“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead
Since 1979, Wisconsin Women’s Network (WWN) has worked to improve the status of women and girls in Wisconsin through communication, education, advocacy, and connections. The names and faces behind the organization’s mission are strong women fueled by passion who seek to improve the community around them and make Wisconsin a better place for women and girls.
Prior to the dedicated board members who serve today was Kathryn Clarenbach, a founder of the WWN. Clarenbach was 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, such as 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 claimed the Commission was 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, several influential Wisconsin women banded together to form WWN, a nonpartisan coalition composed of individuals and organizations with the common goal to improve the advancement, health, safety, and security of women throughout Wisconsin. Notable feminist leaders, including Vel Phillips, Ada Deer, Midge Miller, Mary Lou Munts, and Nancy Forbeck, were instrumental in organizing the WWN as we know today.
WWN’s agenda was based on principles articulated in “Wisconsin Women and the National Plan of Action,” which was adopted in 1977 at the first National Women’s Conference in Houston. Over 1,300 Wisconsin women from different income groups, ages, lifestyles, and racial and religious backgrounds came together to voice their needs and hopes for the future. Recommendations were formed for the president, which led to several notable improvements for the well-being of women, including the expansion of legal protection and funds for those experiencing domestic violence and their children, enabling women with disabilities to access education and employment opportunities, prohibiting discrimination at all levels of education, and calling for health insurance to cover women as individuals.
The work of this generation of feminists established the foundation upon which women have continued to build for a just and equitable society, and the WWN is continuing that legacy. Today, the WWN Board of Directors works to continue the advancement of women through three major initiatives: the Policy Institute, the Mentorship Program, and networking events.
Launched in 2015, the WWN Policy Institute provides hands-on leadership, communications, and policy advocacy training to women from around the state every year. The purpose of the Institute is to increase the number of Wisconsinites who have the confidence, skills, and strategic knowledge to successfully engage in their local and statewide communities on policy issues that impact Wisconsin’s women and girls. Participants work in small teams with experienced mentors and develop a specific, real-world policy advocacy project that closely relates to the WWN’s mission. Through dynamic training, participants develop the skills necessary to drive and advocate for policy change. And, most importantly, participants make real change in the process and may impact state legislation during the four-month course. To date, the WWN has trained over 200 Wisconsin women through the Policy Institute programming.
Continuing this great work can only be done by investing in the future. WWN does just that through their Mentorship Program, which has one mission: to provide women the opportunity to cultivate meaningful relationships with strong, inspirational role models throughout Wisconsin. “Our mentors are members of the Network’s large network of women professionals,” says mentor committee member and board member at large Leah Ujda. “These mentors come from a variety of professions and backgrounds, all uniting under the same cause: they are dedicated to helping women succeed.”
In 2020, 20 undergraduates were matched with 20 professionals in the Madison community. Then, in the wake of the pandemic, we regrouped, reshaped, and rediscovered the power of WWN. Our Mentorship Program pivoted quickly to an online environment after COVID-19 made it unsafe for mentor/mentee pairs to meet in person. After finishing up the mentorship year online, the program came back stronger.
Recognizing the opportunity in a virtual platform, the Mentorship Program has since expanded statewide to provide even more early-in-career women mentorship opportunities. All of the great work across WWN must also have space to be celebrated. This is done through a series of events to help connect strong, inspiring women in your community. Such events include Feminism on Tap; Artful Women; and the largest event hosted by WWN, the Women’s Equality Day gathering. The Women’s Equality Day celebration is held annually to celebrate the anniversary of the 19th amendment, which granted all women the right to vote (though in practice, millions were still denied that right). It also serves as a way to recognize the need for and to continue conversations for advancing equity.
Proving Margaret Mead was right, a small group of thoughtful, committed women continue to change the future for Wisconsin’s women and girls. As put by treasurer and longtime board member Karen Meulendyke, “It is through this organization that I have learned about what it takes to run a nonprofit organization with all volunteers, the power of advocacy, and truly how a group of women can get almost anything done.”
Libby Jacobs is the WWN communications chair and board member at large.