Wisconsin Women of Color in Politics

March 4, 2021

Women of color have shaped Wisconsin history whether it be in politics, religion, business, arts, or science. To celebrate Women’s History Month we look at some of the women who have made our community great. This week we take a look at women who made political history.

Pictured (front row from left) Congresswomen Gwen Moore, Vel Phillips, Bernice K. Rose, Marcia Coggs, Marlene Johnson Odom, and Sherry Hill.

Marcia Coggs

Marcia P. Coggs is the matriarch of the Coggs family political legacy. Known as the “Conscience of the State of Wisconsin,” she was small in stature but a giant in state politics. Coggs was the first black woman elected to the Wisconsin state legislature in 1976 and the first black member to serve on the Joint Finance Committee in 1987. Coggs served until 1992, when her nephew, Leon Young, won the seat. Coggs’ husband, Isaac, was one of the first African Americans elected to the state legislature and also served on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

Prior to serving in public office, Coggs worked 13 years for the former Milwaukee County Children’s Home, an institution that had the role of caring for Milwaukee County’s dependent children in the late 19th and 20th centuries. When serving as state representative to the primarily black district, Coggs championed legislation in education, school desegregation, equal housing, health and racial equity. Coggs was prolific with respect to bill authorship. During her first week in office, she authored 45 of the 89 bills introduced in the Assembly that year. Three were signed into law.

Early in her career, Coggs said, “My mission is to work for social change. Period. When I say social change, that is self-explanatory: human needs.” Milwaukee County’s Human Services building at 1220 W. Vliet St. was renamed in her honor in late 2003 after Coggs passed away at the age of 75.

Bernice K. Rose

Bernice K. Rose, known as a political and civil rights activist, was the first black woman elected to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. She dedicated her life to service and community. Bernice Rose was elected a County Board Supervisor after the death of her husband, Clinton, in 1977 and served in a distinguished manner until her retirement in 1992. She passed away Feb. 4, 2000.

Milwaukee County first renamed the park in the late 1970s in honor of Bernice’s husband, who served as a County Supervisor from 1968 until his death in 1977 and acted as a Park Commissioner between 1972 and 1976. The senior center constructed in the park in 1982 was also named in his honor. In an effort to recognize Ms. Rose’s contributions to the County Board and in, general, the community, the Milwaukee County Board renamed the park and senior center to Clinton E. and Bernice K. Rose Park and Clinton E. and Bernice K. Rose Senior Center.

Vel R. Phillips

Velvalea (Vel) R. Phillips lived in Bronzeville, a majority African American neighborhood in Milwaukee, the place she started her political career. As an attorney, politician, jurist and civil rights leader, Vel accomplished many “firsts” in life, while building a critical connection, across racial divides for influence in Milwaukee County. In a 2002 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she said, “Whenever I was the first black, I was also usually the first woman, and there were certain things you just couldn’t do. You certainly had to bite your lip. And you couldn’t show a tear because that, or course, would be too female.”

Vel has a number of firsts attached to her name including: the first black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. Vel and her husband, Dale Phillips, were the first husband and wife couple admitted to the Wisconsin Bar; the first black candidate to make it past the non-partisan citywide primary election (Milwaukee Board of School Directors); the first woman and first African American member of the Milwaukee Common Council, where she served for 15 years; the first black person to be elected as a member of the Democratic National Committee; the first woman Children’s Court judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American judge in Wisconsin; and the first woman and first African American person elected to a statewide office, Wisconsin’s Secretary of State.

Her advocacy and legacy spanned her time in public office. Vel remained committed to public service, continuing to speak to school groups and serve on the boards of the Wisconsin Conservatory and America’s Black Holocaust Museum. Vel died on April 17, 2018, at the age of 95 — exactly 50 years after the passage of the federal fair housing legislation.

Marlene Johnson-Odom

Marlene Johnson-Odom was a quiet woman, but she knew how to get things done. The longtime Milwaukee alderwoman led efforts on the Common Council to rename N. 3rd St. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in honor of the civil rights leader. A Milwaukee native born in the central city, she was committed to issues like fair employment, civil rights and economic development. And she brought together developers and residents to improve the community.

Johnson-Odom, who died Jan. 9, 2017 at age 80, represented the 6th District from 1980 to 2004. She served on the Milwaukee Common Council longer than any other woman in city history and was also the longest-serving African-American member of the council.

Johnson-Odom graduated from North Division High School, then earned an associate degree at Milwaukee Area Technical College and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.

Before becoming an alderwoman, she taught etiquette at Milwaukee Public Schools. She also hosted a live television show and did local fashion shows.

During her long tenure at City Hall, she was especially proud of her work on King Drive.

Rep. Gwen Moore

Gwen Moore was one of nine siblings born to a school teacher and a factory worker in Racine. She grew up in Milwaukee, where she was student council president at North Division High School. With support from a program that helped low-income, first-generation students attend college, she earned a degree in political science from Marquette University. She was very active in her community, helping to start a credit union for her community VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) members and earning the VISTA “Volunteer of the Decade” award for the years 1976-1986.

Moore, a Democrat, was elected in 1989 to the Wisconsin State Assembly, where she served two terms. She then became Wisconsin’s first female African American state senator, serving from 1993 to 2004. While in office, she earned a Harvard University certificate for senior executives in state and local government and advocated strongly to improve economic conditions for low-income communities and help the children of low-income families get through school. In 2004, Moore was elected to represent Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is a member of the House Committee on Financial Services, which oversees the banking, housing, and insurance industries, and the House Budget Committee. She has been an outspoken voice for women’s health and security, leading the effort to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in Congress.

Sherry Hill

Sherry A. Hill was born in Florida. She relocated to Milwaukee with her family when she was four-years-old. She graduated from Lincoln High School in 1968. She continued her formal education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in social welfare. She worked for community- based organizations serving families and children after graduation.

Hill was the first African American to serve as a director for the Governor of Wisconsin. From 1989-1995 she was the Director of the the Governor’s Southeastern Office under Governor Tommy Thompson. Throughout her life, Sherry A. Hill has dedicated herself to improving voting access and securing voting rights for African Americans. For seven years, she organized and coordinated a tour of civil rights museums and historic locations for youth, children and their families.

Frances Huntley-Cooper

Frances Huntley-Cooper made history, April 2, 1991, when she became Wisconsin’s first and only African American mayor elected to office. She served as mayor of Fitchburg, WI, from 1991 to 1993.

Frances Huntley-Cooper is a 1973 graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where she earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Social Services. She then graduated from the University of Wisconsin– Madison, in 1974, where she earned a Masters of Science Degree in Social Work. She returned to the La Follette Institute and completed a Masters of Arts in Public Policy and Administration in August 1994.

Huntley-Cooper had a 28- year career in social services as a social work supervisor for the Dane County Department of Human Services working with children, youth and families. Huntley-Cooper was appointed by Governor James Doyle to work the in Department of Workforce Development under Secretary Roberta Gassman. Huntley-Cooper assumed administrator of Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Division on February 24, 2003 – December 31, 2010.

She is currently serving as an elected board of trustees member and board chair with Madison College (Madison Area Technical College), where she is serving her third appointment.