The Women’s Protective Union

Young woman (and WPU member) behind the candy counter of Butte's Rialto Theatre

The WPU represented women who worked in service industries, including waitresses, cooks, maids, elevator girls, and janitors. By the 1940s, the union had won eight-hour shifts, the right to overtime pay, sick leave, and paid vacations for its members. Above, a WPU member is shown working the candy counter at the Rialto Theater. PH088 W.P.U./H.E.R.E. Photograph Collection, Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives.

In what must have been an unusual sight on a June evening in 1890, thirty-three women walked into the Butte Miners’ Union hall. They were waitresses, dressmakers, milliners, and saleswomen, and they had gathered to organize a protective association for Butte’s women workers. As the Butte Daily Miner reported the following day, “The ladies of Butte—God bless them!—are not going to be behind their brothers in demanding their rights.” From its inception, the Butte Women’s Protective Union (WPU) labored to improve the conditions of women’s work and to extend a network of support and friendship to Butte’s working women.

Most working women in Butte engaged in “commercialized domesticity.” Miners, carpenters, blacksmiths, pipefitters, and men who worked in scores of other occupations dominated the mining city. Until well into the twentieth century the majority of them were single. They needed to be fed, clothed, nursed, entertained, and generally looked after by women who performed domestic tasks for wages. Working men ate in cafes and boardinghouses, slept in rooming houses, sent their laundry out, and spent their evenings in saloons, dance halls, and theaters—except for the saloons, these were all places where women worked. Women’s work made men’s work possible. Continue reading

“You Have to Take What They Send You Now Days”: Montana Women’s Service in World War II

Butte native Irene Wold posed with her friend Helen in an army camp in Tlemcen, Algeria, in October 1944.

Butte native Irene Wold (pictured left, with her friend Helen in Tlemcen, Algeria, in 1944) titled this photograph “Combat Kids.” Wold joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1941 and served in both Algeria and France. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2008-34A1p17b

Women have worked for the American military in every major conflict, but until World War II they were largely classified as “civilians” and denied the benefits extended to men in uniform. The creation of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp (later renamed the Women’s Army Corp) in 1942 represented the first step toward official recognition of women’s military service. Other branches of the military quickly followed suit, and, like their national counterparts, Montana women took advantage of new opportunities to serve in the armed forces.

Mary Jo Hopwood, who was born in Colorado but eventually settled in Darby, Montana, served for three years in the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). A combination of civic duty and desire for adventure motivated her to enlist: “[I]t was right after Pearl Harbor and everybody was patriotic,” she said. “[A]nd my brother was in the Navy, and I was just kinda restless. . . . It was adventure, mostly.” Although Hopwood worked in payroll, a common occupation for civilian women by the 1940s, she encountered doubts about her fitness to serve. “When we went in,” she recalled, “[the] commander said, ‘Well, I’m not used to having women around the office,’ but he said, ‘You have to take what they send you now days.’” Ultimately, that commander changed his mind, as did many other servicemen: “[T]hey didn’t think much of all these women,” Hopwood remembered. “But before we got out, they accepted us.”

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Bonnie HeavyRunner: A Warrior for Diversity

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Bonnie HeavyRunner, pictured here a year before her untimely death, was the founding director of the University of Montana’s Native American Studies department. Photo courtesy Aislinn HeavyRunner-Rioux

“We in the Native American community know that the warrior of old no longer exists. So we ask ourselves, ‘What do we have left?’ We have individuals who are culturally aware, who realize the value of getting a ‘white man’s education’ and utilizing that to the benefit . . . of the community. They have the ability to turn this whole negative picture of cultural genocide around.” Bonnie HeavyRunner spoke these words in praise of her sister, Iris HeavyRunner, but she could have been describing herself.

One of thirteen children, Bonnie HeavyRunner grew up in Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation, where she experienced the daily reality of poverty, relatives struggling with alcohol addiction, and the sudden loss of family members. At a young age she vowed to stay sober and remain true to her cultural values. Her personal integrity became the foundation of her determination to improve the lives of American Indian people by being an advocate for Native and women’s issues while building cross-cultural bridges. As the director of the University of Montana’s Native American Studies program, she worked tirelessly to bring about greater cultural awareness of American Indians while making the academic world more hospitable to Indian students.

HeavyRunner earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Montana in 1983 and then a law degree in 1988. One of only a few women in the School of Law in the 1980s, HeavyRunner was also the only American Indian law student in her class. She went on to become a clerk, and then a judge, on the Blackfeet Tribal Court, but she did not forget the cultural isolation she had felt at the university. Many Native students dropped out of school because they experienced such a wide gap between themselves and the non-Indian culture of the university community at large. HeavyRunner wanted to change that. Continue reading

“Becoming Better Citizens of Our Adopted Country”:  Montana’s Ethnic Women’s Groups

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Cornish women in Anaconda came together to form the Daughters of St. George, shown here picnic at Gregson Springs, July 30, 1925. MHS Photo Archives 941-933

 “Thanksgiving Day is over and we have Women’s Meeting Sale at Elling Rogenes and it is quite enjoyable when there are so many Norwegians together,” Rakel Herein wrote in her daybook in 1917. Two years later, a March entry reads simply, “Have had Women’s Meeting. . . . Yes it was extremely delightful.”

Herein arrived in Carbon County in 1899 as a twenty-year-old immigrant from Norway and married a local Norwegian immigrant sheep farmer within the year. Translated years after her 1943 death, her scattered, terse daybook documents the birth and growth of five children and a lonely, despairing life. This context makes her descriptions of Red Lodge’s St. Olaf Lutheran Church women’s group—“delightful” and “enjoyable”—that much more telling. Herein yearned for the companionship and support of women who understood how hard it was to immigrate to a foreign, male-dominated western landscape. She found that companionship and support within the Women’s Meeting.

Herein’s Women’s Meeting was one of hundreds of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Montana women’s groups. Montana women gathered whenever they could under a wide range of banners: to pursue education, art, community improvement, children’s activities, homemaking, health, their families’ occupational interests, and church growth and stability. Typically, these women’s groups supported the status quo, celebrating their members’ primary roles as mothers, wives, and daughters; yet for the women themselves, they were lifelines leading out of their homes and into a larger world. Continue reading

Celebrating Sarah Gammon Bickford

Sarah Bickford arrived in Virginia City in 1871. The former slave became the first and only women in Montana to own a utility company.

Sarah Bickford arrived in Virginia City in 1871. The former slave became the first and only women in Montana to own a utility company. Courtesy Ellen Baumler.

On April 10, 2012, Montana honored Sarah Bickford by inducting her into the Gallery of Outstanding Montanans in the Capitol Rotunda in Helena. A former slave who became one of Montana’s most prominent businesswomen, Bickford richly deserved this honor. She was the first and only woman in Montana—and probably the nation’s only female African American—to own a utility. Yet despite her public success, Sarah Bickford’s life is difficult to piece together. Like most African Americans who came west, she carried the burden of slavery, making her past especially difficult to trace.

Sarah Gammon Bickford was born on Christmas Day in 1852, or 1855, or 1856 in North
Carolina or Tennessee. Her parents were slaves of John Blair, a wealthy Tennessee attorney and state senator. As was common, Sarah (nicknamed Sallie) and her family took the last name of their owner. At some point Sarah’s parents were sold and she never saw them again.       Continue reading

Head, Heart, Hands, and Health: Montana’s Women and Girls in the 4-H Movement

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Dorothy and Gladys Hill, both Blackfeet tribal members and students at the Cut Bank Boarding School, showcased their project “Furnishing of a Model Indian Home” at the 1930 4-H Club Hi-Line Association Conference at Rocky Boy, Montana. Attendees included members of the Rocky Boy, Blackfeet, Flathead, Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations. The conference–which took place October 8-10–earned praise from officials who saw 4-H as a valuable tool of education and assimilation. Photo courtesy MHS PAc 84-59 f2.

Montana’s 4-H clubs grew from three thousand youngsters in 1914 to over twenty thousand members a century later. The organization encourages children to develop skills that enable them to better their lives and strengthen their communities. Its emphasis on the economic importance of women’s work created leadership opportunities for women and inspired girls to partake in 4-H clubs, camps, and competitions. Women and girls in 4-H have proven their abilities while broadening the organization’s objectives and expanding its opportunities for boys and girls alike.

When Montana’s Cooperative Extension Service hired Augusta Evans to organize the state’s first 4-H clubs in 1914, the nation’s agricultural industry was striving to stabilize food production. The Extension Service and experimental agricultural stations engaged 4-H youth in their efforts to apply an industrial approach to farming: maximizing efficiency using new technologies and boosting production by applying scientific methods. Initially, almost all Montana’s 4-H members were boys, and these early clubs produced corn, peas, potatoes, beef, and sheep. In contrast, the state’s first girls’ clubs focused on corset making. By 1930, however, the number of girls in Montana’s clubs exceeded the number of boys, and their activities had greatly diversified.

Home Demonstration agents effected this change when they brought up-to-date techniques to rural women. Even women already experienced in canning and cooking benefited from the expertise of agents like Helen Mayfield, who demonstrated food preservation for maximum nutritional content. A 4-H leader from Rosebud County noted in the 1930s that farm women were often more bashful than their daughters but just as eager to try the newest technologies. This outreach to rural women stimulated a rapid rise of 4-H club leaders.

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Montana Women of the Ku Klux Klan

099WHM Western Heritage 86.71.01 a,b Car on south bridge with banner Ku Klux Klan annual meeting

The Ku Klux Klan had a national membership of 3 to 5 million men during its height in the 1920s, and over a million women joined the women’s auxilliary. This photo was likely taken near either Billings or Livingston. The lead car sports a Billings license plate. Photo courtesy Billings’ Western Heritage Center 86.71.01 a, b.

In the 1920s, a group of women banded together under the auspices of a shared political belief and religious background. They dedicated themselves to installing memorials in their communities, hosting family picnics, and delivering flowers to local hospitals. In many ways they resembled other civic organizations of their time, many of which served a social function by bringing women of similar interests together. Committed to “tenets of the Christian religion,” “freedom of speech and press,” and “the protection of pure womanhood,” the ideology of this group overlapped with other groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Yet their commitment to “white supremacy” separated the Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK) from other women’s organizations—and provides a reminder that female participation in politics was not always a progressive force.

At its height, in the 1920s, the Montana Realm of the Ku Klux Klan boasted fifty-one hundred members across more than forty chapters. Committed to what they called “100% Americanism,” KKK members espoused xenophobic policies against immigrants and racist policies against nonwhites, and fostered hatred toward Jews and Catholics. In a Montana suffering from economic downturn, rapid technological advances, drought, labor unrest, and a generally chaotic postwar period, the Klan provided an appealing organization for those looking for scapegoats.

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Lucille Otter: Doing Good for Tribe and Country

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In addition to advocating for voting rights, Lucille Otter encouraged the creation of the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness, the first tribally designated wilderness in the country. She stands here in front of the Mission Mountains. Photo Courtesy Renee Roullier-Madrigal

“Politics, one way or another, controls your destiny. Choose yours today,” read a 1974 announcement written by Lucille Otter on the front page of the confederated Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes’ newspaper. Empowering tribal members to exercise their right to vote was one of the many ways Lucille Trosper Roullier Otter helped Indian people better their condition in life.

Lucille Trosper was born in 1916 on the Flathead Indian Reservation to Angeline McCloud, a member of the Salish tribe, and Belford Trosper. She grew up hunting and fishing with her brothers—activities that inspired her dedication to conservation efforts in the Flathead region. She graduated from Ronan High School in 1933. Although Lucille did exceptionally well in school, she did not attend college because her father objected.

Jobs were scarce in Montana during the Great Depression and nearly nonexistent on the reservation. “Life was terrible!” Lucille recalled. She worked briefly for the Works Progress Administration before being hired in 1934 to work at the Dixon headquarters of the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps, becoming the first woman to work in an administrative capacity in the Indian CCC. She was in charge of budgeting ICCC projects, keeping accounts, and overseeing payroll and purchase orders for the ICCC camps. The ICCC enrollees called her “buddy.” Continue reading

Inez Ratekin Herrig, Lincoln County’s Tireless Citizen

The mural outside the Eureka library commemorates Inez Herrig's contributions to Lincoln County, featuring a portrait of her in the foreground and the bookmobile she used to serve rural patrons in the background. Photo courtesy of www.bigskyfishing.com.

The mural outside the Eureka library commemorates Inez Herrig’s contributions to Lincoln County, featuring a portrait of her in the foreground and the bookmobile she used to serve rural patrons in the background. Photo courtesy of www.bigskyfishing.com.

Born in 1910 as Halley’s Comet streaked by, Inez Ratekin Herrig died ninety-four years later, an exemplary engaged citizen and community champion. For all but two of those years Herrig lived in Libby, Montana; for all but twenty years she occupied her parents’ small art- and music-filled home. In young adulthood, she helped to care for her older brother, who had encephalitis and Parkinson’s. She also helped support her family when her father lost his sight. In 1953, at the age of forty-three, she married Bob Herrig, an educator and forester with deep local roots. In a life framed by duty, social convention, and the economic and geographical confines of her remote northwestern Montana home, Herrig served her community as librarian, engaged volunteer, policy advocate, and local historian.

Herrig’s passion for books and for community service surfaced at age twelve when she began volunteering at Libby’s tiny public library. In 1927, a year out of high school, she took library work in Seattle to fund classes at the University of Washington. Two years later, facing the Depression and her parents’ poverty, she returned home to fill the vacant Lincoln County librarian position, a job she would hold for the next sixty years.

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“You Design It and You Make It”: The Life and Work of Ceramicist Frances Senska

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Frances Senska believed in a utilitarian approach to art. Her cooperative teaching style endeared her to her students, many of whom went on to be influential artists in their own right. Photo from “A Ceramics Continuum, Fifty Years of the Archie Bray Influence,” courtesy of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts.

When the state college in Bozeman—now Montana State University—hired Frances Senska to teach ceramics in 1946, both the college art department and Senska herself were fairly new to the art form. The school’s small fine arts program focused primarily on two-dimensional art, and Senska, who had a master’s degree in applied art, had taken just two classes in ceramics. Nonetheless, hiring Senska proved fortuitous for the college and for America’s burgeoning midcentury crafts movement. At Montana State, Senska also met printmaker Jessie Wilber, who became her lifelong companion and with whom she helped cultivate Montana’s art community.

Frances Senska was born in 1914 and grew up in Cameroon, where her parents were missionaries. Her father, a cabinet maker and woodworker as well as a doctor, taught Frances how to use woodworking tools. The people of Batanga, Cameroon, also predisposed the girl to appreciate utilitarian crafts. “Everything that was used there was made by the people for the purposes they were going to use it for. It was low-tech. . . . And they were experts at what they did,” Senska later recalled.

Senska discovered her own love of clay while stationed in San Francisco with the WAVES during World War II. At a night course from Edith Heath at the California Labor School, Senska got her hands into “real, useable clay.” She immediately appreciated the autonomy of making utilitarian items by hand. “Clay is such a universal medium,” she said in a later interview. “You can do anything with it. . . . It doesn’t have to go through a factory system to be converted into a metal structure or something like that. . . . You do the whole thing yourself: you have the clay, you make the pot, you decorate it, you fire it; it’s all your work.”

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