Before moving to Missoula, Judy Smith was active in the feminist movement in Texas. She poses here with her mother at the first Texas statewide women’s reproductive rights conference at the University of Texas Student Union in Austin in 1974. Photo by Alan Pogue, courtesy The Rag, http://www.theragblog.com/alice-embree-and-phil-primm-remembering-judy-smith/
Judy Smith was a fixture in Montana’s feminist community from her arrival in the state in 1973 until her death in 2013. Her four decades of activism in Missoula encapsulated the “second wave” of American feminism.
Like many of her contemporaries, Smith followed the “classic” trajectory from the student protest, civil rights, and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s into the women’s movement of the 1970s. While pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Texas, Smith joined a reproductive rights group. Because abortion was banned in the United States, she sometimes ferried desperate women over the border to Mexico to procure abortions. Knowing her actions were illegal, Smith consulted a local lawyer, Sarah Weddington. These informal conversations sparked the idea of challenging Texas’s anti-abortion statutes, culminating in the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. From this success, Smith learned that “any action that you take . . . can build into something.”
Smith brought her conviction that grassroots activism was the key to social change with her to Missoula. As she later characterized her approach, she simply looked around her adopted hometown and demanded: “What do women need here? Let’s get it going. Get it done.” Continue reading
Born in 1860 in Virginia, the twenty-two-year-old Nannie Tiffany Alderson moved to eastern Montana in 1882, where she and her husband hoped to strike it rich on the cattle frontier. Their dreams of wealth never materialized. MHS Photo Archives PAC 89-29
When Nannie Alderson and her husband, Walt, immigrated to Montana in 1883, they were among the first wave of settlers in eastern Montana’s nascent cattle kingdom. A Bride Goes West, Alderson’s memoir of her years as a rancher’s wife, is consistently listed as one of the best books about Montana. In it, she famously paraphrased Theodore Roosevelt, stating that Montana was “a great country for men and horses, but hell on women and cattle.” The story of her transition from a life of Southern privilege to the hardships of ranching on the Northern Plains has come to symbolize the experience of the pioneer woman in Montana.
Alderson grew up in a wealthy West Virginia family. She met Walt while visiting relatives in Kansas in 1882, and they were married in the spring of 1883. Possessed by a “feverish optimism” about the prospects of cattle ranching in Montana, the couple settled on a homestead south of Miles City. In her memoir, Alderson recalls an overwhelming sense of possibility: “Everyone, it seemed, was making fabulous sums of money or was about to make them; no one thought of losses; and for the next year my husband and I were to breathe that air of optimism and share all those rose-colored expectations.”
Members of the Fort Peck Friendly Homemakers Club prepare to serve food at a fund-raiser for a children’s Christmas party, circa 1948. Early clubs on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation were segregated by race, but the Extension Office worked to integrate clubs in the 1960s. Roosevelt County Extension Service, “Annual Report of Cooperative Extension Work, 1949.” 22.
Home Demonstration clubs—also known as Homemakers clubs—were created in 1914 as part of the Cooperative Extension Service in Agriculture and Home Economics. Their goal was to bring “expert” instruction on the subjects of home economics and agriculture to rural women. Originally intended to “uplift” rural women through professional instruction, Home Demonstration clubs became a way for Montana women to socialize and learn from one another and to serve their communities. While the clubs attempted to reinforce conservative domestic values, the experiences of Home Demonstration clubwomen in the post-World War II era suggest that farm women adapted them to their own ends.
At their inception, Homemakers clubs reflected a Progressive-era faith that expertise and government intervention could improve American society. Targeting women who were unable to attend college, Home Demonstration agents instructed women in “scientific” methods of child rearing, food preservation, cooking, consumerism, nutrition, women’s and family health, and home and farm management. Department of Agriculture employee Mary E. Creswell expressed optimism that proper instruction would improve the lives—and character—of rural women: “With increased opportunity for training, . . . and with the opportunity for permanent service in her county, the work of the county woman agent will continue to be the most potent influence for progressive and happy country homes.”
Maggie Smith Hathaway outlined her positions on Prohibition, Child Welfare, and a “Workable Farm Loan Law” in this 1916 campaign flier. Maggie Smith Hathaway Collection, Mss 224, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, University of Montana
On November 3, 1914, Montana became the eleventh state to empower women with the right to vote. Two years later, newly enfranchised Montana women helped elect Jeannette Rankin to the U.S. House of Representatives. She took her seat as the first woman to serve in Congress four years before women achieved national suffrage. Rankin’s victory largely eclipsed another, equally significant 1916 victory: that year Montana also seated the first two women in the state’s House of Representatives. These women opened the door for those who followed in the political arena.
Emma Ingalls, a Republican from Flathead County, and Maggie Smith Hathaway, a Democrat from Ravalli County, represented opposing parties, but they both championed the cause of women’s suffrage and spoke out for the disenfranchised. As Ingalls and Hathaway took their seats in the Montana House in 1917, they represented the ribbon at the end of the finish line in a hard-won race. Conscious of their role as female reformers, both championed child welfare and women’s rights in the legislature. Continue reading
Shown here around age 15, Cecilia LaRance Wiseman grew up on the Rocky Mountain front in a self-sufficient Métis community. Photo courtesy Alf Wiseman
Cecilia LaRance was born in 1915 in a cabin on the South Fork of the Teton River. Her grandparents were among the Métis families who had settled along the Rocky Mountains between Heart Butte and Augusta in the late 1800s. Growing up in the distinct culture formed by the fusion of French, Scottish, Chippewa, and Cree heritages, Cecilia belonged to the last generation of children to experience the self-sufficiency and “old ways” of this Métis community.
The French Canadian LaRance family settled along the Rocky Mountain Front in the 1870s. Cecilia’s grandmother, Marguerite LaRance, was the first person buried at the Métis cemetery nestled in the trees along the South Fork. Cecilia’s father, James LaRance, was born at St. Peter’s Mission west of Fort Benton. When James was left with three small children after his first wife’s death, he married soft-spoken and hardworking Mabel Fellers, whose family had fled to Montana after the failed Northwest Rebellion of 1885.
The couple raised their family on a squatter’s homestead on Willow Creek, furnishing their single-room cabin with a woodstove, a large table, and apple-box benches. James’ rocker sat near Mabel’s sewing machine by the window. The cabin lacked electricity and indoor plumbing, and the LaRances bathed in a galvanized tub behind two chairs draped with a sheet for privacy. Cecilia and her sisters shared a bed, their brothers slept on a foldout sofa, and the baby’s hammock hung over the parents’ bed. When guests visited, they slept in the only space left: under the table. “We didn’t have room enough to keep a moth’s suitcase in that house,” Cecilia remembered. Continue reading
Businesswoman and writer Rose Gordon poses with her brother, Taylor, in front of her White Sulphur Springs home, on May 1960, MHS Photo Archives 951-717
Rose Gordon was born 1883 in White Sulphur Springs to a former slave and a black Scottish-born immigrant. Her commitment to service makes her life notable, while the grace and advocacy she showed in navigating the racist currents common to small-town Montana sheds light on the African American experience.
Rose’s father, John, came to Montana Territory by steamboat in 1881 to cook on the mining frontier; her mother, Mary, followed a year later. The family purchased a home in White Sulphur Springs, Meagher County, where John worked as a chef for the town’s primary hotel. At the time the family settled there, Meagher County was home to some forty-six hundred people, including thirty African Americans.
In the 1890s John Gordon was killed in a train accident, leaving Mary Gordon to support five children by cooking, doing laundry, and providing nursing care for area families. Despite the long hours she gave to helping her mother, Rose graduated from high school as valedictorian. Her graduation oration, “The Progress of the Negro Race,” ended with praise for the African American educator Booker T. Washington, and Rose’s life thereafter gave testimony to Washington’s emphasis on self-improvement, self-reliance, education, and non-confrontational relationships with white people.
Beginning with the arrival of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1869, women religious played a vital role in providing health care for Montanans. Here Sister Camille (near instrument stand) and Sister St. Charles assist Doctors (left to right) Thomas H. Pleasants, Fred Attix, and Joseph Brice with a 1909 surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lewistown. MHS Photo Archives 949-002
Catholic sisters and Protestant deaconesses established and refined health care in Montana. These dedicated women brought better medical care to the sick and played important roles in the evolution of nursing in the state.
The first five Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas came by stagecoach to Helena in 1869. Within a year, they established St. John’s Hospital, the first Catholic hospital in the territory. These sisters were Montana’s first trained nurses.
The sisters began canvassing Montana’s remote camps on horseback, begging funds to establish a hospital in Deer Lodge. St. Joseph’s saw its first patients in 1873 and went on to serve Deer Lodge for ninety years. Among other acts of service, the sisters tended the wounded after the Battle of the Big Hole in 1877. They cared for casualties among both soldiers and Nez Perce at the battlefield before returning to Deer Lodge with their patients under terrible conditions; once at the hospital, the sisters found maggots infesting the combatants’ wounds.
Three more sisters traveled from Leavenworth in 1875 to Virginia City to open St. Mary’s Hospital. One of them, Sister Irene McGrath, was a young novice barely eighteen. By 1879, the mining camp had dwindled and patients were few. The sisters were never meant to be ornamental, and so they moved on. Continue reading
Gretchen Billings, shown here addressing an unidentified national convention, spoke “for people who had no voice,” just as she did through the aptly named People’s Voice, the Helena-based newspaper she ran with her husband Harry. Montana State University Library, Merrill G. Burlingame Special Collections, Collection 2095. Series 8, Box 18
Gretchen Garber Billings was a journalist and activist who dedicated her career to advancing progressive causes in Montana. Born in Whitefish but raised in the Seattle area, Billings returned to her native state after World War II to work as a journalist and editor for the People’s Voice, an independent, cooperatively owned, left-leaning newspaper based in Helena. At the Voice, Billings spent almost two decades fighting for those she believed were underrepresented in politics and government: “We felt the mandate was to defend the general welfare,” she said, “to be the devil’s advocate, and to speak for people who had no voice: for prisoners, for civil rights, and for people who had no strong organizational structures to defend them.”
The People’s Voice was created at the end of the New Deal as an alternative to the Anaconda Company–controlled dailies that then dominated Montana’s news industry. Among the paper’s “founding fathers” were prominent Montana politicians like James Murray and Lee Metcalf, and its values reflected what historians Michael Malone and Dianne G. Doughtery termed the “farmer-labor brand of progressivism” that thrived in the state in the first half of the twentieth century.
Gretchen’s husband, Harry Billings, joined the staff of the Voice in 1946 and Gretchen came on board two years later. Together, they built the paper into a mouthpiece for progressive causes and a watchdog of the state government in Helena. Leon Billings remembered his mother as a “crusading journalist” who was a passionate activist when it came to issues she cared about, such as abolishing capital punishment. The Billingses frequently crusaded for causes that pitted them against the Anaconda Company and the Montana Power Company, often called the Montana Twins. These causes included support for union issues, worker’s compensation, and public ownership of utilities. They also advocated for public health reform and Native American rights. Continue reading
Millie Ringold, c. 1904. Photograph by Guy Wait, MHS Photo Archives 944-585
Millie Ringold was one of the first to arrive in the mining town of Yogo, Montana, and one of the last to leave. Born a slave, Ringold spent her first years in the west working as a laundress and army nurse at Fort Benton. She traveled to Yogo in 1878 or 1879.
There she opened a boardinghouse and saloon, known for its cleanliness and hospitality. She also filed and prospected her own gold claims, naming them after her favorite presidents, including Garfield and Lincoln. Ringold remained long after other miners abandoned the area.
Area residents remembered Ringold fondly; she can even be seen standing outside the General Store in Charlie Russell’s painting A Quiet Day in Utica, which celebrated the history of that nearby community. In 1906, she died after a brief illness and was buried in Utica, twelve miles from her beloved Yogo.
Alberta C. Sparlin, The Trail Back. Great Falls: Blue Print and Letter, 1976: 25.
“Interesting Woman Dead: Millie Ringgold Passes away in Her Cabin Near Yogo—Pioneer Woman.” Fergus County Democrat. December 11, 1906.
Kim Skornogoski. “Dig Uncovering Mysteries of Freed Slave at Heart of Long Lost Yogo Town.” Great Falls Tribune. July 11, 2010.
Jesuit missionary and artist Nicholas Point, who lived with the Salish and Pend d’Oreille in 1842, captioned this illustration “Women warriors proved themselves rivals of the men in courage.” From Wilderness Kingdom: Indian Life in the Rocky Mountains: 1840-1847, The Journals and Paintings of Nicholas Point, S.J. (Chicago ,1967).
Among the indigenous peoples of Montana, being a warrior was not an exclusively male occupation. Women commonly dominated the realms of housekeeping, food preparation, and child rearing. They influenced leadership, articulated their political concerns, and exercised a great deal of control over economic, domestic, and intertribal matters. A few women, however, gave up their traditional domestic role altogether and became “career warriors.”
People who knew these female warriors personally—tribal members, traders, missionaries, and military officers—provide details about their lives in oral histories, expedition journals, and drawings. The women’s military skill and bravery caught non-Indians off guard since they were unaccustomed to women participating in combat. The women’s male enemies were perhaps even more taken aback, sometimes fearing these women warriors possessed special, even supernatural abilities.
One especially fearless warrior was Kaúxuma Núpika, a Kootenai woman who was also a cultural intermediary and prophet. In 1808, young Kaúxuma Núpika married a Frenchman working for the explorer David Thompson. She was so rowdy that Thompson exiled her from his camp. She divorced her husband, claimed to have been changed into a man, and then took a succession of wives. Continue reading