Tammy Baldwin

U.S. Senator from Wisconsin

Breaking barriers is stock-in-trade for Tammy Baldwin JD1989; it’s part of her makeup, her identity, and her legacy.

One of the first hurdles Baldwin needed to overcome was when the 24-year-old UW Law School student won her first political contest and joined the Dane County Board of Supervisors. The fight was for credibility.

“Most of my colleagues were in their mid-60s. My age was the biggest barrier: being taken seriously by people who were all old enough to be my parents, if not my grandparents,” she said. “In short order, that began to happen.”

Baldwin has overcome several more perceived barriers: she’s a woman and openly lesbian. Her successes have studded her political career with firsts. She was the first woman from Wisconsin elected to the House of Representatives in 1998. In 2012, she defeated Tommy Thompson BS1963, JD1966 in a U.S. Senate race and became the first openly gay U.S. Senator and the first woman senator from Wisconsin.

A Democrat, Baldwin recalled her first stint in the Wisconsin Assembly, when a male counterpart approached her to talk about her sexual preference.

“I thought, ‘Here comes trouble,’” Baldwin said. “He looked at me and he said, ‘You know, if you can be honest about that, I think you’ll be honest about everything, and you’ll have my vote.’”

Baldwin, a double-major in math and government at Smith College, recalls a defining moment in her trailblazing life. As she sat in front of her TV in her first efficiency apartment, Geraldine Ferraro accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1984.

“I remember watching that with tears streaming down my face, and thinking, ‘My whole future is ahead of me. I can aspire to anything,’” she said.

Her message to would-be pioneers is simple: “No one is ever going to hand you an opportunity on a silver platter. You have to fight for these, and that’s how you pave a path for others to follow.”