One hundred ten years ago, on January 9, 1909, a new magazine appeared in Madison, Wisconsin. La Follette’s Weekly was a project of then-Senator Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette and his wife, women’s suffrage and peace activist Belle Case La Follette. Fighting Bob was already well known as a progressive Republican politician, a former U.S. Representative and Governor of Wisconsin, and now a member of the U.S. Senate. La Follette’s goal for this new magazine, as he stated in the opening pages, was to “aid in making our government represent with more fidelity, the will of the people.
“This magazine,” he wrote, “recognizes as its chief task that of aiding in winning back for the people the complete power over government—national, state, and municipal—which has been lost to them by party machines [and] corporate and unincorporated monopolies.”
“To the people whose interests it is our ambition to serve,” he concluded, “we make the sole promise that so far as La Follette’s can open it to you, ‘ye shall know the truth, and the truth (we devoutly hope) shall make you free.’”
In its first year, the new weekly magazine produced a multipart series by scholar and public education activist William Kittle titled “The Making of Public Opinion.” In six installments, the series examined news bureaus, including the recently formed Associated Press, which he called, “the most powerful public-opinion forming agency in the United States.” Kittle wrote, “special interests employ agencies to fill the newspapers with adroitly prepared articles.” He examined specific efforts to influence public opinion on legislation on issues like insurance, currency regulation, and tariffs. The article also ranked all of the popular magazines of the day on a spectrum from conservative to progressive.
In April 1910, the magazine covered “The Strike of the Shirtwaist Girls” in a long article with photos of the New York strike. The author, Women’s Trade Union League activist Elizabeth Dutcher, wrote, “If the little pickets had been left alone to pursue their lawful avocation there would have been no big strike. Instead the masters tried intimidation.” She described what became a general strike of more than 30,000 workers. Eventually 352 shops settled with the union for shorter hours and better conditions. “It was,” she wrote, “a real victory.”
In February 1913, Belle Case La Follette reported on a speech she attended by labor activist Mother Jones. “Her voice rises and falls with her emotions, to which she gives free expression, whether of anger, pity, or pathos. Her language is rugged and picturesque. She quotes scripture freely. Some might call her profane. But a deep religious fervor makes her emphatic words seem reverent. Philosophy and understanding temper her talk. She speaks of the psychology of the people, of the economic phases of a problem in the same breath that she denounces with terrible bitterness the specific wrongs existing in the mining districts to-day, particularly those of West Virginia.”
“You would hardly call her an orator, but she has all the qualities of a great agitator,” she continued. “Her folks love and trust her, and no one can doubt her devotion to what she calls ‘my class.’ ‘We are women, not ladies.’ she says.”
“We are women, not ladies.”
The same issue featured a report on women’s suffrage. “Women now can be held back by opposition, but they never again can be suppressed,” wrote activist Mrs. James Lees Laidlaw. “Indeed, opposition spurs them to only greater activity. Temporary defeats such as women have had in Michigan and Wisconsin supply just the verve and consecration that is needed to make the movement irresistible. More and more do the words of Miss [Susan B.] Anthony become true, ‘failure is impossible,’ and more and more as injustices, outrages and shameful waste of human life increases is it true that success must not longer be deferred. We women want the suffrage, and we want it now, and we know desperately well why we want it.”
From the beginning, this magazine has been pro-labor, anti-war, and an advocate for civil rights and free speech.
In 1924, Fighting Bob ran for president on the ticket of a new Progressive Party. He took 16.6 percent of the popular vote, making it one of the most successful showings by a “third party” candidate in U.S. history. But the campaign was very hard on him, and in 1925 he died. The magazine put out a special memorial edition, and Belle Case La Follette vowed in the opening editorial “The magazine will go on.” In December 1929, La Follette’s was renamed The Progressive, and we carry on Fighting Bob’s work and vision to this day as a voice for peace, justice, and the common good.
These are just a few of the many movements and struggles covered by this storied magazine over its more than a century of publication. Watch in future months for more bits of our shared past as The Progressive celebrates 110 years.
From all of the staff here, thank you for reading, sharing, and supporting this progressive voice.