“Must a woman . . . give it all up when she marries?”: The Debate over Employing Married Women as Teachers

Newspaper Ad: "Vote It is Your Duty to Vote."  School Election Is Next Saturday, April 2. Mrs. W. R. Swank, F. P. Ramsey, Wm. B. Waldo are in favor of reinstatement of married teachers who are giving efficient service in our schools. (Paid for by the SWR for Trustees Club)

The Billings Federation of Women’s Clubs opposed the 1927 Billings school district’s decision to bar married teachers. When the school board refused to reconsider, they recruited candidates to run for the school board on a pro-married teacher platform. All three lost the election. Billings Gazette, April 1, 1927

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

Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann: A Montana Renaissance Woman

Formal portrait (just head and shoulders) of Martha Edgerton, c. 1863.

Martha Edgerton arrived in Bannack in 1863. In later years she supported herself by writing articles about life in Montana Territory, some of which were based on her own memories. Photograph by E. C. Ely. MHS Photo Archives 942-065

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

Brokers of the Frontier:  Indigenous Women and the Fur Trade

Culbertson family portrait, c. 1863: Alexander on left, with arm around young Joe, and Natawista on the right

This picture of Alexander and Natawista Culbertson, and their son Joe, was taken c. 1863. Natawista married the American Fur Company’s powerful manager at Fort Union, in 1840. Visitors to the fort, where the Culbertsons entertained in white-linen European elegance, described Natawista as a beautiful, adventuresome woman and a skilled rider. Natawista briefly accompanied Alexander when he retired to Illinois but returned to Canada to rejoin her Blood family. MHS Photo Archives 941-818

In 1844, influential Piegan warrior Under Bull and his wife, Black Bear, chose American Fur Company clerk Malcolm Clarke to be their teenage daughter Coth-co-co-na’s husband.  During their twenty-five year marriage, Coth-co-co-na bore two boys and two girls, moved briefly with Clarke to Michigan, and helped him establish a ranch near Helena.  She mourned deeply when Clarke sent their two oldest children east for schooling. In 1862, she accepted Clarke’s new mixed-blood wife, Good Singing, into their home. According to her children’s accounts, her husband’s murder in 1869 left Coth-co-co-na a broken woman. She died in 1895.

For two centuries—from the mid-1600s to the 1860s—Indian and Métis women like Coth-co-co-na brokered culture, language, trade goods, and power on the Canadian and American fur-trade frontier. They were partners, liaisons, and wives to the French, Scottish, Canadian, and American men who scoured the West for salable furs. Stereotyped by early historians as victims or heroines (and there were both), indigenous women also wielded significant, traceable power in this era of changing alliances, increasing intertribal conflict, and expanding European presence in the West.

The roles indigenous women played during the fur trade reflected the roles they historically held within their communities. Despite cultural distinctions among tribes, indigenous women generally shared the common responsibilities of procuring and trading food, hides, and clothing. Women also embodied political diplomacy as tribes forged internal and intertribal relationships around family alliances and cemented these social structures through (often polygamous) marriage. These traditional economic and political roles placed indigenous women at the center of trade, and made them desirable and necessary partners for fur traders.

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Drawing on Motherhood: The Cartoons and Illustrations of Fanny Cory Cooney

A gray haired woman sits at a table. An inked cartoon is in front of her.

Fanny Y. Cory Cooney produced most of her cartoons at the dining room table, or in the living room on a drawing board that she perched on her lap. MHS Photo Archives PAc 95-13.2

For thirty years—from 1926 to 1956—newspaper readers across the country shared their morning coffee or evening pipe with “Sonny,” a rambunctious toddler always willing to share his unique take on the world. In all likelihood, few of those readers realized that the mischievous namesake of the internationally syndicated cartoon Sonnysayings was the creation of an unassuming ranch wife working from her rural Montana home located “27 miles from Helena . . . and ‘3 miles from anything.’” Drawing under the pen name F. Y. Cory, Fanny Cory Cooney crafted not only Sonnysayings, her longest-running and most popular effort, but two additional cartoons­—Other People’s Children and Little Miss Muffett—which also relied upon the humorous antics of impish youngsters.

Cartoon shows a girl standing next to a baby knocking down ABC blocks.

The caption to this classic Sonnysaying, written faintly in pencil below the image, reads “I’m letting Baby spoil my block house–But if Christmas wasn’t most here, I’d knock the stuffin’ out ob her.” Click on drawing for larger image. Fanny Cory Cooney, 1926, MHS Museum 2001.45.15

While Cooney’s comics meshed thematically with a number of other cartoons popular during the 1920s and 1930s, the artist herself did not fit the mold of women cartoonists, who were themselves a rarity in a male-dominated profession. Author Trina Robbins begins her book, Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists, 1896–2013, by identifying three notable twentieth-century women cartoonists who started their careers in the late 1890s as illustrators working in New York City. Of the three, Cooney was the only one whose lifestyle Robbins does not describe as “bohemian.” Continue reading

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

“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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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

Mary Ann Pierre Topsseh Coombs and the Bitterroot Salish

Ten year old Mary Ann Pierre cried when U.S. troops arrived in 1891 to remove  her family from Bitterroot, and she never forgot her homeland. University of Montana Archives, photo 85.0214

Ten year old Mary Ann Pierre cried when U.S. troops arrived in 1891 to remove her family from Bitterroot, and she never forgot her homeland. University of Montana Archives, photo 85.0214

Mary Ann Pierre was about ten years old in October 1891, when American soldiers arrived to “escort” the Salish people out of the Bitterroot region and to the Jocko (now Flathead) Indian Reservation. With her family and three hundred members of her tribe, Mary Ann tearfully left the homeland where her people had lived for millennia. The Salish left behind farms, log homes, and the St. Mary’s Mission church—evidence of all they had done to adjust to an Anglo-American lifestyle. Nearly eighty-five years later, Mary Ann Pierre Coombs returned to the Bitterroot to rekindle her people’s historical and cultural connections to their homeland.

The Bitterroot region and the Salish people share a long mutual history. Salish travel routes to and from the Bitterroot testify to centuries of regular use as they moved seasonally to hunt bison and trade with regional tribes in well-established trading centers. Linguistic studies of the inland Salish language reveal ten-thousand-year-old words that described specific sites in the Bitterroot region and testify to the tribe’s knowledge of the region’s geography and resources.

When Lewis and Clark entered the Bitterroot in 1805 in destitute condition, the hospitable Salish presented the bedraggled strangers with food, shelter, blankets, good horses, and travel advice. In 1841, Jesuit missionaries established St. Mary’s Mission at present-day Stevensville, and many Salish adopted Catholicism alongside their Native beliefs.

In 1855, Washington territorial governor Isaac Stevens negotiated the Hellgate Treaty with the Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai tribes. The necessity of translating everything into multiple languages made the negotiations problematic. One Jesuit observer said the translations were so poor that “not a tenth . . .  was actually understood by either party.” While the Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes retained tribal lands at the southern end of Flathead Lake, the fate of the Bitterroot was not clear. Chief Victor believed the treaty protected his Salish tribe from dispossession, as it indicated a future survey for a reservation and precluded American trespass. However, the Americans claimed the treaty permitted the eventual eviction of the Salish at the American president’s discretion.

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Two Legendary African American Homesteaders

An African American homestead couple stand in front of their home.

Of the almost 1,800 African Americans who lived in Montana in 1910, approximately 43 percent were women. Most lived in Helena, Butte, and Great Falls. A few, like Annie Morgan, Birdie Brown, and this unidentified Great Falls-area homesteader, pictured with her husband on their claim, looked to build a life for themselves on the agricultural frontier. Photograph by the Great Falls Photo View Company, Ken Robison Collection

Homesteading was hard work, but it offered single women a chance to become independent at a time when social mores made it difficult for women to be self-sufficient. Among the many single women who took this opportunity were two African American women who filed homestead claims and did well for themselves. Homesteading allowed Annie Morgan and Bertie Brown to become women of property, and each brought special skills to the communities in which they settled.

Nothing is known about Agnes “Annie” Morgan’s early life except that she was born in Maryland around 1844. By 1880, she was married, had come west, and was a domestic servant in the household of Capt. Myles Moylan and his wife, Lottie. The captain was stationed at Fort Meade, Dakota Territory, along with Frederick Benteen and other survivors of the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle at Little Bighorn. Morgan’s association with the Seventh Cavalry lends credence to the legend that she once had cooked for Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

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