Carol Toussaint began her undergraduate career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1947 amid the postwar boom. At the time, popular culture depicted females as the homemakers of America, but an oncoming women’s rights movement had another vision in mind for the scope of feminist opportunity.
“Every class I signed up for included men or women who had served in World War II and were on campus courtesy of the G.I. Bill,” Toussaint said.
She came to Madison from Bruce, Wisconsin, where she was born and raised. The budding journalist would later go on to open Vantage Point, a local lecture business that bolstered networking among women.
Toussaint held multiple positions within state government — including the roles of deputy director of the Wisconsin Strategic Development Commission and secretary of the Department of Local Affairs and Development — and was the first female to serve as president of Madison’s Downtown Rotary. Credentials earned through community organizations were important to Toussaint being appointed or elected to other positions in the private sector, she said.
Among other accomplishments, Toussaint worked with state governors and Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, received awards as a result of civic engagement, served on numerous advisory boards, held leadership positions within UW-Madison programs and made strides in women’s advocacy.
“The ‘70s is when a lot of people discovered what women could do and hadn’t been given a chance to do before that,” she explained.
Arguably most exciting to a publication now celebrating its 130th anniversary, Toussaint was a member of the Daily Cardinal flock and remains a beloved alumna with wisdom to share.
As an undergrad, Toussaint had her heart set on joining the School of Journalism, which she was allowed to enter as a second-year student in the Department of Letters and Science.
Fellow student Jack Zeldes was able to join The Daily Cardinal staff as a first year student, according to Toussaint, who would become a staffer upon entry to the J-School. Zeldes hosted a workshop that would help Toussaint on her mission to work for the student newspaper.
“I signed up for the class and do not recall others I met there, but Zeldes made a strong impression and put the class through a number of exercises, including assignments to contact UW faculty as if reporting for a story that the Cardinal was working on,” she said. “My assignment was to telephone the office of President Fred with a couple of questions.”
And so she did. Toussaint spoke with a staff member in the office of former University of Wisconsin President E.B. Fred to gather information. It was then that Toussaint felt she was on the way to becoming a reporter.
Shaping the Paper
“I was a Cardinal staffer for three years and Summer School between my Junior and Senior years,” Toussaint explained.
During these years, Toussaint was persuaded by Zeldes — who later became editor-in-chief — and good friends Phyllis Johnson and Don Johanning to apply for the burgeoning Society Editor position.
“That meant I was a part of the group of editors who met to plan coverage, and I agreed knowing they were looking to make changes from the usual ‘cover the parties’ approach to news,” said Toussaint.
The desk sought to make some changes by addressing campus-wide issues and occurrences. This question is considered by Cardinal editors year after year: How can we be more representative as a newspaper?
“One ‘innovation’ was that I worked with the business side of the paper on a special section on campus fashions which had the advertising team connecting with Madison stores to place ads in it,” Toussaint recalled.
Proofing copy kept Toussaint at The Daily Cardinal office past Barnard Hall’s 10:30 p.m. curfew, she said. However, she received permission to stay out “well past that time” for editorial purposes.
“The faculty advisor walked me back to the dorm close to midnight because that was the agreement with my ‘House Mother’,” she said.
Women held many positions at The Cardinal, recalled Toussaint. Jean Matheson became the editor a year or so after Toussaint graduated, she said.
Toussaint explored many interests during her undergraduate years, she said. Most prominently featured are associations for women in communications, such as Theta Sigma Phi and the campus ministry of the Congregational Church. Through activities with the campus ministry, she had opportunities to meet a number of community leaders, including UW faculty such as the head of the J-School and his wife.
“I also met many people in leadership positions in the city and state government,” she said. “I credit the experience there with my interest in social justice which was also a part of my Cardinal experience.”
Toussaint describes how these circumstances are applicable to Wisconsin journalist John Patrick Hunter and his wife, Mary.
“John Patrick Hunter and his wife, Mary, were friends at Cardinal,” she said. “I never would have known without the Cardinal experience. Hunter was, of course, a household name in Madison for his Capital Times reporting. I was often in touch with him concerning civic issues and was humbled years later when Mary asked me to speak at John's Memorial Service.”
Through these experiences, Toussaint was able to draw on many skills and interests. She did not hold back, regardless of the fact that second-wave feminism had yet to hit.
Women within campus associations for journalists knew a good advisor when they saw one. A female J-School faculty member served as advisor for Theta Sigma Phi, but Toussaint believed that these associations needed faculty advisors who understood the extent to which the world was changing — especially for women, she said.
With permission from the Dean, the group was allowed to get Fay Taylor — then-Memorial Union Theater director — to become their advisor, according to Toussaint. Taylor influenced many changes that Theta Sigma Phi wanted to accomplish and became a lifelong friend and advisor of Toussaint.
Graduating from the Nest
Toussaint left the Cardinal nest in 1951 upon graduating from UW-Madison. She accepted an offer for a position with Meredith Publishing Company in Des Moines, where she participated in a training program and later took a job writing features for “Successful Farming” magazine.
“I think I could have stayed with the job for years if it had been in Wisconsin rather than Iowa,” she said. “It took less than a year for me to figure out that I missed not just friends and the UW but the politics of Iowa just wasn't as stimulating as Wisconsin.”
Toussaint returned to Madison with a position at the Presbyterian campus program. She dabbled in free-lance public relations work for the Wisconsin Council of Churches as well.
Through experience in the local, State and National League of Women Voters, Toussaint carried out aspects of communication learned through journalism studies and involvement with The Daily Cardinal. Leadership experiences — such as being in on the planning and production of the 1976 Presidential debates — made for incredible opportunities, according to Toussaint.
The rest is history, influential service work and advocacy that continues to inspire women near and far. Toussaint could not be prevented from motivating women and inspiring strength, even before the country really began to understand what women could do a few years down the line.
“One of the things the Cardinal experience opens up for you is to do things where you know people are going to respect what you are doing,” Toussaint concluded.