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Women’s History Month: celebrating UW women 

March 23, 2023 By Käri Knutson
Black and white photos of eight women wearing clothing from past eras, including Victorian, Edwardian, World War II and mid-twentieth century. Clockwise from upper left, are Florence Bascom, Clara Bewick Colby, Signe Skott Cooper, Thelma Estrin, Mabel Watson Raimey, Vel Phillips, Lorraine Hansbury and Mildred Fish-Harnach,

Clockwise from upper left, are Florence Bascom, Clara Bewick Colby, Signe Skott Cooper, Thelma Estrin, Mabel Watson Raimey, Vel Phillips, Lorraine Hansberry and Mildred Fish-Harnack.

Let’s be clear. Women have always been making history. March just happens to be a month acknowledging it.

In 2019, we recognized the 150th anniversary of the awarding of bachelor’s degrees to women at UW–Madison with a series of stories as well as a video played at commencement celebrating the accomplishments of women at our university while acknowledging the challenges that remain.

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are a few of those stories as well as some of our other favorite UW women who continue to inspire.

Florence Bascom 1882, 1884, MS1887, groundbreaking geologist, dedicated daughter

“When any woman manifests an interest in the science [of geology] I am always glad to tell her of its possibilities and she makes her own choice. Not only must a girl have the mental aptitude for scientific research, but also physical strength and great physical courage. Then too she must be strong in the conviction that it is the work she really wants to do,” wrote Florence Bascom.

Clara Bewick Colby 1869, a renowned suffragist who was among the first class of six women to graduate from UW

 “A broader and nobler life lies before us,” she said in her commencement speech. “Let us hasten to make it our own.”

Signe Skott Cooper ’48, a World War II veteran and nursing pioneer at UW

“Nursing was never the same after World War II. We had carried a great deal of responsibility during the war, and we were not going back to being the physician’s handmaiden,” Cooper said in her memoir. “We had learned to be assertive and to demand recognition for our abilities and skills.”

Thelma Estrin ’48, MS’49, PhD ’52, a computer scientist who introduced technology to medical research

“At school, nobody took me very seriously,” she said in a 1981 interview with the magazine U.S. Woman Engineer. “But I took myself seriously.”

Mildred Fish-Harnack, ’25, MS’26, hero of resistance to Nazi regime

“Well it’s not a question of how dangerous it is, I’ve got work to do, I’m not going,” she said when told she should leave Germany and return to the United States. 

Lorraine Hansberry x’50, the first black female playwright to have a show on Broadway (A Raisin in the Sun)

“Though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so — doubly dynamic — to be young, gifted and black.”

Vel Phillips LLB ’51, pioneering civil-rights leader

“I was the first black woman to graduate from the law school,” Phillips recalled in Dream Big Dreams, a 2015 documentary about her life. “I just thought that was the biggest thing that could happen to me.”

Mabel Watson Raimey 1918, believed to be the first Black woman to graduate from UW and the first to practice law in Wisconsin 

“If any accomplishment that I may have made has had any influence on any young people, I am pleased more.”

The Women Who Won World War II

Women Lead the Way