MADISON, Wis. — A unique flag made in the 1970s stands as a symbol of the women’s movement in Wisconsin.
In 1971, the women’s liberation movement was in full swing. Women had gone on strike a few years before. Discrimination at work and school based on gender was now illegal, but of course nowhere near eradicated. Plus, oral contraceptives had been on the market ten years, allowing women more control over their bodies and their futures.
“It was a happy, exciting time,” said Marge Engelman.
At the time, she was living in Appleton with her husband Ken and their two children.
She said "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan changed her life. She decided to get a job at the brand-new University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, which 10 years before, never would’ve crossed her mind.
“I was the first administrator on campus that was a woman,” Engelman said. “So I always felt I was walking a tightrope between buying into how men tend to do things, and how I want to do things.”
At home, she was working on her art. One day she was inspired by the newfound freedom she and other women had, and decided to make a piece about it.
She set out to create what most symbolized freedom to her: an American flag.
“I had this red velveteen,” she said. “And I thought why not make the white stripes bras?”
Next came a slightly uncomfortable conversation with a sales woman at Sears, who couldn’t understand why Marge would want 20 white padded bras.
The flag took her about a week, spending a few hours every day. The stripes are bras, and the stars are represented by what looks like a pack of birth control, made out of foam.
“It called attention to the women's movement in a different way,” she said.
The piece wasn’t exactly well-received right away.
“It was displayed in an art gallery in Green Bay. There were these people who were offended by it. That didn't bother me that much, it provided some good chuckles,” she laughed.
The flag ended up getting a second life. The Wisconsin Historical Society wanted to keep it in their collection as an artifact of the feminist movement in the Badger State.
“It represents that period in my life, when I woke up to what it meant to be a freed-up woman,” she said.
Now, it’s a lasting symbol of what it meant during that time to be a woman in Wisconsin.
“It changed my life, to know that I could do something just on my own,” Marge said.
Marge is now retired and lives in Madison. Before retiring, she worked for UW on Title IX cases, ensuring women got equal treatment and access at the university.