Created in 2014 as part of a commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage in Montana, Women’s History Matters is designed to help the Montana Historical Society promote an increased appreciation and understanding of the role of women in the Treasure State’s past.
The main page of this website features over 100 articles on Montana women, from activists and artists to pilots and politicians. The majority of these essays have now been pulled together into a 336-page book, Beyond Schoolmarms and Madams: Montana Women’s Stories, published by the Montana Historical Society Press in April 2016.
Though this site is no longer being updated, the essays will also remain available here for those who prefer online reading. You can also use the tabs at the top of the page to access bibliographies (current through 2014); over 130 articles published in Montana The Magazine of Western History; and to find educator resources, information on selected historic places, and resources specifically related to the suffrage campaign.
“Some say basketball is a metaphor for life,” mused NBA Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson during an interview about Montana’s Class C girls’ basketball tradition, “but it’s bigger than that. It’s . . . joy.”
For the first half of the twentieth century, Montana’s young female basketball players knew that joy—sprinting full court in front of enthusiastic crowds. In 1904, ten girls from Fort Shaw Indian School drew enormous Great Falls crowds and beat all rivals at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Phil Jackson’s mother captained her 1927 Wolf Point girls’ basketball team. Patricia Morrison’s 1944-45 Fairfield High girls’ team beat the boys, playing boys’ rules.
But by 1950, mainstream sensibilities and school funding limits had corralled Montana’s exuberant female athletes. Their opportunities became limited to tamer intramural activities—often characterized by cast-off equipment, unskilled coaching, and poor facilities. It took congressional action and a court fight to bring equal opportunity in all sports to Montana’s young women athletes.
The question, of course, was never about girls’ physical prowess or fearlessness. Instead, the issue was equal access to resources. In response, Congress enacted the Education Amendments of 1972. These regulations covered many educational issues, but the best-known section reads, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Though it prohibited gender discrimination in all areas of education, Title IX’s most far-reaching impact occurred in women’s sports.
In 2009, the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) honored Minnie Eder Two Shoes of Fort Peck with an award for journalistic excellence. A cofounder of the association, Two Shoes was known for her journalistic integrity and her hallmark sense of humor. Two Shoes worked as writer, assistant editor, and columnist for the Wotanin Wowapi of Poplar. She served as an editor for Native Peoples; as an editor, writer, and producer for Aboriginal Voices, a Canadian magazine and radio show; and as a contributor to News from Indian Country. As a journalist, she helped reinvestigate the 1975 murder of AIM member Anna Mae Aquash. Throughout her career, Two Shoes blended humor with serious inquiry into matters affecting Indian Country.
Born Minnie Eder in Poplar in 1950, Two Shoes began her career in 1970 as a publicist for the American Indian Movement. Founded in 1968 as an advocacy organization for American Indian prisoners, AIM coordinated several highly publicized protests in the early 1970s, including the nineteen-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969-71, the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., in 1972, and the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. Continue reading Minnie Two Shoes: American Indian Journalist→
We know nothing about this scene, captured in an undated, untitled photograph now in the University of Montana’s Archives and Special Collections, except that it depicts a small moment common to the lives of many Montana families.
One of the goals of Women’s History Matters has been to promote a view of history that recognizes the significance of such private moments while exploring the larger cultural, political, and economic forces that informed them.
Happy holidays to all our readers from Women’s History Matters.
The American Association of University Women has always aspired to the promotion of women as fully contributing, educated members of society. Until the 1960s, this organization of female college graduates remained largely apolitical. At the division (state) level, Montana’s AAUW had created the highly successful AAUW Education Foundation to provide college fellowships for women, while local branches had focused primarily on community-building projects. However, the social, economic, and political changes during the 1960s and 1970s spurred a transformation in AAUW. “There are things to be done which money and men will never provide,” said one Montana member. Under the leadership of courageous feminists, AAUW evolved into a prominent activist organization that brought women to the forefront of public policy making.
In 1960, most AAUW members were homemakers or held traditionally “female” occupations in teaching or clerical work. Few Montana women had attained professional careers or had advanced to leadership positions; fewer still worked in the public-policy arena. When Governor Tim Babcock created a state Commission on the Status of Women in 1965, AAUW seized the chance to initiate policy changes and secured the appointment of several of its members to the commission.
In 1967, Montana’s AAUW formed its own Status of Women Committee. That same year, the Billings branch organized a unique Inter-club Committee on the Status of Women that included two members from each of the participating groups: AAUW, Soroptimists, Altrusa, Zonta, and the Business and Professional Women. Its goals were to get more women into local, county, and statewide appointed offices; to encourage women to stand for state elective office; and to keep women in office as state superintendent of schools. Continue reading “Things to be done which money and men will never provide”: The Activism of Montana’s AAUW→
In the fall of 1913, Jennie Bell Maynard, a teacher in Plains, married banker Bradley Ernsberger. The couple kept their wedding a secret until Bradley found a job in Lewistown and they moved: “No inkling of the marriage leaked out. . . . Mrs. Ernsberger continued to use her maiden name and teach school.” A year later, Butte teacher Adelaide Rowe eloped to Fort Benton with her sweetheart, Theodore Pilger. They hid their marriage for three years. Maynard and Rowe were just two of the many Montana women teachers who married secretly—or didn’t marry at all—in order to keep teaching.
The story of “marriage bars,’ or bans, does not unfold linearly. Livingston lifted its “rule against the employment of married lady teachers” in 1896. The Anaconda school district also allowed married women to teach in the 1890s, but in 1899, facing lower than anticipated enrollment, the superintendent sought the resignation of the district’s one married teacher, explaining that Mrs. Foley “is married and is not in need of the salary which she draws from the schools.”
The idea that married women did not need the income, and that “hiring married women would deprive single girls of opportunities,” was the most common rationale for marriage bars. On the other hand, advocates for married teachers tried unsuccessfully to reframe the debate in terms of student welfare. Mrs. W. J. Christie of Butte argued in 1913 that “The test of employment should be efficiency and nothing else.” Mrs. James Floyd Denison agreed: “When a married woman has the desire to go from her home and to enter the school room . . . it must be because her heart and soul are in the teaching work. Under those circumstances, if she is allowed to teach, the community will be getting her very best service.” Unconvinced, Miss Ella Crowley, Silver Bow County superintendent of schools, believed that a married woman’s place was at home. While she recognized the value of experience, she also believed that if women taught after marriage, “there never would be any room for new teachers or for girls.” Continue reading “Must a woman . . . give it all up when she marries?”: The Debate over Employing Married Women as Teachers→
Martha Edgerton came to Bannack as a teenager in 1863. As a teacher, musician, wife, mother of seven, clubwoman, and leader in the women’s suffrage movement, she successfully balanced traditional gender roles with an active public life. Widowed young, she entered the workforce, becoming the first woman editor of a Montana daily newspaper, a local and state leader in the Montana Socialist Party, and a prolific writer. Hers was a long life of striking achievements.
Edgerton was thirteen when she arrived in Bannack in 1863 after her father was appointed governor of Idaho Territory. Two years later, the family returned to Ohio, and she subsequently enrolled at Oberlin College to study music. Later, while teaching at the Ohio Institute for the Blind in Columbus, she met and married Herbert P. Rolfe. In 1876, the couple moved to Helena, where Herbert became the superintendent of public schools. Herbert and Martha Rolfe were kindred spirits: passionate advocates for equality of African Americans, women’s suffrage, and the rights of the workingman.
Their activism eventually took them to Great Falls, where, in 1884, the Rolfes took out a homestead right outside the city, which had been newly surveyed and platted by Herbert himself. Four years later, Herbert—long a Republican Party activist—established The Leader, a newspaper designed to counter the influence of Great Falls founder Paris Gibson’s Democratic Tribune. Though occupied with home-schooling the couple’s seven children, Martha also wrote for The Leader and stayed closely involved in her husband’s political crusades.
The Panic of 1893 erased much of the couple’s wealth. Nevertheless, the paper survived, and the Rolfes remained active in politics, including the women’s suffrage movement. Early in 1895, together with other Great Falls women, including Ella Vaughn, Josephine Trigg, and Josephine Desilets, Martha formed the Political Equality Club. The club gathered over a thousand signatures—about half of those from men— supporting women’s suffrage. Later that same year, a suffrage bill passed by over two-thirds in the Montana House, only to be tabled in the state Senate. Continue reading Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann: A Montana Renaissance Woman→
At first no one noticed the children as they sat quietly in the Butte-Silver Bow County Courthouse. The six Freedman children, ages eight to fifteen, had filed in with their mother early that morning in 1938. Recently divorced from her husband and earning little in her job as a research editor, Alice Freedman was overwhelmed. Before leaving the children, she told them to wait for her return. As the day wore on, county workers noticed the children. At noon they bought them lunch and contacted the juvenile court. That evening, the Freedman children were taken to a local receiving home. Within two weeks, they were committed to the state orphanage and on their way to the facility in Twin Bridges.
Similar scenarios had played out for the thousands of other residents of the Montana State Orphanage. Most, like the Freedman children, were not true orphans, but rather “orphans of the living,” from homes shattered by devastating poverty, turbulent parental relationships, substance abuse, poor parenting skills, or physical and emotional abuse. In the absence of local, state, or federal social welfare programs, the state orphanage was one of the few options available to these children and the destitute women who could no longer care for them.
Between 1894, when the facility opened, and 1975, when legislative cuts forced its closure, the Montana State Orphanage housed over five thousand children. Established to provide “a haven for innocent children whose poverty and need might lead to lives of crime,” the orphanage was designed along nineteenth-century lines to prepare children for productive adult lives by segregating them and providing them with food, education, vocational training, and a rigid structure.
However, even as the orphanage’s first building, a sprawling Victorian structure known as “The Castle,” was being completed, attitudes toward needy children were changing. By the early 1900s, Progressive Era reformers began arguing that orphanages were dehumanizing and rife with abuse. Children, they claimed, needed a healthy home life, with their parents, if possible, or, if not, with a worthy foster family. To achieve this goal, they advocated the creation and expansion of government agencies to address the needs of abandoned, abused, or widowed women and their children.
In 1972, Grace Bates, a Gallatin Valley delegate to Montana’s Constitutional Convention, identified herself in the required biographical sketch as “farmer’s wife, public servant.” A member of the League of Women Voters of Montana, she represented, literally, a league of mid-century Montana women whose capacity for informed and skilled political action changed the state’s governance.
Nationally, the League (LWV) began in 1920, following passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the vote. Though Montana women joined in the 1920s, the League did not take ordered shape until after World War II. By 1952, Billings, Butte, Great Falls, Havre, Helena, and Missoula had official chapters.