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LGBTQ History Month: 2 doctors, Door County business owners pave way for gay leaders

Green Bay Press-Gazette logo Green Bay Press-Gazette 10/30/2020 Sammy Gibbons, Green Bay Press-Gazette
an old photo of a man: A photo of Maxine Bennett and Martha Peterson at their Door County home, featured in an Aug. 24, 1978 issue of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. © Green Bay Press-Gazette archives A photo of Maxine Bennett and Martha Peterson at their Door County home, featured in an Aug. 24, 1978 issue of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

In 1962, University of Wisconsin-Madison leaders pursued a second "gay purge," a time when staff would interrogate, punish and often expel LGBTQ students for their sexual orientation. 

That same year, two women in some of the highest positions at the university were engaged in a loving relationship. Maxine Bennett and Martha Peterson's relationship blossomed for the remainder of their lives — even bringing them, for a time, to Door County.

Bennett moved from Nebraska to Madison to pursue a career in medicine. In 1953, the University of Wisconsin Medical School hired her full-time as an associate professor in the Department of Surgery-Division of Otolaryngology, according to her obituary. She was the only woman on the department's faculty that year, and eventually she became department chair and a full professor. 

Three years later, the University of Wisconsin hired Peterson as Dean of Women. She left Kansas for Madison, where the university's President E. B. Fred connected her with Bennett, believing they would bond over their upbringings in neighboring Midwest states. 

Bennett and Peterson began spending "a great deal of time together" and canoed often during vacations, Bennett shared in an interview recorded for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Oral History Program. 

a man standing in front of a building: Maxine Bennett and Martha Peterson, with their friend Margaret Prouty on the far left, at the Waubesa Beach home Bennett and Prouty shared. Featured in The Capital Times on May 13, 1959. © Gibbons, Samantha Maxine Bennett and Martha Peterson, with their friend Margaret Prouty on the far left, at the Waubesa Beach home Bennett and Prouty shared. Featured in The Capital Times on May 13, 1959.

It wasn't safe for LGBTQ people to be "out" publicly while the gay purge was ongoing, as Scott Seyforth wrote in an article for On Wisconsin, but the women's budding relationship didn't go unnoticed. 

A Capital Times article written in 1959 mentioned the duo's joint trip to Scandinavia. "Select," a Madison society magazine that evolved into Madison Magazine, published a feature about a house the women owned in Door County. 

While discussions about sexual orientation flared on campus, Peterson and Bennett escaped to camp on a plot owned by a friend that rested along Lake Michigan. They eventually purchased the property together, and by the time both women retired, they owned a log cabin in Jacksonport that they transformed into the Port Antique Shop. 

Although Peterson led the university's women, she did not contribute to the gay purge of 1962, scholar Richard Wagner noted in his book "We've Been Here All Along: Wisconsin's Early Gay History." She often went head-to-head with Dean of Men Theodore Zillman, who pushed for disciplinary action against students caught engaging in "homosexual activity."

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In one of her Oral History Program interviews, Peterson explained actions toward equality she took while serving in a similar Dean role at the University of Kansas, where she helped to integrate Black women into dormitories and sororities, and made other efforts she said people perceived as socialist or "bad" deeds.

In an interview for the LGBTQ archive Outwords, Wagner said Bennett and Peterson "were relatively open about who they were in the 50s and 60s."

"(Peterson) was on boards of many corporations, and so they were a real power couple in town," Wagner said. "Even pre-Stonewall, you had these strong personalities establishing themselves and living public lives."

Also in 1962, Peterson concluded her tenure as Dean of Women and became Dean of Students. Five years later, Barnard College in New York City selected her as its seventh president. Bennett joined her and spent her sabbatical working at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, she remembered in her interview. 

Peterson joined the Exxon Board of Directors, which traveled around the world. Male board members brought companions on those trips, and Bennett recalled in her interview Peterson told the directors that "it was awfully hard when they came with their wives and she didn't like to intrude," recalled Bennett. 

"And they said 'Well, bring somebody with you.' I was privileged and able to go with her on so many of the Exxon trips," Bennett said in her interview.

Exxon trips took the couple to Japan and England, but eventually they found their way back to Wisconsin. In 1975, Peterson became president of Beloit College, and she continued spending summers in Door County with Bennett. 

text: A public hearing notice for Maxine Bennett and Martha Peterson's antique shop published in a June 12, 1975 issue of the Door County Advocate. © Door County Public Library Archives A public hearing notice for Maxine Bennett and Martha Peterson's antique shop published in a June 12, 1975 issue of the Door County Advocate.

Bennett and Peterson ran their antique shop for eight years before they sold the property in Jacksonport. When they retired, they bought a condo in Florida where they'd spend six months each year, with the other months spent in Madison. 

Bennett became an artist in her later years. Bennett spoke in her interview about enrolling in numerous classes at Peninsula School of Art while living in Door County. She created several pastel depictions of the view from their Florida condo: sunsets falling on the Gulf of Mexico. 

Though she didn't paint it, a portrait of Peterson hangs in Sulzberger Parlor at Barnard College along with other former presidents, according to her obituary.

Peterson and Bennett spent the rest of their lives together. Both died in their 90s in Madison; Peterson passed away in July 2006 and Bennett followed in December 2008. Their obituaries each mentioned the other, but labeled them "companion" or "good friend." After looking through several obituaries, only Bennett's obituary published in the Wisconsin State Journal referred to them as "partners."

In the years between their deaths, another LGBTQ+ woman followed in Peterson's footsteps. Lori Berquam, who identifies as a lesbian, was named Dean of Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a role she kept for over a decade. She's still a leader in higher education, now in Arizona.

Berquam didn't know much about Peterson or Bennett, but she learned her Madison home she shared with her spouse sat on Waubesa Beach just down the street from Bennett's former home. 

Berquam assumed her role as dean just as the university Gender and Sexuality Campus Center, then known as the LGBT Campus Center, became part of the Dean of Students Office. When Berquam started, her office set aside funding so the Center would always have money rather than having to regularly request funds from student government. 

Campus leaders started the Center in 1992, and now three staffers are supported by teams of several members, according to the Center's website. It puts on events, offers training to faculty and student groups across campus and their office resides in a prominent university building, The Red Gym. 

The Center offers resources for students to report hate and bias incidents and supports them through that process — a stark contrast to when Bennett and Peterson walked the grounds and LGBTQ students were cast away, instead.

People knew Peterson had a partner but it wasn't talked about, Berquam recalled. In contrast, Berquam proudly spoke about her identity, even taking to the Capital steps to talk about experiences with bullying because of her sexuality.

Berquam felt comfortable being open about her sexual orientation while serving in a leadership role in part because several other people in top positions also identified as LGBTQ. Mainly, though, she felt students deserved an authentic leader and couldn't imagine doing her job without being herself. 

"(Students) deserve leaders who might look like them or might have the same identity as them succeed," Berquam said. "Not that it's easy, but everybody needs role models. That's why it's so important to diversify our staff and faculty in administration."

Berquam also noted each of her predecessors, including Peterson, made progress that allowed for LGBTQ people to be open about their identities

"I stood on the shoulders of giants ... to do what I did as the dean of students, all who furthered things along just a little bit to benefit our students, and benefitting our students also benefitted the staff and faculty."

Contact Sammy Gibbons at (920) 431-8396 or sgibbons@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @sammykgibbons or Facebook at www.facebook.com/ReporterSammyGibbons/.

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: LGBTQ History Month: 2 doctors, Door County business owners pave way for gay leaders

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