Belle Case La Follette (April 21, 1859 – August 18, 1931) was a lawyer and a women's suffrage activist in Wisconsin, USA. 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 the American women who had to do with public affairs in this country".
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. She has also become an avatar of the modern woman who successfully balances an active public life with a healthy family life.
Belle was born on April 21
in Summit, Wisconsin
, in Juneau County, Wisconsin
. Her parents were Unitarian
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
. 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."
She married her former classmate at the University, Robert Marion La Follette, on December 31
. The ceremony was performed by a Unitarian minister and by mutual agreement, the word “obey” was omitted from the marriage vows. Their first child, Flora Dodge La Follette, always called “Fola”, was born on September 10
. Fola married the playwright George Middleton
on October 29
Belle Case La Follette returned to the University of Wisconsin Law School and became the school’s first woman graduate in 1885. She never practiced as an attorney but she assisted her husband and he frequently acknowledged her authorship or contribution to a brief. She supported and assisted her husband as he rose through the political offices of Dane County District Attorney, United States Representative, Governor of Wisconsin, United States Senator, and Presidential candidate.
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.
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.
When suffragists made appearances at more than 70 county fairs in 1912 Belle Case visited 7 of them in 10 days.
Around 1918 she helped found the Women’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 she 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 Bob’s death on June 18, 1925, his seat in the United States Senate was offered to her, but she turned down the golden 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.
She died on August 18, 1931, in Washington D.C., as the result of a punctured intestine and peritonitis following a routine medical exam.
- Belle C. and Fola La Follette, Robert M. La Follette, 2 vols., (1953), wife and daughter.
- Freeman, Lucy and La Follette, Sherry, 'Belle: A Biography of Belle Case La Follette', 1986.
- Weisberger, Bernard A., The La Follettes of Wisconsin Love and Politics in Progressive America, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.