Among the founders of the Wisconsin Women’s Network was a woman named Kathryn Clarenbach, a renowned leader of the feminist movement, and an activist for continuing education for women. She helped convince John F. Kennedy to establish the President’s Commission on the status of Women in 1961, which led to John Reynolds, the 36th Governor of Wisconsin, authorizing the Wisconsin Commission on the Status of Women in 1964.
The Commission was created to advise the governor on issues and legislation that directly affected women, for example laws pertaining to sexual assault, divorce, and marital property. However, in 1979, the commission was disbanded by Governor Lee Dreyfus because of the growing backlash against the women's movement. He excused the commission by stating that they were not accomplishing enough, despite the commission’s contributions to public policy, which led to an outpour of support for the group by women and women’s organizations.
As a result, a number of influential Wisconsin women banded together to form what is now known as the Wisconsin Women’s Network. The Wisconsin Women’s Network was created as a non-partisan coalition, composed of both individuals and organizations, with the common goal to improve the status of women throughout Wisconsin, by fostering communication and strengthening the voices of women.
The Network’s agenda is based on the principles articulated in “Wisconsin Women and the National Plan of Action,” which was adopted at the first National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977. Over 1,300 Wisconsin Women came together to prepare for the National Conference. The National Women’s Conference was the first time that congress or the President authorized and financed a national gathering of women to evoke discussion about important legislative issues. The participants in the conference were asked to identify the barriers that prevent women from participating fully and equally in all aspects of life, and to develop recommendations on how to remove the barriers.
Women from different income groups, ages, lifestyles, and racial and religious backgrounds came together to voice their needs and hopes for the future. The resolutions included, but were not limited to, reproductive freedom and sexual preferences, appointing women to office, equal rights, credit, education, and abuse, including child abuse, rape, and battered women. The women in the conference formed recommendations for the President, which led to several notable improvements for the wellbeing of women. For example, it led to the expansion of legal protection and funds for battered women and their children, enabled disabled women to access education and employment opportunities, prohibited discrimination at all levels of education, and called for health insurance to cover women as individuals, among many other significant developments.
The first major issue that the Wisconsin Women’s Network worked on within the State was the Marital Property Reform Act, which went into effect in 1984. Under the act, the law had to equally recognize the contributions made by men and women during the course of the marriage, and therefore, safeguard the spouse against improper alienation of the property by the other. Additionally, within the first 10 years following the establishment of the Wisconsin Women’s Network, the number of women appointed to office jumped 29%, and this was only the beginning.
The work of this generation of feminists established the foundation upon which feminists have continued to build for a just and equitable society, and the Wisconsin Women’s network is continuing that legacy. Learn more about who we are and what we do.