Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Meta Schlichting Berger, 1873-1944
By Peter Seidman, independent scholar
Meta Schlichting was born in Milwaukee, WI, on February 23, 1873. She was the second of five children of German immigrants. Her father Bernard served as a distinguished officer in the Union Army. Later, he was appointed to a position on the Milwaukee Board of Education from 1878 until his death six years later. Of her mother Matilda Meta wrote she was a “tiny, frail woman...always in the condition of soon having another baby.”
While on the School Board, Bernard interviewed a recent immigrant from Austria-Hungary named Victor Berger for a teaching position. Berger became friends with the Schlichting family. In this way he came to know Meta, who attended a school where Victor taught.
After Bernard's death, the Schlichting family struggled financially. Unlike her sisters, who left school to hunt for jobs, Meta insisted upon completing her education. To make up for not working, she volunteered to take on many household chores.
Victor became one of the boarders the family took on. Meta, who at the time viewed herself as a “nondescript” “ugly duckling,” had no inkling that this man, thirteen years her senior, and who would later become the first socialist ever elected to the United States Congress, would also become her husband.
The couple were engaged in 1894, after Meta graduated from the Wisconsin State Normal School in Milwaukee. Three years later, Meta resigned from her teaching position at age 24 to marry Victor. This was a complicated decision. She loved her teaching job. Her family needed her $45 monthly salary. But the law forbade married women from teaching.
“Three weeks after I was married I discovered I was pregnant,” Meta wrote in her autobiography. Soon first-born daughter Doris had a younger sister, Elsa. A three-year-old nephew, Jack Anderson, joined the family after the death of Meta's older sister in 1902.
Meta wrote that “My husband tried to make me the kind of wife he had always imagined.... all of my own interests and friends were to be dropped and I was to be absorbed only in the affairs that he was interested in. A fearful struggle ensued. Again and again I had to assert myself...Also he thought I ought now to become his secretary, adopt his political philosophy....You can imagine how often I felt humiliated and frustrated.”
The new family also struggled financially. Victor accumulated debts as he worked to sustain the city's first English-language daily socialist paper, The Milwaukee Leader. His own politically motivated financial commitments put intense pressure on Meta.
“My budget did not allow meat every day. But in those days the butcher saved the sweetbreads, brain and heart...So I learned to cook brain, heart, etc. and make it quite tasty. The only thing we couldn't take with grace was heart...Fortunately these days, packing houses have found better use for that particular organ. And civilization ought to be grateful for it.”
Meta was just beginning to become interested in the political life of the Socialist Party when she found herself pregnant for the second time. She wasn't “averse to having children...But I really couldn't see myself having a large family to support on the meager funds we had to live on. But what to do? I was pregnant! And I had to see it through. But I was determined not to have more children than I could support. Contraceptives were known but were illegal to buy. Anyway I kept brooding on how not to have more children.” And Elsa was the last child she had.
Meta often found herself a frustrated, uncomprehending onlooker serving dinner parties hosted by her husband for his many renowned Socialist Party guests.
When she would ask Victor to explain, “sometimes he just laughed at me and said, ‘Du hist eine dumme Gans' [You are a silly goose].” When Meta persisted, Victor would give her books to read. “But I hated those books...Dry stuff!...No matter how I tried, [they] didn't appeal to me.”
The situation really didn't begin to turn around until 1904, when Meta, without informing her husband, used the $10 household money he had given her to manage expenses while he went to a Socialist Party convention in Chicago to go there herself and without his advance knowledge.
“This convention was a turning point in my life...the general drift of the purpose...slowly drifted into my consciousness....”
When they got home, Meta told Victor, “I have reached the determination that never again will I stay at home while you go to inspiring conventions. Hereafter I shall attend all conventions with you!”
Victor responded, “Good God! Where will I get the money?” To which Meta replied, “That is your affair, Darling! I'm giving you fair warning.”
Victor and Meta collaborated very closely in building the Socialist Party until his death in 1929. Meta displayed an exceptional ability to carry out the most difficult party building tasks.
A good example arose during the difficult years of WWI, when, in 1918, Victor and four other antiwar socialists in Wisconsin were found guilty under the Espionage Act.
The defendants immediately appealed their convictions. But the judge ruled that unless a bond of $500,000 was paid by the next day, the five would be on a train bound for the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth to sit out their appeal! Racing from union meeting to union meeting throughout the city Meta raised the required amount.
Meta wrote afterwards, “Not until I got back to Milwaukee had I noticed how gray or rather white my hair had gotten in Chicago.”
It would be easy to ignore Meta's contributions and political history by conflating them with Victor's during their long collaboration. Easy, but superficial and incorrect. Meta Berger was never content to accept the traditional marriage that Victor had in mind for them. A careful study of her life shows that she successfully struggled to go way beyond the “continental” limits her husband had imagined.
In 1908, Meta was nominated by the SP as a candidate for the Milwaukee School Board.
She wrote, “To say I was surprised, shocked and frightened—puts it mildly...I wired my husband, ‘What shall I do?' Back came his reply, ‘Do nothing, except to accept the honor. You won't be elected anyway.”
But she was elected! From her first meeting, where she overcame her nervousness to make a speech successfully defending the right of females to become head of high school departments, until her retirement in 1939 due to failing health, she established a bold record of fighting to improve public school education for working people and teachers. And she ran as an SP candidate in all these elections.
Her record on the Milwaukee School Board of fearlessly fighting for reforms won her an appointment to the Wisconsin Board of Normal School Regents in 1927. At her first meeting, she insisted the Board demand of the state legislature that it step up to adequately finance the deteriorating public schools. “Well,—I guess I threw a bomb alright enough. The whole board was up in arms and once and didn't know just what do with such an unruly member.”
She resigned a year later to accept a five-year term appointment to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.
Meta joined the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association in 1914 and soon became a member of its board of directors.
Meta described how, “the suffrage movement in Wisconsin as well as in some other parts of the nation was in the hands of the upper conservative middle class women...Finally I received the long looked for invitation to be a delegate...Of course I was glad to go. As might have been expected, I did the unpopular thing by demanding the union label on the Wisconsin Citizen—the suffrage paper... If I had thrown a bomb into the meeting, I could not have astonished the good ladies more.
“A heated debate took place...but after the vote was taken, all suffrage literature passed out in Wisconsin must hereafter carry the union label (Prohibition literature also was to be banned ).” #x00a0
Three years later, after the U.S. entered WWI, Meta wrote, “The suffrage movement had split into two factions. The National Woman's Suffrage Association was headed by Carrie Chapman Catt. This was the more conservative movement. The other—the Woman's Party of America, headed by Alice Paul, was by far the more courageous movement and went so far as to picket the White House...Quite naturally, I fell into the latter...I was read out of the Wisconsin Suffrage Association and consequently organized a branch of the Woman's Party in my home.”
Meta showed her mettle shortly thereafter at the October, 1917, convention of the Wisconsin Educational Association. “I received a telegram from Alice Paul asking me to introduce a suffrage resolution...At first I hesitated, and then my conscience told me I was a poor suffragist if I didn't comply.”
Meta recounts how the meeting opened with a pro-war, redbaiting lawyer who attacked Victor Berger as a “snake in the grass...who ought to be shot at sunrise, etc. etc.”. She was shaking by the time it was her turn to speak to the 15,000 teachers in the audience. She was venomously introduced as Mrs. Victor Berger.
“I didn't know how I ever reached the edge of that platform. My heart pounded, my knees trembled, my mind was blank. But suddenly the great mass of people in the audience rose en masse and cheered and cheered and called bravo to me. I saw I was not alone and that the criminal lawyer had over reached himself. The audience was seated again and upon my first word of “Friends” once more they arose and cheered and waved handkerchiefs...I finally got the suffrage resolution passed unanimously.”
Commenting on the first election after suffrage was enacted, Meta wrote her daughters: “You should have seen the women flock to the polls with the little pink ‘good government' slip [distributed by the main daily paper and the “Good Government League”] in their hands. The priests & nuns did their share nobly also.” While many more women voted, not enough of them voted for the SP to elect its candidates.
“We always knew that if the women ever got the vote, we would receive a set-back. The poor dears haven't read much you see. Our work now is to educate our women at least,” Meta observed.
When Suffrage finally became law in 1920, Meta made no note of it—either in her autobiography or in her family correspondence! Her contributions to the suffrage movement were recognized in 1930, when her name was added to the state roll of honor, and in 1942 at a Susan B. Anthony dinner.
While Meta was a firm partisan of educating women, her views were contradictory. Only ten years after her husband was indicted under the Espionage Act, a free speech fight broke out at the University of Wisconsin over the right of Mrs. Bertrand Russell to speak on campus. Meta complained that while the chancellor made a mistake by denying Russell a forum, “I do not think she ought to preach her doctrine to the half baked co-eds at Madison...[the University] has a responsibility to the parents whose children go...To condone a philosophy of free-love, several trial marriages, or affairs etc. isn't exactly what a ‘U' President ought to stand for. And yet there is the question of ‘free speech' with you fighting for the teeth in the 1st Amendment.”
Victor Berger died on August 7, 1929. Afterwards, “the Socialist leaders sought to retire Meta into a permanent state of ceremonial widowhood,” Peggy Dennis related in her biographical sketch Meta Berger: Milwaukee's Velvet-Fisted Radical. Meta refused to go along with this just as she had refused to go along with Victor's early ideas of what their marriage should be. She said that although she respected her husband's “honest and courageous thinking...we must take fresh inventory of our world.”
Meta did make a “fresh inventory.” Like others in the SP, she was drawn towards what James P. Cannon described in The History of American Trotskyism as, “A new wind...blowing in this old decrepit organization of the Social Democracy...At that time the [Communist Party was] exerting pressure on the Socialists in order to lay hold of this progressive left-wing movement.”
The CP was successful in winning Meta over politically. In 1933, she travelled to New York to participate in a U.S. Congress Against War which later became the American League Against War and Fascism. Three years later Meta accepted a position as vice chair.
Although the SP began expelling members who were working with the CP in this way, they left Meta alone.
Then in 1935, she toured the Soviet Union. In I Saw Russia, published in 1936 by the “American Friends of the Soviet Union,” Meta offers up a completely uncritical panegyric to Stalin's Russia. “It is true that certain compromises and concessions were made,” she wrote, but “the Bolsheviks had to be tough with those who fought secretly to destroy them and their work.”
A heart ailment in 1939 required Meta to curtail her political activity. She also retired from her position on the school board. But she still came into sharper and sharper conflict with the SP leadership. In 1940, the SP leadership warned her to cease participating in CP “front” organizations or face expulsion. Meta resigned from the SP.
Meta Berger died on June 16, 1944.
Berger, M. (2001). A Milwaukee Woman's Life on the Left. The Autobiography of Meta Berger. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
Berger, V., & Berger, M. (1995). The Family Letters of Victor and Meta Berger, 1894-1929. Madison, WI: Center for Documentary History. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
Berger, M. (1936). I Saw Russia. New York, NY: American Friends of the Soviet Union.
Stevens, Michael E. (Autumn, 1996). A Political Partnership: The Marriage of Victor and Meta Berger. Milwaukee History. Volume 19. Number 3. Pages 95-103.
Dennis, Peggy. (1986). Meta Berger: Milwaukee's Velvet-Fisted Radical. Unpublished Manuscript no. 138. Milwaukee County Historical Society.
Buhle, Mari Jo. (1983). Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Cannon, James P. (1944). History of American Trotskyism. New York, NY: Pioneer Publishers.