La Follette, Belle Case (1859–1931)

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La Follette, Belle Case (1859–1931)

American social reformer who was the wife and associate of politician Robert M. La Follette. Name variations: Belle Case; Belle Case LaFollette. Born Belle Case in Summit, Wisconsin, on April 21, 1859; died in Washington, D.C., on August 18, 1931; one of six children (three of whom did not survive infancy) of Anton T. Case and Mary (Nesbit) Case; attended public school in Baraboo, Sauk County, Wisconsin; graduated from the University of Wisconsin, 1879; received law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School, 1885; married Robert Marion La Follette, Sr. (1855–1925, a congressional representative, senator, and presidential candidate), on December 31, 1881; children: Fola La Follette (b. 1882); Robert Marion La Follette, Jr. (1895–1953, who served as a senator for 22 years); Philip Fox La Follette (b. 1897); Mary La Follette (b. 1899).

Born in a log cabin in Summit, Wisconsin, in 1859, Belle Case was educated in public school in Baraboo, Sauk County, Wisconsin, where her family moved when she was three. She graduated from the classical course at the University of Wisconsin in 1879 and taught school for two years before marrying a college classmate, Robert M. La Follette, a young lawyer. The couple settled in Madison and began a family which eventually grew to include four children. Through her husband, La Follette became interested in law, and in 1883 she entered the University of Wisconsin Law School. She became the first woman to receive a law degree from that institution (1885) and was subsequently admitted to the bar and to the Wisconsin supreme court. Although La Follette never practiced law, she used her expertise to assist her husband during his three terms in the House of Representatives (1885–91). Serving as his secretary and administrative assistant, she played an unusually active role in her husband's public life, prompting him to call her his "wisest and best counsellor."

From 1890, when Robert was defeated in his fourth congressional run, to 1900, when he was elected governor of Wisconsin, the couple lived out of the public eye. During this period, La Follette took up her own political causes, many of which involved suffrage and protective legislation for women and children. It was her opinion that women could improve their lives by participating in the political process, an approach which brought her in contact with other activist women, including Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Julia Clifford Lathrop, Mary Eliza McDowell , and Elizabeth Glendower Evans . When her husband became governor, La Follette joined him in shaping a series of progressive administrative and legislative reforms which became nationally recognized as the "Wisconsin Idea" or "progressivism."

In 1906, Robert La Follette was elected to the U.S. Senate, and the couple returned to Washington. In 1909, they created La Follette's Weekly Magazine, for which Belle edited the "Women and Education Department," writing articles on women's issues and on Washington's political and social life. Possessing a lively literary style, she sought both to report on social trends and to influence them. From 1911 to 1912, she also wrote a column for the North American Press Syndicate.

As a senate wife and official host, La Follette was instrumental in organizing the Congressional Club of Washington, activities of which replaced the traditional round of official calls. She became active in the final push for women's suffrage, giving speeches and working on campaigns in Wisconsin, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Oregon. In 1913, at her husband's behest, she spoke on behalf of women's suffrage before the Senate Committee on Suffrage. As an ally of Jane Addams, La Follette was an ardent proponent of peace and one of the organizers of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1921, she helped found the National Council for the Prevention of War and was also a leader in the Women's Committee for World Disarmament.

Belle La Follette was active in her husband's campaign for the presidency in 1924. Robert La Follette, who ran on the third party Progressive ticket with Burton K. Wheeler as his running mate, was defeated by incumbent Calvin Coolidge. Upon her husband's death in 1925, La Follette was encouraged to fill his unexpired term in the Senate (as was not uncommon for widows of serving senators and congressmen) but declined. Instead, at the age of 30, her son Robert La Follette, Jr., made a successful bid to complete his father's unexpired term, becoming the youngest senator since Henry Clay. He would serve 22 years. Although always in the shadow of his father's forceful personality, he was a conscientious legislator and functioned as a transitional figure in the history of modern reform movements, achieving national attention during the Great Depression as one of the first to develop a coherent plan for combating declining purchasing power. He was defeated in 1946 by Joseph R. McCarthy (of Communist witch-hunt fame). Preoccupied by poor health and suffering from anxiety and depression, La Follette, Jr., would commit suicide on February 24, 1953.

Belle La Follette continued to advance the Progressive movement by assuming the associate editorship of La Follette's Magazine and by preparing her husband's biography, a project that was ultimately completed by her daughter Fola La Follette . Belle died unexpectedly in 1931, following an operation for an intestinal obstruction, and was buried beside her husband in Forest Hills Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin. In her obituary, The New York Times praised her as "the most influential of all American women who had to do with public affairs in this country."


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

suggested reading:

Case, Belle, and Fola La Follette. La Follette. Macmillan, 1953.

Greenbaum, Fred. Robert Marion La Follette. Twayne, 1975.

La Follette, Robert M. La Follette's Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences. University of Wisconsin Press, 1911, 1913.

Link, Arthur S. and Richard L. McCormick. Progressivism. Harlan Davidson, 1983.

Maney, Patrick. "Young Bob" La Follette: A Biography of Robert M. La Follette, Jr., 1895–1953. University of Missouri Press, 1978.

Thelen, David. The Early Life of Robert M. La Follette, 1855–1884. Loyola University Press, 1966.

——. Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit. Little, Brown, 1976.

Unger, Nancy C. "The Righteous Reformer: A Life History of Robert M. La Follette, Sr., 1855–1925." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 1985.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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La Follette, Belle Case (1859–1931)

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