Wisconsin became the first state to ratify in 1919.

One of the staunchest advocates for those causes was Belle Case La Follette, an attorney, activist and wife of progressive icon Robert La Follette.

Wisconsin also has led the way in electing LGBT people to office. It started with Jim Yeadon, a Madison City Council member who became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country in 1976 — before Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Former U.S. Rep. Steve Gunderson was the first Republican to serve in the House while openly gay. Democrat Tammy Baldwin was the first openly LGBT U.S. senator as well as Wisconsin's first woman U.S. senator.

"For LGBT people, Wisconsin really has been a laboratory for democracy — about how they can engage the political system to result in a better society and better lives for themselves," said Dick Wagner, a former Dane County supervisor and a scholar of LGBT history in Wisconsin.

A state political structure that encourages new blood and a traditionally LGBT-friendly Capitol city of Madison helped lay the footings for the state's firsts, Wagner said.

Clarenbach, a Madison Democrat, was the Legislature's most steadfast champion of the law barring discrimination against gays and lesbians.

But a group Republican legislators supplied the decisive votes to pass the measure, and it was signed by a Republican governor, Dreyfus, a political maverick and former UW-Stevens Point chancellor.

"It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party that government ought not intrude in the private lives of individuals where no state purpose is served, and there is nothing more private or intimate than who you live with and who you love," Dreyfus said when he signed the bill.

In the area of women's rights, Wisconsin also was ahead of its time, with the state's progressive movement of the early 20th century leading the way.

Belle Case La Follette, described by her husband as his "wisest and best counselor," was the first woman to graduate from UW-Madison Law School.

Her work paved the way for the state's first female lawmakers: Mildred Barber of Marathon, Hellen Brooks of Wautoma and Helen Thompson of Park Falls all elected in 1924. Then came Mary Kryszak of Milwaukee, who was first elected in 1928 and served, intermittently, until 1945.

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