Wisconsin adopted “Forward” as their state motto in 1851. Sculptor Jean Pond Miner was commissioned to create a representation of her home state and in 1893 created a seven-foot tall bronze statue of a female figure bearing the state’s maxim. The Wisconsin Historical Society notes, “Forward is an allegory of devotion and progress, qualities Miner felt Wisconsin embodied.” The statue is dedicated as a women’s memorial and now stands proudly at the west entrance of the Capitol in Madison.
Notably, Forward, predates the signing of the national civil rights bill by the better half of a century. She was nearly 30 years old before women had the right to vote. Ditto for the first labor movement.
When it comes to progress, Wisconsin and Forward have been ahead of their time.
Now Forward has been at the heart of the last month of protests and rallies in Madison. She’s the centerpiece. Protesters have utilized her as a billboard to express their frustrations. She’s been blindfolded while wearing “recall” signs. She’s been adorned with pro-union and anti-Republican lawmaker placards. Last Saturday during the biggest rally since the standoff began, she was wearing a Guy Fawkes now identified as an Anonymous mask while holding the “blue book” of Wisconsin Law and procedure in her hand.
The morning after, a handful of Wisconsin women removed all the debris and instead laid flowers at Forward’s feet. They held a sign, “Women’s Vigil for Labor Rights.” Their children clad in “Cops for Labor” t-shirts bounced around the stairs of the Capitol as they posed for pictures from passers-by.
Melissa Austin, wife of a Madison Police Department detective explained, “Flowers sometimes mean saying good-bye. You put flowers on somebody when they die…But flowers are Spring. Flowers are coming. Flowers are a renewal.” She added, “It’s not saying good-bye to Forward, it’s what’s to come.”
Sarah Mackesey also held the sign. A Madison police officer on her day off, Mackesey offered, “Forward is our motto and Forward rocks.”
Wisconsin’s new Republican governor Scott Walker had been insisting he needed to eradicate the public employees’ collective bargaining rights to “balance the budget” – a budget he made worse when he gave tax breaks to corporations.
Walker’s real goal was revealed in a conversation with a man impersonating the oil heir David Koch. Walker wants to be like Ronald Reagan. He wants to “do something big.” Under the guise of “fiscal responsibility,” Walker has been trying to kill a long time foe of the right wing – organized labor – and with it wages, pensions and working conditions for which people have fought for decades.
“Balancing the budget” has become the lukewarm excuse to bust unions much like the iffy deviated septum is why you have to get that nose job. “I do Botox…for my headaches.” Sure. “People making $40K a year to teach kids are greedy parasitic union thugs.” Uh huh.
If this had happened in another state, the response would have been different. But in Wisconsin people have always thought of themselves as easygoing, open-minded and mellow – and their reaction has been visceral. Besides the big rallies overtaking the Capitol, many Wisconsinites have been showing up to be near Forward as a part of their daily errands. “Go grocery shopping, protest Scott Walker taking away union rights, pick up school uniforms and start dinner.”
These purported “union thugs” held G-rated, family-friendly, stroller-packed affable demonstrations. In true courteous Wisconsin fashion one of their chants to the 14 senators who left the state to hold off a vote was “Thank you!”
The several generations of Wisconsinites sauntering around the Capitol in the cold are even more of an apt symbol of what organized labor, pensions, health care and a living wage mean for working people: It’s family. The ability to take care of their families.
The protesters I talked to are afraid for their families and concerned for their neighbors. They’re shocked by the injustice and ashamed they weren’t more vigilant when electing Walker. But mostly they’re resolute.
“It’s painful standing up for your rights,” said Austin, noting her generation born in the ‘70s has never before had to deal with this kind of strife.
Austin relayed, “They [rights] were fought for…” Mackesey jumped in, “Again and again and again!”