Madison in the Sixties – Ruth Bachuber Doyle.
No woman had a greater impact on the University of Wisconsin and the Madison public schools in the 1960s than Ruth Bachuber Doyle, the city’s female newsmaker of the decade.
She had already made history well before the sixties. As the outgoing President of the Daily Cardinal Board of Control in 1938, she fought anti-Semitism on campus by supporting the editor fired by the incoming board because he was Jewish. In the late 1940s, she and her husband James E Doyle Sr. helped revitalize the moribund Wisconsin Democratic Party, and in 1948 and 50, was elected to the State Assembly — the first female to represent a Madison district. After losing a race for State Treasurer in 1952, she was elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors, serving seven years as its only female member.
She came by her political skills naturally; her father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the State Assembly, dating back to 1860. She passed those skills on – her son James E Doyle Jr would become Dane County District Attorney, Wisconsin Attorney General, and two-term Wisconsin Governor.
A former teacher with a master’s degree in history from Columbia University, Doyle was elected to the Madison School Board in 1964 – the year before her husband was appointed to a federal judgeship. She quickly developed a record of supporting student rights, open government and citizen involvement, serving until 1972. In 1990, the school board named its administration building in her honor.
But it was at the UW that Doyle made her most important mark, by significantly increasing the recruitment and retention of Black students.
She began working for Dean of Women Martha Peterson in 1961, with duties that included staffing the Student/Faculty Committee on Human Rights. As special assistant to the faculty in 1964 , she completed a head count of all Black students at the UW, identifying eighty Black undergraduates and thirty- eight Black graduate students among the UW’s 24,201 students. She also conducted lengthy interviews with them; almost all reported they were the only Black person most of their classmates had ever met. Many of the graduate students also reported racist incidents during their search for off-campus housing.
Noting that “the vast majority of our students come to college without ever having met or talked to a Negro,” and leave the same way, Doyle told UW officials they “cannot pretend to offer well- rounded education while this gap in social and cultural life continues.” She called for aggressive recruitment and financial assistance to bring more black students to Madison, and for white students “to undertake work, travel and educational ventures which will take them into the Negro areas of the country.”
Doyle began a recruitment program which the university formalized as the Special Five- Year Program for Tutorial and Financial Assistance, under her direction. Its first cohort of twenty- four black students arrived in the Fall of 1966. The program added 167 students over the next two years so that about a third of the 500 Black students on campus were receiving tutoring and about $2,000 in stipends.
In early November, 1968, Dean of Special Projects Samuel Proctor, a former president of two Historically Blacks Colleges and Universities, celebrated the UW’s success in the recruitment and retention of Black students. “The major substantial program development has been the Special Scholarship Program, directed by Mrs. Ruth Doyle,” he said. The University Committee on Financial Aids agreed, approving an additional two hundred scholarships for her program.
But a few days after Proctor’s praise, Doyle gave a talk to a Democratic party luncheon, in which she decried the growing racial separatism on campus, and warned that “we should resist the development of a black curriculum with a black staff. This could turn us back 100 years. Integration is painful and difficult, but we must see it through.”
The Capital Times reported her comments, and a week later, a group of about twenty- five Black students told Chancellor Edwin Young that Doyle should be fired.
On November 20, the Black People’s Alliance told a special meeting of the program’s advisory committee that “Inasmuch as Mrs. Doyle or any white person is incapable of relating” to the Black students, “We demand the removal of Ruth Doyle immediately and the replacement of her with four administrators— two Black, one American Indian, and one Mexican.” It wasn’t personal; most of the Black students liked Doyle – Black student leader John Felder even stayed at the Doyle home when he first came to campus that fall. But they said it was necessary.
A few days later, the Advisory Committee voted 4–3 to recommend to Young that Doyle “be removed from all capacities” connected with the program she created and nurtured. Chancellor Young appointed a special committee to review the BPA demands, chaired by Dean Proctor and including BPA leaders Willie and Liberty Edwards.
The day after Thanksgiving, Proctor’s panel gave Mrs. Doyle twenty minutes to defend her program and reputation. On December 2, the Proctor Committee recommended that the university accede to almost all the BPA demands, including that Doyle be dismissed and the tutorial and financial aid programs be run by Black administrators.
Doyle did not go quietly. “If I were not here, there would be no program to restructure,” she wrote Young. “If I were black and male, there would be no need to restructure, except for the expansion of staff. But I am here, and on the job. Until I am satisfied with the direction which the program will take and with my own prospects, I intend to stay at my job.”
On January 20, 1969 – the day Richard Nixon was sworn in as President – Doyle resigned as administrator of the Special Program of Tutorial and Financial Assistance, becoming assistant to Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Merrit Norvell. Black students praised her as “a beautiful person” but insisted the program be run by a black director.
She soon moved to the Law School as director of financial aid and assistant to the dean, retiring in 1979. The Law School later created the Ruth B. Doyle Award and Scholarship to recognize outstanding student contributions to the law school community
Ruth Bachuber Doyle died of Parkinson’s Disease in May, 2006 at age 89.
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.
Edwin Stein photo, courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society Archives. WHi Image ID 137864