Number, Please

Switchboard operators at work in Helena in 1906 included chief operator Anna Bennett (standing) and, from left to right, Elizabeth Hartwig, Irene LaSalle, Susie Hildebrand, Elma Barnes, Tillie Gillan, Susette Amacker, Kate J. Merrill, Rose Lacking, and Jennie Stoehr.

Switchboard operators at work in Helena in 1906 included chief operator Anna Bennett (standing) and, from left to right, Elizabeth Hartwig, Irene LaSalle, Susie Hildebrand, Elma Barnes, Tillie Gillan, Susette Amacker, Kate J. Merrill, Rose Lacking, and Jennie Stoehr. MHS Photo Archives PAc 75-43 f26

The first telephone arrived in Montana in 1876, the same year Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention, and by the 1890s many Montana cities had telephone exchanges. According to Ellen Arguimbau, author of “From Party Lines and Barbed Wire: A History of Telephones in Montana,” early telephones needed to be connected directly by wire. To facilitate that connection, telephone companies established exchanges, staffed almost entirely by young female operators. “The caller telephoned the operator and asked to be connected to someone. The operator then plugged the wire into the call recipient’s slot.”

Arguimbau describes the working conditions of these female employees in “Number, please,” originally published in Montana The Magazine of Western History and excerpted below.

Often a maze of cords and sockets, switchboards were attended by one operator in a small exchange or by a roomful of operators in the larger towns, usually all young women. According to a 1902 U.S. Census Bureau report: “For many years it has been recognized that operators’ work in telephone exchanges attracts a superior class of women. It has been demonstrated beyond all doubt that the work of operating is better handled by women than by men or boys and that trained and well-bred women operators perform the most satisfactory service.” Continue reading

Oshanee Cullooyah Kenmille: A Joyful Spirit

Oshanee Kenmille dedicated eight decades of her life to making beaded gloves, moccasins, cradleboards, and other leatherwork for family, friends, tribal members, celebrities, and dignitaries. She had very little formal education, but learned from the Salish and Kootenai women in her life how to tan hides, sew buckskin clothing, and do beadwork. Kenmille then applied her expertise toward teaching others both these skills and the Salish and Kootenai languages, ensuring this cultural knowledge will continue with future generations. In spite of the many challenges and tragedies in her life, Oshanee Kenmille inspired others with her strength, her joyful spirit, and her commitment to preserving traditional tribal culture.

Oshanee’s parents, Annie and Paul Cullooyah, maintained their traditional Salish way of life on the Flathead Reservation. Oshanee, who was born in 1916, began beading at age eleven while watching her mother, whose praise for Oshanee’s first efforts inspired the child to develop her beading skills. Annie, who died in 1928 when Oshanee was only twelve years old, did not live long enough to see how well Oshanee succeeded.

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Progressive Reform and Women’s Advocacy for Public Libraries in Montana

Author Unknown  Postcard from Union Circle of the King's Daughters, requesting book donations for a Public Library Virginia City, Montana 1901

MC 261 B13 f8, Montana Historical Society Archives

The Hamilton Woman’s Club’s instrumental role in the library’s construction is not an isolated case. During the Progressive Era, women’s voluntary organizations frequently led community efforts to build public libraries. In 1933, the American Library Association estimated that three-quarters of the country’s public libraries “owed their creation to women.” More recently, scholars Kay Ann Cassell and Kathleen Weibel have argued that “women’s organizations may well have been as influential in the development of public libraries as Andrew Carnegie,” whose name is carved into thousands of library transoms across the United States.

Since the time of white settlement, Montanans seem to have been unusually passionate about books and libraries. In an 1877 edition of the Butte Miner, one writer noted, “The need for a library was felt here last winter, when aside from dancing there was no amusement whatever to help pass the long, dreary evenings. Dancing, in moderation, will do very well, but it is generally allowed to have been somewhat overdone last winter . . . this library scheme . . . will furnish a means of recreation . . . that is more intellectual and more to be desired in every respect.”

Rising to the call, women’s clubs founded libraries in communities across Montana. Most of these libraries started small: club members donated books, and a local milliner, dressmaker, or hotelier would offer shelf space. As the library (and the community) grew, it often moved to a room in city hall before, finally, opening in a separate building. By 1896 Montana could boast seven public libraries with collections of a thousand volumes or more, and the State Federation of Women’s Clubs maintained a system of traveling libraries. Continue reading

A “Witty, Gritty Little Bobcat of a Woman”: The Western Writings of Dorothy M. Johnson

Movie poster for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with pictures of James Stewart and John Wayne.

More people are familiar with Dorothy Johnson’s work–which included such western classics as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–than with the author herself. Image from http://parallax-view.org

Dorothy M. Johnson was Montana’s most successful writer of Western fiction. Born in Iowa in 1905, Johnson grew up in Whitefish, Montana. Her love of the West and nineteenth-century frontier history and folklore inspired her to write seventeen books, more than fifty short stories, and myriad magazine articles. On the basis of her publishing success and numerous awards, scholars Sue Mathews and Jim Healey have called Johnson the “dean of women writers of Western fiction.”

Johnson’s family moved to Montana in 1909 and settled in Whitefish in 1913. She graduated from Whitefish High School in 1922 and studied premed at Montana State College (Bozeman) before transferring to Montana State University in Missoula. By the time she graduated with a degree in English in 1928, she had already published her first poem.

After college, Johnson left Montana and worked as an editor in New York for several years. In 1950, she returned to Montana and became editor of the Whitefish Pilot. Three years later, she relocated to Missoula to teach at the university and work for the Montana Press Association. She lived in Missoula until her death in 1983.

Ironically, many people who might not know Johnson’s name are, nevertheless, familiar with her work. Three of her stories—“The Hanging Tree,” “A Man Called Horse,” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”—were made into motion pictures. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a 1949 John Ford film starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, has the honor of being listed on the National Film Registry for its cultural significance to American cinema. Johnson recalled that she conceived of the story while questioning the western myth of manly bravado: “I asked myself, what if one of these big bold gunmen who are having the traditional walkdown is not fearless, and what if he can’t even shoot. Then what have you got?” Continue reading

The Life and Legend of Mary Fields

Mary Fields, driving a buggy. Born a slave in the 1830s, Mary Fields arrived in Montana in the Ursuline Sisters who came to establish an Indian boarding school and mission. Fields remains a legendary frontier character, celebrated for her tough persona and kind heart.

Born a slave in the 1830s, Mary Fields arrived in Montana in the Ursuline Sisters who came to establish an Indian boarding school and mission. Fields remains a legendary frontier character, celebrated for her tough persona and kind heart. Photo courtesy Ursuline Sisters Archives, Great Falls

Born around 1832, possibly in Tennessee, Mary Fields celebrated her birthday on March 15. The details of her life before she came to Montana in 1885 are difficult to trace—complicated by her birth into slavery and the fact that, although she was literate, she left no written record. According to one biographer, Fields’s mother was a house slave and her father was a field slave. After the Civil War, Fields worked as a chambermaid on the Robert E. Lee, a Mississippi River steamboat. According to some accounts, she met Judge Edmund Dunne while working on the Robert E. Lee, and eventually became a servant in his household.

In the 1870s, Fields began working at the Ursuline Convent in Toledo, Ohio, where Dunne’s sister, Mother Mary Amadeus, was the superior. In 1884 Mother Amadeus traveled to Montana to join the Jesuits at St. Peter’s Mission. The next year she wrote to request that the convent send more people to staff the struggling mission and boarding school. Mary Fields traveled upriver with the nuns sent by the order.

Thus Mary Fields began her new life among the sisters in Montana. She worked at the mission for the next ten years, raising chickens, growing vegetables, and freighting supplies from nearby Cascade. She developed a reputation for having “the temperament of a grizzly bear,” but tales also spread about her toughness and devotion to the nuns and students. Continue reading

Champions

Jessie Tarbox took this picture of the Fort Shaw girls’ basketball team in 1904 on their visit to St. Louis. Standing, from left: Rose LaRose, Flora Lucero, Katie Snell, Minnie Burton, Genevieve Healy, Sarah Mitchell. Seated, from left: Emma Sansaver, Genie Butch, Belle Johnson, Nettie Worth.

Jessie Tarbox took this picture of the Fort Shaw girls’ basketball team in 1904 on their visit to St. Louis. Standing, from left: Rose LaRose, Flora Lucero, Katie Snell, Minnie Burton, Genevieve Healy, Sarah Mitchell. Seated, from left: Emma Sansaver, Genie Butch, Belle Johnson, Nettie Wirth. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis

Amid the ruins of the Fort Shaw Industrial Indian Boarding School, a metal arch and granite monument honor ten Native American girls who overcame separation from their families and forced estrangement from their Native cultures to become the finest female basketball players in the country. Declared the “World Basket Ball Champions” in 1904, the girls from Fort Shaw also deserve praise for having triumphed over extraordinary life challenges.

In 1892 the federal government opened the Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School. Such off-reservation schools were designed to break the chain of cultural continuity by removing children from their tribal communities. The schools’ paramount educational objectives were cultural assimilation and English language fluency. Students were trained for employment in domestic services, industrial labor, and farming. Classes in music, theater, and physical education rounded out their instruction. Continue reading

Jeannette Rankin: Suffragist, Congresswoman, Pacifist

When this photograph of Jeannette Rankin was taken in Washington, D. C., in April 1917, she was at the beginning of what appeared to be a very promising political career. Her unpopular votes against the U.S.'s entry into World Wars I and II would bring an end to her political aspirations but would ultimately earn her widespread respect for adhering to her principles.

When this photograph of Jeannette Rankin was taken in Washington, D. C., in April 1917, she was at the beginning of what appeared to be a very promising political career. Her unpopular votes against the U.S.’s entry into World Wars I and II would bring an end to her political aspirations but would ultimately earn her widespread respect for adhering to her principles. MHS Photo Archives 944-480

Jeannette Rankin of Missoula, Montana, was the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Unsurprisingly, her election made headlines across the country. People wanted to know who this western upstart was and what this radical change might portend. The Kentucky Courier-Journal captured the magnitude of the political quake when it wondered, “Breathes there a man with heart so brave that he would want to become one of a deliberate body made up of 434 women and himself?”

Born on a ranch near Missoula in 1880, Jeannette Rankin was the oldest of John Rankin and Olive Pickering Rankin’s seven children. She attended the University of Montana, and in 1908—inspired by the career of Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, the famed Chicago settlement house—she headed to New York to study social work at the New York School of Philanthropy. She worked briefly as a social worker and then as an organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association in several states’ suffrage campaigns. In 1914 Rankin returned to Montana to help lead her state’s suffrage movement to victory. Rankin believed that western conditions, in which men and women had to share the tasks of settlement, encouraged greater gender equality than existed in the East, making it easier to convince Montana men to give women the vote.

Building on the grassroots organization she had created in 1914, she ran for Congress as a Progressive Republican in 1916 and won the seat. When she learned that she had been elected, she said, “I knew the women would stand by me.” And indeed, newly enfranchised Montana women went to great lengths to vote for her. Edith Mutchler wrote to Rankin from Chester to tell her that she was eight months pregnant when she “rode 14 mi on a cold windy day” to cast her ballot, but testified that she “would gladly do it again.” Continue reading

A “Compassionate Heart” and “Keen Mind”: The Life of Doctor Caroline McGill

From 1916 to 1956, Dr. Caroline McGill, pictured here in 1953, served the families of Butte, becoming one of Montana's most beloved physicians.

From 1916 to 1956, Dr. Caroline McGill, pictured here in 1953, served the families of Butte, becoming one of Montana’s most beloved physicians. MHS Photo Archives 943-656

Born on a farm near Mansfield, Ohio, in 1879, Caroline McGill devoted her life to the people of Montana, her adopted state. In her work as a physician she earned the love and respect of the people of Butte, but her role in the creation of the Museum of the Rockies is her enduring legacy to all Montanans.

McGill’s family moved to Missouri when she was five, and at the age of seventeen she acquired a teaching certificate so she could support herself and complete high school. She achieved that goal in 1901 and continued her education at the University of Missouri. By 1908 she had a B.A. in science, an M.A. in zoology, and a Ph.D. in anatomy and physiology, thereby becoming the first woman to receive a doctorate from that school. She taught at her alma mater until 1911, and former students later “aver[ed] that she was the finest medical school instructor” they had had.

Although the University of Missouri offered McGill a full professorship, she decided to shift career paths and accepted a position as pathologist at Murray Hospital in Butte. In a letter to a family member, she explained her decision to move to Montana: “I’ll tell you right now I am making the biggest fool mistake to go . . . but I’m going.” “Feels sort of funny to stand off and serenely watch myself commit suicide, [but] I’ll just have to let her rip.” Continue reading

“Men Were My Friends, but Women Were My Cause”: The Career and Feminism of Frances Elge

Frances Elge cultivated a deliberately ladylike style as she made her way up the ranks of the male dominated legal profession. Montana’s first woman elected county attorney, Elge was later one of the few women Indian probate judges for the Department of Interior. Frances C. Elge Papers, MHS Archives

Frances Elge cultivated a deliberately ladylike style as she made her way up the ranks of the male dominated legal profession. Montana’s first woman elected county attorney, Elge was later one of the few women Indian probate judges for the Department of Interior. Frances C. Elge Papers, MHS Archives

Born in Helena in 1906, Elge attended that city’s public schools and went on to graduate from law school at the University of Montana in 1930. Reflecting on her time at UM and her subsequent career as an attorney, Elge recalled, “I was a novelty when I went through law school. The men helped me along because they didn’t see me as competition. Men today know better.”

After law school she returned to Helena, where Wellington Rankin—a prominent Helena attorney and public official and brother of Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin—allowed her to use his library and office and gave her ten cases to start a private practice. She continued in private practice until 1932, when she was elected to the position of public administrator in Lewis and Clark County. Two years later the voters elected her county attorney, the second woman elected in Montana to that office.

After a single term, Elge left to work on Jeannette Rankin’s second campaign for Congress and acted as the congresswoman’s administrative assistant in Washington, D.C. During World War II she worked for the War Shipping Administration and Maritime Commission. In 1954 she became an Indian probate judge for the Department of Interior, one of the only women in that position, and served until her retirement in 1977. Continue reading

Legalized Midwifery: Montana Leads the Way

The argument over home birth midwifery played out in the newspapers as well as in the court and the legislature. The Missoulian published this article, "Midwifery on trial in Montana," on January 4, 1989.010489

The argument over home birth midwifery played out in the newspapers as well as in the court and the legislature. The Missoulian published this article on January 4, 1989.

Although Montana midwives had a long history of working with doctors to serve the needs of women in their communities, their profession—and especially the idea of home birth—faded from mainstream acceptance as the hospital replaced the home as the “normal” birthing location. By the 1950s, a majority of women across the United States delivered their babies in hospitals. Even as hospital births became more common, midwives continued to assume that pregnancy and delivery were nonmedical events. Physicians, on the other hand, began to insist that medical assistance and access to technology were necessary for safe deliveries.

The conflict crystalized in 1988 when the Montana Board of Medical Examiners, at the request of a Missoula physician, pressed charges against a Montana midwife, Dolly Browder, and initiated a court case, accusing her of violating the Medical Practice Act by practicing medicine without a license.

After a three-day civil trial, the Missoula judge ruled against Browder. He concluded that she was practicing medicine and banned her from assisting pregnant women. The case concluded in January 1989, just as the Fifty-first session of the Montana legislature convened. With the looming threat of additional lawsuits, the Montana Midwifery Association hired a lobbyist, raised funds, and organized supporters. Their goal: To change the Montana Medical Practice Act to exempt home birth midwifery. Continue reading