Expanding Their Sphere: Montana Women in Education Administration and Public Health

McClellan style saddle, c. 1905

Lucile Dyas used this lightweight McClellan style saddle to visit Lewis and Clark County schools during her superintendency in the 1910s. Both county school superintendents and public health nurses traveled great distances on poorly maintained roads. Montana Historical Society Collection, 2013.39.04 Gift of Donald Gunderson in memory of Lucile Dyas Topping

As mothers and homemakers, women have historically presided over child and family welfare. By extension, their purview has included education and healthcare. Before the mid-twentieth century, teaching and nursing were the socially acceptable occupations providing avenues for women to expand their influence in public affairs. Making the most of limited opportunities, many teachers and nurses became school superintendents or public health nurses. Often collaborating to achieve their goals, these leaders in education and community health significantly improved Montanans’ lives.

Montana’s women did not obtain full suffrage until 1914, but they had participated in school elections since the 1880s. In 1882, Helen Clarke and Alice Nichols became the first two women elected to public office in Montana, both of them as county school superintendents. Their duties included visiting schools, recommending necessary improvements to buildings and curricula, and creating teacher licensure exams. They also coordinated teacher institutes to advance teachers’ skills. By 1890, twelve of Montana’s sixteen county superintendents were women. Since that time, the majority of the state’s county superintendents have been women.

A makeshift doctor's office--probably in a school. A woman sits at a table (left.) Back left a female nurse holds a toddler while a male  doctor listens to his lungs with a stethoscope. Another woman holds a baby flat on a table, while a third woman  weights and measures a 3-4 year old on a doctor's scale. Two children sit in a rocking chair waiting.

Public health nurse Margaret Thomas (shown here circa 1925, back left) traveled throughout western Montana organizing well baby clinics, lecturing on nutrition, care of the sick, and sponsoring school health contests. MHS Photo Archives Lot 30 Box 2 Folder 9

Coinciding with the ascendance of women county superintendents was the rise of public health nurses. The Montana State Board of Health, formed in 1901, employed four field nurses in an effort to decrease high infant and maternal mortality rates and to curb the spread of infectious diseases. Serving a population spread across hundreds of square miles, these field nurses traveled extensively to educate the public about disease transmission, hygiene, nutrition, and infant care. “These women supervise the work of all nurses in their districts,” reported the director of the state’s Child Welfare Division. “In conjunction with the county superintendent of schools and women’s organizations, they … hold children’s health conferences in schools . . . and advise prospective mothers concerning the importance of securing medical supervision.” One of these field nurses, Henrietta Crockett, established the first infant health clinic on a Montana Indian reservation in 1925 and engaged tribal members in the public health campaign. Continue reading

Womanhood on Trial: Examining Domestic Violence in Butte, Montana

Newspaper clipping, including photos of both Hazel and Howard Kauf

Hazel Kauf’s murder received press attention, with a large story published in the Montana Standard on February 10, 1946.

Shortly before eleven on February 8, 1946, as Hazel Kauf stepped off the Aero Club’s dance floor, she was confronted by her ex-husband, Howard Kauf, who had entered the club a few minutes earlier. Grabbing Hazel by the arm, Howard “spun her around . . .  and in the spin just . . . blasted that first one [shot].”As Hazel lay on the floor, Howard, standing over her, fired a second shot into her chest. According to the Montana Standard, the horrific event quickly drew a crowd and “within a few minutes traffic at Park and Main [just outside the club] was virtually at a standstill.”

This was not an isolated incident. Following World War II, rates of violence increased nationally, and rising rates of wife assault and wife homicide, like other forms of violence, peaked in postwar Butte. Hazel’s case, however, represents more than a historically persistent crime, often addressed only in whispers. It demonstrates that even as social constraints on women lifted, cultural beliefs that dictated women’s and wives’ behaviors remained firmly intact. These beliefs perpetuated the narrative that assault on wives can, in some situations, be justified.

The lives of Hazel and Howard Kauf, in many ways, resembled the lives of couples across Montana and the United States during World War II. Philipsburg native Hazel Alda Henri married Howard Kauf, a local manganese miner, in 1936. Howard spent the early war years laboring in a strategic industry, mining. In 1945, however, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, joining fifty-seven thousand other Montanans in the armed services. Shortly after Howard’s deployment, Hazel and the couple’s four-year-old son moved to Butte, where Hazel, like over a million other military wives nationwide, entered the workforce. Continue reading

“A Man in the Mountains Cannot Keep His Wife”: Divorce in Montana in the Late Nineteenth Century

Newspaper clipping. Headline reads "How to Get a Divorce. States in Which a Decree Can Be Obtained with Little Trouble." Includes clip art of a man holding a crying baby in front of a sign reading "Home Sweet Home."

On May 15, 1892, the Helena Independent ran an article comparing state divorce laws. It also compared divorce rates in Europe and the U.S. explaining that one reason the U.S. had more divorces was that “women are here more independent and able to make their way in the world.” Read the full article here.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a series of economic and social changes culminated in a nationwide increase both in divorce rates and in the liberalization of divorce laws. This pattern played out in Montana on an even larger scale. Based on her extensive study of Montana divorces in the late nineteenth century, historian Paula Petrik found that frontier conditions in mining cities like Helena and Butte created a climate in which divorces were common. Petrik also argued that, over the course of the late nineteenth century, women seeking to divorce ushered in changes to Montana law that made divorces easier to obtain and on terms more favorable to women. In doing so, they confirmed the ideal of “companionate marriage”—or marriage based on mutual affection and reciprocal duties. This ideal would come to define the institution in the early twentieth century.

For Montanans facing the frontier conditions of social upheaval, an unbalanced ratio of men to women, and rising and falling fortunes, divorces were common. Indeed, in 1868, Helenan Elizabeth Chester Fisk remarked, “Divorces are common here, and it is a common comment that a man in the mountains cannot keep his wife.” Fisk’s observation was based in fact, as Lewis and Clark County had an unusually high divorce rate in that era. In 1867, the number of divorces actually exceeded the number of marriages.

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Merle Egan Anderson: Montana’s “Hello Girl”

A row of women sitting at a switchboard. One woman supervisor is standing behind them.

Initially the Signal Corps only accepted women fluent in French. Merle Egan joined after the military lifted the language requirement. Pictured here are some of Egan’s Signal Corps colleagues, operating a switchboard in Chaumont, France. Photo from Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, p. 171

The story of women’s military service during World War II is relatively well known; less familiar is the story of the women who served during World War I, sometimes on or near the front lines. During World War I, over twenty-five thousand women worked for American forces or support organizations in Europe. These women performed integral work and helped chip away at gender stereotypes, paving the way for the more famous WACs and WAVEs of World War II.

Among those serving during World War I was Merle Egan of Helena, a telephone switchboard operator for the Army Signal Corps. A vitally important technology to U.S. military operations, telephones allowed officers to communicate across battlefields, between dispersed units, and with other allied forces. Unfortunately, war had devastated the French telephone system, so in 1917, when the U.S. Army was building up its forces in France, Gen. John Pershing ordered the construction of an American telephone system throughout the country.

The creation of a military telephone system opened up new opportunity for female service since civilian telephone operators were almost exclusively female. As Col. Parker Hitt, chief signal officer of the U.S. First Army, explained: “[A]n Army telephone central would have to have American women operators to be a success. Our experience in Paris with the untrained and undisciplined English-speaking French women operators, and experience elsewhere with the willing but untrained men operators was almost disastrous.” Thus, in November 1917, General Pershing requested that the War Department deploy one hundred French-speaking American women with telephone operating experience. Thousands of women applied and the first of these “Hello Girls” traveled overseas in the spring of 1918. Continue reading

Theresa Walker Lamebull Kept Her Language Alive

Born near Hays on the Fort Belknap Reservation in 1896, Theresa Chandler Walker Lamebull dedicated much of her later years to language preservation. She taught until shortly before her death in 2007.

Born near Hays on the Fort Belknap Reservation in 1896, Theresa Chandler Walker Lamebull dedicated much of her later years to language preservation. She taught until shortly before her death in 2007. Photo courtesy Terry Brockie.

Theresa Chandler Walker Lamebull was still teaching when she died in 2007 at 111 years of age. Her subject was A’aniiih, or White Clay, the language of the A’aninin (Gros Ventre) people and one of the world’s most endangered languages. By the 1990s, Theresa Lamebull was one of only a dozen people to speak the language fluently. Her willingness to share her knowledge of the White Clay language became the foundation for its recovery.

Theresa Elizabeth Chandler, or Kills At Night, was born to Kills In The Brush and Al Chandler in 1896 in a tipi near Hays on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Raised by her grandmother, Sharp Nose, for the first few years of her life, young Kills At Night was fully immersed in White Clay culture. She then lived with her mother and stepfather, White Weasel, until she was twelve and the federal government mandated she go to school. Without the option of a day school, Theresa attended St. Paul’s Catholic boarding school in Harlem, Montana. She long remembered the fences that surrounded the mission school to keep children from running away and returning to their families.

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Montana’s Postwar Women Politicians

It's hard to spot State Senator Ellenore Bridenstine (third row back, on the right) amidst her mail colleagues. When this photo was taken, in 1945, Bridenstine was the first woman to serve in the Montana state senate. MHS Photo Archives PAc 89-59 Senate of the 29th Legislative Assembly

It’s hard to spot State Senator Ellenore Bridenstine (third row back, on the right) amidst her male colleagues. When this photo was taken, in 1945, Bridenstine was the first woman to serve in the Montana state senate. Click image to enlarge. MHS Photo Archives PAc 89-59 Senate of the 29th Legislative Assembly

According to one common narrative, the post-World War II period marked a “return” to traditional gender roles, including breadwinner husbands and homemaker wives. But contrary to this stereotype, in the 1940s and 1950s married women entered the paid workforce in greater numbers than ever before. Women also volunteered with community organizations and were actively involved in both political parties. In Montana, a small but significant number of women even ventured into—and achieved success in—the traditionally masculine world of electoral politics. These postwar politicians achieved a number of important “firsts” and gained political experience that would be invaluable in the push for equal rights in the 1960s and 1970s.

Among these postwar women politicians was Ellenore Bridenstine of Terry, who in 1945 became the first woman elected to the state senate. An active participant in the local Republican Party and the wife of the only physician in Prairie County, Bridenstine recalled her decision to run for office: “Many of my women friends felt that I was crazy to try for it. But I decided to try for it anyway just to see what would happen. The man holding the office had never campaigned, and I am sure that he felt he would not need to against a woman.” Bridenstine won her seat by a mere six votes but was reelected in the next cycle. Continue reading

The Lifelong Quest of Frieda Fligelman and Belle Fligelman Winestine

Wearing the same costume she wore when she addressed the Wisconsin legislature on women’s suffrage, Belle Fligelman poses in front of Belle Chabourne Hall at the University of Wisconsin. MHS Photo Archives PAc 85-31

Wearing the same costume she wore when she addressed the Wisconsin legislature on women’s suffrage, Belle Fligelman poses in front of Belle Chabourne Hall at the University of Wisconsin. MHS Photo Archives PAc 85-31

Frieda and Belle Fligelman were born in Helena in 1890 and 1891, respectively. Their parents taught them the value of education, the importance of civic engagement, and the necessity of being reasonable. In the Fligelmans’ Jewish household, “God was the idea of goodness,” and being reasonable was inextricably linked to being a good person. On that premise, the Fligelman sisters became dedicated global citizens, actively participating in important twentieth-century social movements as part of their lifelong commitment “to do something good for the world.”

That quest began in 1907, when Frieda persuaded her father to send her, and later Belle, to college rather than finishing school. Articulate, bright, and principled, both sisters excelled at the University of Wisconsin, coming of age during the Progressive Era’s struggles for political, economic, and social equality. After graduating in 1910, Frieda joined the activists marching for women’s suffrage in New York. Back on campus, Belle was elected president of the Women’s Student Government Association and, as an editor for the student newspaper, championed progressive causes. During her senior year, she lobbied the Wisconsin legislature in favor of granting women the vote. Continue reading

Writing Our Lives: Novelist Mildred Walker’s Illumination of Montana Women

Portrait of Mildred Walker

Mildred Walker studiously cultivated the image of a proper doctor’s wife, even as she dedicated herself to her writing. Photograph by Yaw, MHS Photo Archives 945-467

“Montana was so vast and strange to me that I didn’t dare to write about it for almost ten years,” novelist Mildred Walker said during the 1960s, a decade after she had left the state. But three of her best-known works—Winter Wheat, The Curlew’s Cry, and If a Lion Could Talk—are set in Montana. The novels’ richly developed female characters reflect Walker’s own ambivalence about the state: its traditions, weather, landscape, and capacity to nurture or starve women.

Walker was born in 1905 in Philadelphia to a schoolteacher mother and a preacher father—a family for whom the right words had power. She wrote her way through Wells College in New York and set the terms of her marriage to Michigan-born physician Ferdinand Schemm:  that she would write, that he would embrace his profession unstintingly, that she would not do the washing. They started married life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula logging communities but soon moved to Ann Arbor, where Walker earned her M.A. in creative writing. Her award-winning and first published novel, Fireweed, paid for the young couple’s move to Great Falls in 1933.

There they found a craftsman bungalow that gave their two oldest children, Ripley and George, tricycle-riding, small-town freedom; Schemm an easy commute to both hospitals; and Walker a niche for her desk.  For the next decade Mildred Walker Schemm intertwined the multiple roles she had established for herself: well-dressed doctor’s wife, arms-length mother, friend, and writer.

In 1944, the family moved to a rambling haven south of Great Falls and next to the Missouri River. By then, they had welcomed their third child, Christopher, begun escaping to a rustic cabin on the Rocky Mountain Front, and celebrated Dr. Schemm’s growing prominence in heart research. The family’s friendships included artist Fra Dana and literary lights Joseph Kinsey Howard and A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Household help and a quiet study of her own allowed Walker her most productive writing years before Schemm’s death in 1955. Continue reading

The Watchers: Montana Women Care for the Sick and Dying

Open Mitchell Car with seven passengers

Daniel Slayton’s family—and especially the women of his family—cared for him during his illness and final days. Pictured here in a happier time are Daniel and Son Ernest (front seat), sons Bert and Daniel (middle seat), and daughter Lydia, wife Lizzie, and daughter Ruth (back seat.) MHS Photo Archives PAc 88-75

In late August and early September of 1927, Daniel Slayton, a Lavina, Montana, businessman and farmer, lay dying of bone cancer. During the final three weeks of his life, he spent no moment alone. Daughters, daughters-in-law, his cousin Mary, the community midwife, a nurse hired from Billings, and Slayton’s wife, Lizzie, cared for him and kept vigil. Though Slayton’s adult sons had earlier helped him seek treatment and, in the end, came to say their goodbyes, the women in his life mostly watched over him in his final hours.

In serving as family caregivers, Montana women have joined a legion of women across time. Before 1900, hospitals typically cared for soldiers, the poor, and the homeless. On Montana’s frontier, where single men far outnumbered women, churches underwrote Montana’s earliest hospitals. Soon self-supporting matrons converted boardinghouses into private hospitals. In the first half of the twentieth century, Montana pest houses, poor farms, and finally, state institutions such as the Montana State Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Galen provided some long-term care for Montanans without families. Nevertheless, a family’s women—its mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, daughters, and cousins—typically assumed responsibility for the care of relatives. Into the 1960s, and beyond, women performed this work out of necessity, longstanding tradition, and often love. Continue reading

Red-Light Women of Wide-Open Butte

Window with curtains, sign that reads "Mickey," and a handwritten note reading "I will be here Sunday."

Arthur Rothstein photographed this Venus Alley window in 1939. The note reads, “I will be here Sunday. Mickey.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-fsa-8a11188.

“The girls range in age from jail bait to battle ax,” wrote Monroe Fry of Butte prostitutes in 1953. “[They] sit and tap on the windows. They are ready for business around the clock.” Fry named Butte one of the three “most wide-open towns” in the United States. The other two—Galveston, Texas, and Phenix City, Alabama—existed solely to serve nearby military bases, but Butte’s district depended upon hometown customers. Butte earned the designation “wide-open”—a place where vice went unchecked—largely because of its flamboyant, very public red-light district and the women who worked there.

For more than a century, these pioneers of a different ilk, highly transient and frustratingly anonymous, molded their business practices to survive changes and reforms. As elsewhere, the fines they paid fattened city coffers, and businesses depended upon their patronage. Reasons for Butte’s far-famed reputation went deeper, however, as these women filled an additional role. Miners who spent money, time, and energy on public women were less likely to organize against the powerful Anaconda Copper Mining Company. As long as the mines operated, public women served the company by deflecting men’s interest.

The architectural layers of Butte’s last remaining parlor house, the Dumas Hotel, visually illustrate a changing economy and shift in clientele from Copper Kings to miners. Today, the second floor retains the original suites where Butte’s elite spent lavish sums in the high-rolling 1890s. But the ground floor’s elegant spaces, where staged soirees preceded upstairs “business,” were later converted to cribs, one-room offices where women served their clients. Continue reading