The Women Who Have Built Milwaukee County
March is Women’s History Month, and we’re proud to celebrate the women who have built our county, nation and world. As we work toward equity and justice in our community, it’s important to recognize these influential women.
Women hold a growing number of leadership positions throughout our organization. Seven members of our County Board of Supervisors are women, including our First and Second Vice County Board Chairs. Half of our County department heads are female, as is our Chief Judge. I’m honored to work alongside these leaders, and I’m humbled by the female leaders of our County’s past.
We celebrate the many women who have shaped our past so that we can create a future that’s full of opportunity for the next generation. This means more choice, less bias, equal access and fair pay. And it’s more than women having a seat at the table — it’s women having a seat at the head of the table.
Check back each Friday this month for a new feature, and follow Women’s History Month updates on Instagram and Facebook. I’m proud to recognize these leaders’ contributions to our history as we build an equitable and just Milwaukee County.
Marcia P. Coggs
With more than six decades of collective experience in government, the Coggs family has had a huge impact in Milwaukee. Marcia P. Coggs is the matriarch of that 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. According to her daughter, Elizabeth Coggs-Jones, her mom would often bring children home who didn’t have family on weekends or holidays. The home for children closed in 1982, and children were transferred to smaller capacity, privately-owned, shelter-care facilities. Now the building serves the Milwaukee County Parks Administration and is on the National Register of Historic Places. 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.
Janine P. Geske
A lifelong Wisconsinite, and the first and only woman to serve as Milwaukee County executive, Hon. Janine P. Geske has transformed the way many people view restorative justice practices.
After graduating from Marquette University Law School, Geske was chief staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee until 1979. She then went on to become an assistant professor and served as judge for 12 years on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court. As a criminal court judge, Geske began teaching in prison and working with victims’ groups as a way to inform her work. She was appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1993 and served until 1998.
Geske has dedicated her life to restorative justice practices and reducing harm for those in the criminal justice system. In both 1994 and 2002, the Milwaukee Bar honored her with its Lawyer of the Year award. She also served on the board of directors at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation from 2006 to 2018.
Following the retirement of F. Thomas Ament in 2002, Geske served as interim County Executive and agreed to work without pay. Although now retired from the bench, Geske continues to serve Marquette University, where she is currently on the Board of Trustees. She previously served as a Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of the Law School’s Restorative Justice Initiative, which she founded in 2005.
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.
Prior to her death, she designated a fund at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to support African American students who want to attend historically black colleges and universities. The Bernice K. Rose Memorial Scholarship Fund provides opportunities for local students to attend such higher educational institutions as Florida A&M and Howard University.
In addition to the memorial scholarship fund, there’s Rose Park — a 9.1-acre site located on the north side of the City of Milwaukee.
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.”
- 1951 – 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.
- 1953 – First black candidate to make it past the non-partisan citywide primary election (Milwaukee Board of School Directors).
- 1956 – First woman and first African American member of the Milwaukee Common Council, where she served for 15 years. Beginning in 1962 she began introducing a fair housing ordinance that was defeated by the council 18-1, each time she brought it up, until the federal fair housing law passed in April 1968.
- 1960 – First black person to be elected as a member of the Democratic National Committee.
- 1971 – First woman Children’s Court judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American judge in Wisconsin, she was appointed by Gov. Patrick J. Lucey.
- 1978 – 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.
Across Milwaukee, there are several reminders of her legacy. North 4th Street from Bronzeville to downtown is named in her honor, the Milwaukee County’s Children’s Court facility is named the Vel R. Phillips Youth & Family Justice Center, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison named a residence hall for her. In 2018, former Gov. Scott Walker recommended in the capital budget that the future state office building in Milwaukee be named in her honor. The State Building Commission and Legislature will consider this in 2019.