Madison in the Sixties – Women making history
In 1963, it was the city’s first and still only female alder, Ethel Brown, who maneuvered Madison into adopting the first fair housing code in the state of Wisconsin – more than four years before the federal Fair Housing Act.
A graduate of the University of Minnesota, and former teacher, Brown had shown such leadership even before her historic first council election in 1951, as president of the local and statewide chapters of the League of Women Voters.
Married to UW Law School professor Ray Brown, she was in line to become council president in 1960, but was blocked – not because of her gender, but because she opposed the Frank Lloyd Wright Monona Terrace auditorium, while a majority of the council favored it. But when several Monona Terrace supporters lost reelection in 1961, the honor was hers.
Two years later, a provision to ban bias in housing was being considered as part of a comprehensive Equal Opportunities Ordinance, which also banned discrimination in employment and public accommodations. But In a preliminary vote of 12-10 the entire fair housing code was removed. Since Mayor Henry Reynolds strongly supported fair housing, all supporters had to do was get one vote to switch, creating an 11-11 tie for Reynolds to break.
It was Brown who crafted the critical compromise—to exempt owner-occupied apartment buildings with four or fewer units and rooms in private homes. West side Ald. William Bradford Smith later said Brown’s idea wasn’t just tactical, but also to “reflect the attitudes of her constituents” in University Heights. Many of them rented rooms to UW students, Smith noted, but “wouldn’t want to open their homes to people of all races and colors where they would have to share the same bathroom.”
Whatever her motivation, Brown’s amendment was quickly adopted, and that was enough for a former opponent of the fair housing provision to switch his vote and create the 11-11 tie which Reynolds broke with an emphatic ‘aye’ to make civil rights history.
Ethel Brown stepped down in 1964 and died in 1973 at age 80. At the time, there were four women serving on the council, including the second woman elected, who also represented the University Heights neighborhood – Alicia Ashman, who served from 1968 to 1977, including one year as president.
Ashman was far more progressive than Brown, working closely with council colleague Paul Soglin, at the time a radical graduate student. Among their joint efforts – a lawsuit trying to block the Police Department from buying tear gas and other riot gear. She supported civil liberties and opposed the war in Vietnam, and lobbied for the Campus Drive pedestrian overpass which bears her name.
A former nurse married to a physician, Ashman also served 13 years on the Madison Public Library Board, which in 2000 named the new library on High Point Road in her honor. Ali Ashman died in 2016 at age 93.
As a member of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1969, Ashman revealed that several city ordinances discriminated against women, from employment to banking. “Even in Madison,” she said, “unwed mothers employed by the city are ineligible for maternity benefits.” In proposing that the Equal Opportunities Ordinance be amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex or age, Ashman was joined by a constituent with a long record of statewide and national impact – Katherine Clarenbach, who in in 1964 had been named the founding chair of the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women.
A PhD in political science from the UW, Clarenbach was director of the university’s department of continuing education for women. She and husband Henry were also copresidents of the West High PTA.
As a delegate to the federal Status of Women conference in June 1966, Clarenbach wanted to introduce a resolution demanding that the federal Equal Opportunities Commission enforce the gender- based provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; she was appalled when the women running the conference wouldn’t let her, for risk of offending the Johnson administration. The incident convinced her that women needed a national group like the NAACP. So she organized a group of like-minded activists, starting with author Betty Friedan, to sit together at the closing luncheon and work on strategy. The eight women came up the name National Organization for Women (NOW), which Friedan wrote on a napkin. By dessert, twenty- seven women put down five dollars each, which Clarenbach collected (along with the napkin). In addition to still chairing the state Commission on the Status of Women, she was now NOW’s first secretary. By August, the group had grown to include 42 charter members, and Clarenbach was named temporary chair — making 2229 Eton Ridge ground zero for America’s modern feminist movement. And she led the steering committee that organized NOW’s formal founding conference in October, where she was elected chairwoman of the board.
Clarenbach stepped down from NOW in 1970, but the next year chaired the organizing conference of the National Women’s Political Caucus. And in 1977 – two years after son David was elected to the first of 9 terms in the Wisconsin State Assembly – she was the bipartisan consensus choice to coordinate the historic National Women’s Conference in Houston.
Kay Clarenbach died in March, 1994, at age 73.
The two biggest events on the UW campus in 1969 were the Black Studies Strike and the Moratorium Day protest against the War in Vietnam. Margery Tabankin, administrative vice president of the Wisconsin Student Association, was instrumental in both.
In early February, she co-produced a six-day conference entitled “The Black Revolution: To What Ends,” which crystalized the incipient black student revolution on campus. The Reverends Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young were the biggest names among the 21 nationally renowned guest speakers, but it was Professor Nathan Hare from San Francisco State who had the biggest impact. It was Hare who challenged the young leaders of the Black People’s Alliance to get radical. Before the conference ended, they did just that – starting a student strike that led to creation of a full Department of Afro-American Studies. When the strike started, several Black women – especially Liberty Rashad, Donna M. Jones and Hazel Symonette played important leadership roles.
And in October, Tabankin chaired the Vietnam Moratorium Committee, coordinating a day-long series of 70 programs, a powerful evening rally for 15,000 at the Field House, and a mournful march up State Street for a memorial service at the Capitol.
Tabankin later served as president of the National Student Association, head of the federal Volunteers in Service to America, and director of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee and the Barbra Streisand Foundation.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, women’s history month celebrating, mask-wearing, hand-washing, vaccine-taking socially distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Photo of Katherine Clarenbach courtesy University of Wisconsin Archives S17399