Elizabeth (Betty) Sperberg was the first woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Madison College of Agriculture in 1956. She earned a bachelor of science degree.
“There were three women in the whole College of Agriculture.” recalls the 80-year-old resident of Velkomenn. “It was assumed that we came to get married. We had to show we were serious.”
However, one of the three female students did get married, ending her education, and the second woman dropped out.
Sperberg’s educational experience at Madison was difficult and sometimes even depressing. She was not supported or encouraged by her teachers. An administrator questioned, “Aren’t you supposed to take home economics?” While a professor suggested that she “stay home” after term break.
She was not selected to be one of the student judges sent to various livestock shows — even though she qualified. Because she was a woman, she was told, the college would have to pay for an additional motel room. This was a great and lasting disappointment.
Sperberg grew up in Milwaukee. Her interest in rural life started in high school when, for a tenth grade writing assignment, she wrote that she wanted to work with horses. But she realized as she approached graduation that she had little experience with horses, so she abandoned this dream for something more practical. Her thoughts turned to dairy cattle and to a career in what was then called dairy husbandry.
“The first years of the program were taken up with the sciences,” Sperberg said. “Then we worked with beef and dairy cattle, sheep and pigs.” Classes included live stock feeding, dairy cattle breeds (at the time, the school’s demonstration herd boasted 40 different breeds), dairy cattle management, and artificial insemination.
She became acquainted with the Ayrshire dairy cow, and this breed quickly became, and still is, her favorite. According to the Ayrshire Cattle Society (ayrshirescs.org), the breed originated in south-west Scotland and was first recorded in the 1870s (see sidebar).
After graduation, and with no job placement help from the school, Sperberg with her characteristic persistence landed a position at Shawano Bull Stud (Badger Breeders) where she worked for four years as the pedigree research assistant to the sire analyst.
She moved on to Dunbar in Marinette County where she was herdswoman for 67 head of registered brown Swiss and Ayrshire cows. Duties included milking, feeding, breeding and record keeping. While in Dunbar, she became involved for the first time in 4H. In the role of leader, she bought several Ayrshire calves and leased them to the 4H children.
She married in 1961 and moved to a farm near Shawno. There she fulfilled a dream of raising her own farm animals. Top of the list, of course, were two Ayrshire dairy cows. Others animals included registered black Angus beef cattle, registered Suffolk sheep, chickens, ducks and turkeys.
“Even though it was a struggle as a woman to get through the agriculture school, I am glad I kept going,” Sperberg said and, with a wry smile added, “Now the agriculture school is full of women!”
Photo by Patricia Hewitt