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

046WHM Frances Senska courtesy of Archie Bray Foundation

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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Contributions of a Mother and Daughter

Members of Pleasant Hour Club, including  the club's founder Mamie Bridgewater (third from right) and her daughter Octavia (far right) picnic in Colorado Gulch west of Helena, ca. 1926. Octavia, who graduated from Helena High School in 1925 and then attended the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York, served as an army nurse during World War II. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2002-36.11

Members of Pleasant Hour Club, including the club’s founder Mamie Bridgewater (third from right) and her daughter Octavia (far right) picnic in Colorado Gulch west of Helena, ca. 1926. Octavia, who graduated from Helena High School in 1925 and then attended the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York, served as an army nurse during World War II. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2002-36.11

Mamie Anderson Bridgewater and her daughter, Octavia, were strong African American women who lived under the veil of racism in Helena during the first half of the twentieth century. Each earned the respect of the Helena community, and each helped to make a difference in the lives of other African Americans.

Mamie was born at Gallatin, Tennessee, in September 1872, one of eight children. In 1892, she married a career “buffalo soldier,” Samuel Bridgewater, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona Territory. In 1903 she followed her husband to Fort Harrison, Montana, where he was stationed after the Spanish-American War. There she raised five children and worked as a matron at the veterans hospital. All the while, she cared for Samuel during his frequent bouts of illness from wounds received at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898.

After her husband’s death in 1912, Mamie Bridgewater worked as a domestic in private homes, always scraping together enough to care for her children and grandchildren whenever they needed her assistance. She was a leader of Helena’s black Baptist congregation and was heavily involved in fund-raising for Helena’s Second Baptist Church, completed circa 1914. She was also a founder of the local Pleasant Hour Club, which organized in 1916 and became the Helena chapter of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. At her death in 1950 at age seventy-seven, she was serving as chaplain of the Pleasant Hour Club. Continue reading

The Education of Josephine Pease Russell

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Shown here with her grandchildren, Josephine Pease Russell was one of the first Crow women to graduate from college. On her return to the reservation, she persevered in the face of discrimination to become a trailblazing educator. Photograph by Kathleen Wescott.

In 1937, Josephine Pease became one of the first Crow (Apsáalooke) people to graduate from college. Cultural and linguistic differences made obtaining an education challenging, but even greater were the difficulties that came with being a Crow woman who wanted a career in the mid-twentieth century. Crows discouraged women from being more successful than men, while some whites refused to hire Indians. Nevertheless, Pease persisted in her dreams to become a teacher, blazing a trail for future generations of Crow women.

The oldest of five children, Josephine was born in 1914 and grew up near Lodge Grass. Her parents wanted her to go to school because neither of them had had a chance at an education. There was a missionary school in Lodge Grass, but Josephine’s parents wanted her at the public school. For two years Josephine was the only Crow child at the school. The rest were “English” (white) children who wouldn’t play with her. She remembered feeling as if she were “in a foreign country.”

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The Work Was Never Done: Farm and Ranch Wives and Mothers


Pearl Unglesbee Danniel homesteaded in the badlands of eastern Montana with her husband Clarence Unglesbee. Her caption for this photograph read, “Our little home where the Crickets used to make me feel that it was always summer. They sang in the walls all winter.” This photo was taken circa 1930. After Clarence died in 1927. Pearl transferred the property to her daughters and took out another homestead nearby. MHS Photo Archives PAc 95-7 1.

Upon statehood in 1889, 5,600 farms spread across Montana. By 1910, that number had jumped to 26,000. The Enlarged Homestead Act was one reason thousands flooded into Montana, including many married couples. Although federal census records consistently note that women whose husbands were involved in agriculture had no occupations, women were often the linchpins of the family economy and played key roles in building their communities.

Helena Hagadone, Janet Smith, Lilly B. “Ma” Smith, Ruth Garfield, and others represent different experiences, but share a unique sisterhood. What women brought to the marriage influenced the success, and sometimes failure, of the partnership. They were neither as frail nor as frightened as they have sometimes been portrayed.

Frank and Helena Hagadone married in 1913. In 1917, the Hagadones homesteaded with their three children in a hostile place in the Missouri Breaks called the Devil’s Pocket. The Missouri River bottomlands were unbearably hot in summer and cruelly cold in winter. The family grew vegetables and caught fish, but they had no well. They carried river water to the house, let the silt settle, and boiled it for cooking and drinking. Rattlesnakes were everywhere, and one of the children survived a near-fatal bite. After four years, the Hagadones separated. Mrs. Hagadone sent the young girls to board in town and paid for their schooling by working the homestead alone. The girls were glad to leave because their mother had become a mean woman.

Partnerships were sometimes uneven. “I was just like a hired man,” recalled Katie Adams of Hill County. “I was right there. I helped harness the horses and unharness them and hitch them up. And I followed the plow more than once and the harrow and the rake, raked the fields.” Women worked alongside men in haying, threshing, and branding. But they also did the cooking, the washing, and raised the children.

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“The Men Would Never Have Survived”: Women, Union Activism, and Community Survival in Butte

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Betty Jo Houchin and Ruby Larson used their informal network to organize a picket of St. James Hospital in July 1971. Their husbands were both on strike when the women decided to protest the hospital’s decision to treat strikers and their families “only on an emergency basis” because striking workers were not covered by the Anaconda Company’s health insurance. Photo courtesy of the Montana Standard (July 4, 1971).

Although excluded from most jobs in the mines and smelters of Butte and Anaconda (with the short-lived exception of female smelter workers in World War II), women played integral roles in the survival of these company towns. The success of each community depended on the wages of laborers who toiled for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. When those wages were threatened—during strikes or company shutdowns—the entire community mobilized. During periods of conflict, women’s contributions to the household economy became especially significant, as women pinched pennies and took on paid employment to help their families survive. These and other activities in support of labor were crucial to community survival, but men’s resistance to women’s full participation in union efforts also reveals the prevalence of conservative gender ideals in mid-century Butte and Anaconda.

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Like Father, like Daughter: Women Who Worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad

238WHM Women Taking the Place of Men in Great Falls (National Archives)

During World War I, many women joined the workforce both for the economic opportunity and out of a sense of patriotism. The War Department cataloged this photo of two women working on the Great Northern Railway near Great Falls, c. 1918. National Archives, Records of War Department, General and Special Staffs (165-WW-595-D-14).

When the Northern Pacific Railroad established its Central Division maintenance facility at Livingston, Montana, the town became a magnet for men seeking jobs on operational and maintenance crews. At the start of the twentieth century, one-sixth of the town’s population worked for the railroad. Most of these workers were recent immigrants to the United States. Later, during the two world wars, many of their daughters also found good-paying work with Northern Pacific, one of the few employers in the state that paid women equally to men.

One of the first women employees was Natalina Indendi, who had immigrated to the United States from Italy when she was five years old, in about 1905. Her father had emigrated three years earlier, but the rest of the family originally were denied passage because her brother was blind in one eye. When they were finally permitted to leave Italy, they went straight from the emigration office to the boat without a single piece of luggage. “We were supposed to meet Dad in Chicago. . . . [But] the day we landed in New York he took off for Montana, because they were building up a crew [to extend a railway line from Livingston] to Wilsall.” Natalina’s mother found a job in a garment factory in Chicago. As soon as he could, her father sent money, and the family moved to Livingston. Continue reading

Gifts of Love and Gratitude: Belle Highwalking

222WHM B&W portfolio Belle Highwalking

Pictured here in her late seventies, Belle Highwalking lived most of her life on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. She died October 30, 1971. Courtesy Jerry Mader, Photographer.

222WHM B&W portfolio Belle HighwalkingA custom among many tribes, the giveaway—and the love and gratitude it represents—strengthens social bonds through reciprocal acts of generosity. Similarly, the tribal tradition of adoption to replace lost family members helps heal broken hearts and builds family ties. These culturally prescribed acts of generosity and love were central to the life of Belle Highwalking, a Northern Cheyenne woman.

Belle’s mother died giving birth to her in 1892. The Cheyennes pitied the motherless child and considered Belle poor, for a mother provided material and emotional sustenance. Belle’s grandmother took the infant to nursing mothers to be fed until Belle was able to drink milk from a can.

As a young girl, Belle traveled on horseback with her grandmother to visit relatives on the Crow Reservation, where she recalled first experiencing a giveaway: “They gave us many fine gifts. . . .  They sang songs for the different Cheyennes and gave out the gifts—shawls, quilts and dress goods. Some received horses. . . . When I arrived home, an old man, Braided Locks, gave me a beautiful shawl. He said, ‘My granddaughter helped me drive the horses very well and I will give her a shawl that I received as a gift.’”

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“We Are No Longer Criminals”: The Fight to Repeal Deviate Sexual Misconduct Laws

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Supporters of repealing Statute 45-5-505 produced and distributed this pin which featured the gay rights symbol of a pink triangle. Courtesy of Linda Gryczan.

In 1993, Linda Gryczan told her neighbors she was suing the state of Montana to overturn a law that criminalized gay sex. Though she “was afraid that someone might burn down her house,” her neighbors—and activists across the state—rallied to her cause. But those who believed homosexuality should remain a crime also mobilized. Women took leading roles on both sides of the decades-long fight over Montana’s deviate sexual misconduct law.

Passed in 1973, Statute 45-5-505 of the Montana Code Annotated defined “deviate sexual relations” as “sexual contact or sexual intercourse between two persons of the same sex or any form of sexual intercourse with an animal.” Though rarely enforced, the law carried a fine of up to fifty thousand dollars, as well as ten years in prison, and made same-sex consensual intimacy a felony.

At the urging of gay and lesbian rights advocates, Montana state representative Vivian Brooke (D-Missoula) introduced bills in both 1991 and 1993 to strike the law from the books. The bill failed in both sessions. Many legislators agreed with Rep. Tom Lee, who argued that “[God] has declared homosexual activity to be wrong, and I don’t think we serve the other people of this state by contradicting him.” Others, noting that the law was not enforced, wished to avoid political fallout over what they saw as a symbolic vote.

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“Lifting as We Climb”: The Activism of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs

Catalog #PAc 96-25.2

This photo captured the women (and children) of the first MFCWC Annual Convention, which took place in Butte on August 3, 1921. Photograph by Zubick Art Studio, Butte, Montana. MHS PAc 96-25.2.

In 1921, the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (MFCWC) organized “to encourage true womanhood . . . [and] to promote interest in social uplift.” While its members engaged in many traditional women’s club activities—raising money for scholarships, creating opportunities for children, and providing aid to the sick—advancing the cause of civil rights in Montana was one of the organization’s most important legacies.

MFCWC (originally the Montana Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs) held its inaugural meeting in Butte, where members agreed on five organizing principles: “Courtesy—Justice—The Rights of Minority—one thing at a time, and a rule of majority.” At the local level, member clubs engaged in a variety of volunteer work, from bringing flowers to hospital patients to adding works by African American authors to local libraries. But at both the local and the state levels, MFCWC members also concentrated on racial politics, raising funds for the NAACP and taking positions on abolishing the poll tax and upholding anti-lynching laws.

The MFCWC’s legislative committee became especially active after World War II, and from 1949 to 1955 it led the campaign to pass civil rights legislation in Montana. The committee’s efforts reflected Montana’s complicated racial climate. As its members advocated for legislative change, the MFCWC often encountered resistance from white Montanans, who simultaneously asserted that Montana did not have a “racial problem” and that, where prejudice did exist, it could not “be changed by passing a law.”

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“Saving Girls”: Montana State Vocational School for Girls


Catalog # PAc 96-9 3 [Montana State Vocational School for Girls.] 1920

Matrons put students at the Montana State Vocational School for Girls to work, believing that “Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.” The girls’ farm labor helped support the school. Photo c. 1920. Catalog # PAc 96-9 3 [Montana State Vocational School for Girls.] 1920

Imagine an eight-year-old child thrown into a prison cell with a hardened criminal. Until the late nineteenth century, any child over the age of seven who broke the law was normally sentenced to an adult penal institution. However, after psychologists realized that, for children especially, rehabilitation was more effective than punishment, states began to establish juvenile reformatories. Then, as women took up the cause of child labor laws, juvenile court systems, and separate women’s correctional institutions, they also began a campaign to separate delinquent girls and boys in reformatories.

In 1893 the Montana legislature established the Pine Hills Boys and Girls Industrial School at Miles City. The court could commit any boy or girl between the ages of eight and twenty-one to Pine Hills for any crime other than murder or manslaughter. Judges could also remand a child to the reform school who “is growing up in mendicancy, or vagrancy, or is incorrigible.” Girls were generally sentenced to reform school “to punish petty larceny; to supply a home; to effect moral salvation; to prevent further ‘lewd’ acts; and to provide protection from physical abuse.” Boys, on the other hand, were sentenced for more criminal behaviors. Continue reading