Phillips Hall History
In August 2011, University Housing renamed Friedrick Hall to Vel Phillips Hall, in honor of one of UW-Madison's distinguished alumni. Vel Phillips was first in many achievements in Wisconsin, including being the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and the first woman and African-American to be elected Secretary of State in Wisconsin. Mr. Friedrick will continue to be recognized by UW Extension with a display at Lowell Hall on campus.
At that time, University Housing also renamed the houses and lounge areas in this hall after other women with ties to the University who have made a positive impact on the university, politics, the women's movement, and civil rights. The 1st and 2nd floor houses are named after Kathryn F. "Kay" Clarenbach, the 3rd floor house is named after Gerda Lerner, and the 4th floor house is the Nellie Y. McKay House. The main lounge on the first floor became the Ruth H. Bleier Lounge, and the lower level meeting room is named after Belle Case La Follette.
Read our press release about the renaming of Phillips Hall.
For more information on the honorees, please visit the biographies below.
Vel Phillips (b. 1924) built a career full of "firsts" as both a woman and an African American in Wisconsin. She was born Velvalea Rodgers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 18, 1924. After graduating from North Division High School in 1942, Phillips won a national scholarship to attend any college or university in the United States. She chose Howard University in Washington D.C. graduating in 1946. In 1947 she married Dale Phillips, a first year law student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and they had two sons. Vel joined her husband at law school; Dale graduated in 1950 and she graduated in 1951, becoming the first African American woman to graduate from the law school. This began a series of many firsts for Phillips, which became her trademark and includes first husband-wife law team of any race admitted to the eastern district of the federal bar of Wisconsin. She also was the first African American in the United States elected to the policy making body of either of the major political parties and in 1956, she became the first woman and the first African American elected to Milwaukee's Common Council. In 1962 she introduced the Phillips Housing Ordinance: a bill to outlaw housing discrimination in Milwaukee. The bill, however, was defeated 18-1 with only her vote in favor. Between the years of 1963 and 1967 Phillips would reintroduce the fair housing bill a number of times, only to have it defeated each time with her vote being the only one in favor of the bill. Throughout the 1960s Phillips often participated in the nonviolent protests against discrimination in housing, education, and employment organized by the Milwaukee branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Father James Groppi, who was the advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, also known as the NAACP Commandos, joined forces with Phillips in an effort to rally support for the passing of an open housing bill. Phillips, Groppi, the Commandos and other community citizens marched for over 260 consecutive days. Arrested at a rally following the firebombing of an NAACP youth center, Phillips brought national media attention to the city, which had earned the nickname "Selma of the North" for its resistance to non-discrimination measures in housing, employment, education and other areas. Milwaukee alders finally approved the Fair Housing Law that Phillips had proposed almost six years earlier, pushed toward acceptance by the passage of a federal open housing law the week prior, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. After nearly 15 years as an alderperson, Phillips resigned in 1971 and was appointed by Governor Patrick J. Lucey to the Milwaukee County judiciary, becoming the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. She lost her bid for re-election to the bench to a candidate who made an issue of her involvement in protests and civil rights activities. In 1978 Phillips made national history as the first woman and first African American elected to a state office, the Secretary of State of Wisconsin. Although Phillips lost the next election, she remains to date the highest ranking woman and the highest ranking African American to win a statewide office in Wisconsin. Phillips remains a committed activist and community worker in the area of civil rights. She presently resides in Milwaukee.
Kathryn F. "Kay" Clarenbach (1920–1994) was one of the foremost leaders of the 20th century women's movement in the United States. Kathryn "Kay" Dorothy Frederick was born on October 7, 1920 and raised in Sparta, Wisconsin. She earned her academic degrees in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (B.A., 1941; M.A., 1942; Ph.D., 1946). In 1946 she married Henry Clarenbach and they had three children. While raising her children in the 1950s, she became active in the League of Women Voters. She taught political science and related courses at Purdue University (Indiana), Olivet College (Michigan) and Edgewood College (Madison). In 1962 the University of Wisconsin chose Clarenbach to organize a program for continuing education for women, initially on the Madison campus, and later through UW Extension. In 1963 Governor John Reynolds asked Clarenbach to chair the newly-created Wisconsin Governor's Commission on the Status of Women. She chaired the Commission for 15 years, helping to review and change laws unfair to women regarding pay equity, access to credit, divorce and marital property, and sexual assault, among others. Clarenbach was on the steering committee of the National Association of Commissions on the Status of Women and was its first president in 1970. Through such work, feminists realized that they needed a national lobby to effect change. In June 1966, while attending a national conference on women's issues sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., Clarenbach joined twenty-seven other women in the hotel room of Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, and founded the National Organization for Women (NOW). Clarenbach collected $5.00 from each of the attendees, creating the organization's first treasury. Friedan had the national recognition and Clarenbach had the organizational skills, and together they were elected President and Chair of the Board, respectively. For the next six years, NOW was housed at Clarenbach's Madison faculty office at the University of Wisconsin. As chair of NOW, Clarenbach is credited with helping forge the link between the emergent women's rights movement and more traditional women's organizations. Clarenbach stepped down from her Chair position with NOW in 1970, but remained active in the women's movement nationally and locally. In 1988 she retired as a Professor Emeritus from the University of Wisconsin.
Gerda Lerner (b. 1920) is a founder of the field of women's history. She is widely recognized as a women's history scholar and one of the foremost pioneers of the women's movement. Lerner was born on April 30, 1920 in Vienna, Austria and was educated there through secondary school. In 1938, after the Nazis came to power, she was jailed and forced to leave Austria. Now part of the Jewish exodus, she found refuge in the United States. Lerner's husband, Carl Lerner, was an editor and filmmaker. As a young wife and mother in Los Angeles and then in New York through the war years and the early days of the cold war, Lerner was an activist in grassroots and community political movements. She wrote fiction and took courses at the New School for Social Research (New York). Gerda Lerner first earned her B.A. at the New School in 1963 and then her M.A. in 1965 and Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1966. She had to persuade the authorities at Columbia to let her do graduate work in women's history, which was not then considered a scholarly field. Lerner founded the Women's Studies program at Sarah Lawrence College, which included the first graduate program in women's history in the country. In 1980, after the death of her husband, she moved to the University of Wisconsin to establish a Ph.D. program in women's history. Lerner continued to teach, write, and lecture around the country, writing several classic volumes in women's history, including her two-volume magnum opus, The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993). She was the editor of the groundbreaking Black Women in White America (1972), one of the first books to document the important struggles and contributions of African American women in American history. She has received many honors, among them honorary degrees from 18 colleges and universities. Lerner is a founding member of the National Organization for Women and one of the creators of Women's History Month. She is famous for the rigor of her scholarship and her organizational work in establishing and promoting women's history.
Nellie McKay (1931–2006) was a distinguished scholar and critic who helped secure a place for African American women in the modern literary canon. Nellie Yvonne Reynolds was born in Queens, New York to parents who had come from Jamaica in the West Indies. She earned a bachelor's degree in English from Queens College in 1969, a master's in English and American literature from Harvard in 1971 and a Ph.D. in the same field from Harvard in 1977. She joined the Wisconsin faculty the next year. An authority on black American literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, McKay specialized in the study of fiction, autobiography and, especially, women's writing. She was known in particular for the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, of which she was a general editor with Henry Louis Gates Jr. The anthology, published in 1997, was widely credited with codifying the black American literary canon for the first time. At more than 2,600 pages, the anthology spans black literature from the earliest Negro spirituals to late 20th century writers. McKay's pioneering impact on English Studies included her vision of what she called "the pipeline problem" the need for universities to produce more faculty of color, particularly African American faculty. She created the innovative "Bridge Program" that brought students from the Afro-American Studies M.A. program into the English Department's Ph.D. program, including many (though not exclusively) African American students. Nellie also supported the idea that students of color should be able to study in any fields they desired. She had gone to Harvard to study Shakespeare, she was fond of telling people, and while her lifelong commitment to the new field of African American literature never wavered, her capacious vision included the ideal that students of diverse backgrounds could follow their dreams to study whatever they wanted. During her student years in the late 1960s, it was nearly impossible to study literature by black writers, male or female, in a university classroom. That college students today more routinely encounter literature by black writers is due in no small part to McKay's work.
Ruth Bleier (1923–1988) was a renowned neurophysiologist who was among the first American scholars to examine gender bias in the modern biological sciences from a feminist perspective. Throughout her career she combined her interests in scientific and academic work with a commitment to social justice and activism. Born in Kensington, Pennsylvania, she graduated with a B.A. degree from Goucher College in 1945 and received her M.D. degree from Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1949. She raised two children while practicing general medicine in a poor, inner city neighborhood of Baltimore for nearly ten years. As the head of the Maryland Committee for Peace, she was a committed activist opposing the Korean War and campaigning for nuclear disarmament. This caught the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee which subpoenaed her to Washington DC. Refusing to cooperate, she was blacklisted by the Maryland Medical Society and lost her hospital privileges. She became a post-doctoral fellow in neuroanatomy at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1957. In 1961 she gave up her practice to become an instructor in psychiatry and physiology at Hopkins. In 1967 she left Hopkins to join the Department of Neurophysiology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. As a researcher, she was an authority on the hypothalamus in animals and authored three definitive books on the topic. In the early 1970s she was one of the first scientists in the world to examine the modern biological sciences from a feminist perspective, demonstrating how science, gender and sexuality change in response to social values and ideas. Her studies culminated in the book, Science and Gender, published in 1984. Bleier was a founder of the Association of Faculty Women in 1970 which challenged the mostly male UW administration to review the status and salaries of female instructors system-wide and to correct inequalities. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Women's Studies Program in 1975, remaining with the program for the rest of her career, and serving as chair from 1982 to 1986. Bleier identified herself as a lesbian and cautioned against the tendency toward the lesbian separatism of the time, working instead for lesbian rights within the women's movement. Toward that end she helped organize a local feminist restaurant, lesbian-friendly community activities, and supported a local feminist bookstore.
Belle Case La Follette (1859–1931) was a lawyer, journalist, editor, suffragist and counselor who provided much of the intellectual sophistication behind the Progressive Movement for which her husband, Bob La Follette, was known. The first woman graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, La Follette devoted much of her life to the cause of women's rights. Born in Summit, Wisconsin, on April 21, 1859, Belle Case befriended her future husband in college. The two married on December 30, 1881. When Bob became District Attorney, La Follette "clerked" for him, researching legal precedents and helping to write briefs. Her interest in law sparked, La Follette enrolled in the University of Wisconsin Law School and became the first female graduate in 1885. During Bob's three terms in Congress (1885–1891), La Follette acted as his secretary and administrative assistant. When they returned to Wisconsin after his defeat, she taught physical education classes and lectured on a variety of issues including woman suffrage, coeducation and dress reform. After serving as governor's wife for five years, La Follette returned to Washington in 1906 when Bob became a U.S. Senator. In 1909 the La Follettes founded La Follette's Weekly Magazine, which later became The Progressive under her role as editor in 1929. From 1909 until her death in 1931, La Follette wrote weekly columns that often took up political or legal positions, advocated for legislation, or critiqued political policies and administrations. She also used every opportunity to make the case for woman suffrage, railing against state and federal laws that limited the position of women. A staunch pacifist, La Follette helped found the Women's Peace Party in 1918, which later became the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. After Bob's death in 1925, La Follette was urged to fill his seat in the Senate but she declined in no uncertain terms, saying, "at no time in my life would I ever have chosen a public career for myself."