It was a remarkable revelation: in the 1960s, UW–Madison faculty member Kathryn Clarenbach ’41, MA’43, PhD’46 identified 280 Wisconsin state statutes that treated men and women differently.
By looking carefully at the language used in the laws, the Monroe County native spurred changes in areas ranging from divorce to pay equity to marital property, setting Wisconsin women and, soon, counterparts across the nation on the road to equality.
Clarenbach’s bright mind was evident early on. She was born in 1920 — the year when women gained the right to vote — in Sparta, Wisconsin, to a lawyer-minister father and a schoolteacher mother. After graduating high school as valedictorian at 16, she earned three UW degrees in short order. With the calm defiance she showed throughout her life, as an undergraduate making her way to a permissible study space within the campus’s student union, she routinely walked through areas where female students weren’t allowed.
Clarenbach brought unparalleled know-how to the modern women’s movement.
Clarenbach quickly established credentials as someone who could organize people and activities during the rather unorganized rebirth of modern feminism. She created a program for UW–Extension, devising courses for women with limited career opportunities, and then headed Wisconsin’s first Commission on the Status of Women for more than a dozen years. Seeing a need to mobilize complex, far-flung organizations across the country, she helped to found the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1964, becoming its first chair and serving with Betty Friedan, NOW’s first president.
Feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem still praise a 1977 conference on women that Clarenbach coordinated. So powerful was the gathering of some 20,000 participants in Houston that Steinem has called it “a constitutional convention for the female.”
A political science professor at the UW until her retirement, Clarenbach died at age 73 and is buried in Sparta.