The Women’s Protective Union

Young woman (and WPU member) behind the candy counter of Butte's Rialto Theatre

The WPU represented women who worked in service industries, including waitresses, cooks, maids, elevator girls, and janitors. By the 1940s, the union had won eight-hour shifts, the right to overtime pay, sick leave, and paid vacations for its members. Above, a WPU member is shown working the candy counter at the Rialto Theater. PH088 W.P.U./H.E.R.E. Photograph Collection, Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives.

In what must have been an unusual sight on a June evening in 1890, thirty-three women walked into the Butte Miners’ Union hall. They were waitresses, dressmakers, milliners, and saleswomen, and they had gathered to organize a protective association for Butte’s women workers. As the Butte Daily Miner reported the following day, “The ladies of Butte—God bless them!—are not going to be behind their brothers in demanding their rights.” From its inception, the Butte Women’s Protective Union (WPU) labored to improve the conditions of women’s work and to extend a network of support and friendship to Butte’s working women.

Most working women in Butte engaged in “commercialized domesticity.” Miners, carpenters, blacksmiths, pipefitters, and men who worked in scores of other occupations dominated the mining city. Until well into the twentieth century the majority of them were single. They needed to be fed, clothed, nursed, entertained, and generally looked after by women who performed domestic tasks for wages. Working men ate in cafes and boardinghouses, slept in rooming houses, sent their laundry out, and spent their evenings in saloons, dance halls, and theaters—except for the saloons, these were all places where women worked. Women’s work made men’s work possible. Continue reading

Celebrating Sarah Gammon Bickford

Sarah Bickford arrived in Virginia City in 1871. The former slave became the first and only women in Montana to own a utility company.

Sarah Bickford arrived in Virginia City in 1871. The former slave became the first and only women in Montana to own a utility company. Courtesy Ellen Baumler.

On April 10, 2012, Montana honored Sarah Bickford by inducting her into the Gallery of Outstanding Montanans in the Capitol Rotunda in Helena. A former slave who became one of Montana’s most prominent businesswomen, Bickford richly deserved this honor. She was the first and only woman in Montana—and probably the nation’s only female African American—to own a utility. Yet despite her public success, Sarah Bickford’s life is difficult to piece together. Like most African Americans who came west, she carried the burden of slavery, making her past especially difficult to trace.

Sarah Gammon Bickford was born on Christmas Day in 1852, or 1855, or 1856 in North
Carolina or Tennessee. Her parents were slaves of John Blair, a wealthy Tennessee attorney and state senator. As was common, Sarah (nicknamed Sallie) and her family took the last name of their owner. At some point Sarah’s parents were sold and she never saw them again.       Continue reading

Contributions of a Mother and Daughter

Members of Pleasant Hour Club, including  the club's founder Mamie Bridgewater (third from right) and her daughter Octavia (far right) picnic in Colorado Gulch west of Helena, ca. 1926. Octavia, who graduated from Helena High School in 1925 and then attended the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York, served as an army nurse during World War II. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2002-36.11

Members of Pleasant Hour Club, including the club’s founder Mamie Bridgewater (third from right) and her daughter Octavia (far right) picnic in Colorado Gulch west of Helena, ca. 1926. Octavia, who graduated from Helena High School in 1925 and then attended the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York, served as an army nurse during World War II. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2002-36.11

Mamie Anderson Bridgewater and her daughter, Octavia, were strong African American women who lived under the veil of racism in Helena during the first half of the twentieth century. Each earned the respect of the Helena community, and each helped to make a difference in the lives of other African Americans.

Mamie was born at Gallatin, Tennessee, in September 1872, one of eight children. In 1892, she married a career “buffalo soldier,” Samuel Bridgewater, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona Territory. In 1903 she followed her husband to Fort Harrison, Montana, where he was stationed after the Spanish-American War. There she raised five children and worked as a matron at the veterans hospital. All the while, she cared for Samuel during his frequent bouts of illness from wounds received at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898.

After her husband’s death in 1912, Mamie Bridgewater worked as a domestic in private homes, always scraping together enough to care for her children and grandchildren whenever they needed her assistance. She was a leader of Helena’s black Baptist congregation and was heavily involved in fund-raising for Helena’s Second Baptist Church, completed circa 1914. She was also a founder of the local Pleasant Hour Club, which organized in 1916 and became the Helena chapter of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. At her death in 1950 at age seventy-seven, she was serving as chaplain of the Pleasant Hour Club. Continue reading

Using Quilts as a Window into Montana Women’s History

229WHM MHS X1949-04-01 O'looney #11 copy

Minnie Fligelman’s “Crazy” quilt was made of satin, damask, and velvet. It was 20″ by 34″. Photo courtesy MHS X1949.04.01

One of the challenges of women’s history is that women have left behind fewer written records than men. This imbalance makes women-made folk art particularly valuable as historical evidence. As folklorist Henry Glassie elegantly put it: “Few people write. Everyone makes things. An exceptional minority has created the written record. The landscape is the product of the divine average.” Painstakingly created and lovingly used, quilts especially can help us better understand the lives of ordinary Montana women.

While often created for utility, quilts allowed women to express themselves artistically, and studying quilts allows scholars to trace changes in technology, aesthetics, and cultural values over time. Quilts can also provide greater understanding about important events in women’s lives, such as births, marriages, deaths, and travels. Montana historian Mary Murphy states that quilts are “fragments, clues, tiny jeweled windows onto the experiences of women in our past. They hint at networks of kinship and friendship, of the disruption and promise of migration, of the love of things warm and beautiful.”

Minnie Fligelman’s crazy quilt is one example of how a quilt can offer insights into both local history and national trends. According to her daughters, Frieda Fligelman and Belle Fligelman Winestine, who donated this quilt to the Montana Historical Society in 1949, Minnie Fligelman used samples from her husband Herman’s merchandise cart to make this crazy quilt. Minnie Weinzweig and Herman Fligelman, both Romanian Jews, married in Minnesota in 1888 or 1889. In 1889 they moved to Helena, where Herman ran the New York Dry Goods Company. Because Minnie died while giving birth to Belle in 1891, this quilt must have been an important memento of a woman the girls never got to know.

Continue reading

A Young Mother at the Rosebud and Little Bighorn Battles

This drawing, from the Spotted Wolf-Yellow Nose Ledger, shows Buffalo Calf Road Woman rescuing her brother through a hail of bullets. Buffalo Calf Road Woman wears an elk tooth dress. Her brother, Comes in Sight, wears a war bonnet. According to the book We, The Northern Cheyenne People, the horse’s split ears indicates that it is a fast one. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, Bureau of American Ethnology, ms. 166.032

This drawing, from the Spotted Wolf-Yellow Nose Ledger, shows Buffalo Calf Road Woman rescuing her brother through a hail of bullets. Buffalo Calf Road Woman wears an elk tooth dress. Her brother, Comes in Sight, wears a war bonnet. According to the book We, The Northern Cheyenne People, the horse’s split ears indicates that it is a fast one. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, Bureau of American Ethnology, ms. 166.032.

In 1876, the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho people defended their sovereignty, their land, and their lives against the United States. The Rosebud and Little Bighorn battles proved the tribes’ military strength but ultimately contributed to tragic consequences for the victors. A young Cheyenne mother, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, fought alongside her brother and husband at both battles in defense of Cheyenne freedom.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman lived during the Indian wars, an era of extreme violence against the Native inhabitants of the West. American settlers frequently trespassed onto tribal lands, and tribes retaliated by raiding settler camps. Several brutal massacres of peaceful tribal groups by whites led to widespread fear among the tribes and shocked the American public. Such violence increased tensions in the region.

After Lakota chief Red Cloud decisively defeated the U.S. military in 1864 to close the Bozeman Trail, the United States negotiated a peace treaty with the Lakotas. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty established the Great Sioux Nation, a huge reservation encompassing present-day western South Dakota, and designated the unceded lands between the Black Hills and the Bighorn Mountains, including the Powder River country, for the Indians’ “absolute and undisturbed use.” Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho bands also occupied this region. Continue reading

Cultivating Female Reform: The Montana Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

Etta Weatherson, Candace Shaw, Elizabeth Blakeman ride on the WCTU float in 1916 Fourth of July Parade, Columbus, Montana

Etta Weatherson, Candace Shaw, Elizabeth Blakeman ride on the WCTU float in 1916 Fourth of July Parade, Columbus, Montana. MHS Photo Archives 951-822

Founded in 1883, the Montana chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was a popular, well-organized women’s club focused on reducing the consumption of alcohol in the state. Part of a broad series of reform movements that swept the country at the turn of the century, the WCTU was witness to women’s growing political power in the area of social reform.

The national WCTU was founded in Ohio in 1873 and quickly gained a broad base of support around the country. Like their national counterparts, Montana women joined the WCTU because they believed that limiting access to alcohol would in turn reduce the incidence of other social ills, such as gambling, prostitution, and public and domestic violence. In addition to advocating temperance (and later complete prohibition), Montana WCTU members also worked for a broad range of social reforms. At their state convention in Billings 1910, for example, the members voted for resolutions that “urged enforcement of juvenile court law [and] government aid to destitute mothers, . . . condemned the use of coca-cola, and recommended sanitary fountains.”

In her study of the WCTU and similar women’s clubs in this period, historian Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs argues that Montana women enjoyed a “growing sense of social and political power through their clubs’ active participation in social and civil affairs.” By­­ assertin­­g their role as reformers, the middle-class women involved in the Montana WCTU were restructuring ideas about femininity and women’s role in the public sphere. They challenged the traditional idea that a woman’s place was in the home, suggesting instead that society had become so morally corrupt that it required women’s political participation. They drew on the Victorian idea of women’s natural moral superiority to make the case that women had to take the lead in reform. Continue reading

Early Social Service Was Women’s Work

A nun and children looking through the rubble after the 1935 Helena earthquake.

St. Joseph’s Home for Orphans fulfilled one of the missions of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. Earthquakes in 1935 left the children homeless and they spent nearly two years as the guests of wealthy U. S. Senator James E. Murray at Boulder Hot Springs. Photo courtesy Independent Record

Parochial institutions in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Montana, which were almost exclusively under the supervision of women, were the forerunners of our modern social services. Catholic nuns, Methodist deaconesses, and nondenominational Christian women offered comfort, sanctuary, and stability to the lost, the desperate, and the destitute. Their contributions were far-reaching and some of their pioneering services evolved and remain viable today.

Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth (Kansas) came to Helena in 1869 at the invitation of Jesuit priests who saw a dire need for feminine influence in the rough-and-tumble gold camp. The sisters’ mission was threefold—to teach youth, care for orphans, and minister to the sick—and it fit in with the real needs of the frontier community. St. Vincent’s Academy, the first boarding school for non-Indian girls, opened in 1870 and educated girls until 1935. Continue reading

A Farm of Her Own

Grace Binks and Magaret Major pose outside a chicken house.

In 1911, thirty-nine-year-old Grace Binks (left) and twenty-nine-year-old Margaret Major (right) came to Sumatra, Montana (northwestern Rosebud County) as part of a group of Iowa homesteaders. The women stayed only a year, paying cash to “commute” their homesteads into purchased land. MHS Photo Archives PAc 92-62 p.19 #C

Historians estimate that up to 18 percent of homesteaders in Montana were unmarried women. Passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any twenty-one-year-old head of household the right to homestead federal land. Single, widowed, and divorced women fit this description, and they crossed the country to file homestead claims of 160 acres. After the turn of the century, when the Enlarged Homestead Act doubled the acreage to 320, even more women took up free land in Montana. While not all succeeded, those who did proved that women were up to the task. Gwenllian Evans was Montana’s first female homesteader. A widow from Wales, she emigrated to the United States in 1868. Her son, Morgan Evans, was Marcus Daly’s land agent and a well-known Deer Lodge valley rancher. In 1870, Gwenllian Evans filed on land that later became the town of Opportunity; she received her patent in 1872.  She was one of the territory’s first post mistresses and lived on her homestead until her death in 1892. Continue reading

“You Had to Pretend It Never Happened”: Illegal Abortion in Montana

Although he was never convicted, Helena homeopath Edwin Kellog, whose 1898 advertisement is shown here, had at least seven encounters with the law between 1893 and 1915 over allegations that he performed abortions. At least two of his alleged patients died from the procedure. Polk's Helena City Directory, 1898, p. 238, MHS Library

Although he was never convicted, Helena homeopath Edwin Kellog, whose 1898 advertisement is shown here, had at least seven encounters with the law between 1893 and 1915 over allegations that he performed abortions. At least two of his alleged patients died from the procedure. Polk’s Helena City Directory, 1898, p. 238, MHS Library

Terminating a pregnancy was illegal in Montana until 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Roe v. Wade that abortion was a constitutionally protected right. Nevertheless, the practice of abortion was still commonplace. The stories of Montana women who obtained illegal abortions reveal the uncertainty, fear, shame, and danger they experienced.

Abortion before “quickening” (fetal movement) was legal in the United States prior to the 1860s, but around 1860 politicians and members of the American Medical Association campaigned to outlaw the practice. During Montana’s territorial period, it was illegal to induce abortions with either medicine or instruments, except in cases where the life of the mother was at risk. By 1895, the woman receiving the abortion as well as the person performing it were subject to prosecution.

The criminalization of abortion did not mean the end of the practice, and Montana women continued to seek professional help, or in some cases, to help each other, when they wanted to terminate a pregnancy. The practice decreased as women had greater access to contraceptives in the twentieth century, but a variety of factors—ranging from fear of complications during pregnancy to the shame of childbirth out of wedlock—meant that there was continued demand for underground abortions. Continue reading

Number, Please: Women Telephone Operators

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