“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

There’s No Place like Home: The Role of the Montana State Orphanage

Children pose in front of "the Castle" in 1896, three years after the Montana State Orphanage was built. Many of them were not true orphans, but from destitute families whose parents could not care for them. MHS Photo Archives 951-328

Children pose in front of “the Castle” in 1896, three years after the Montana State Orphanage was built. Many of them were not true orphans, but from destitute families whose parents could not care for them. MHS Photo Archives 951-328

At first no one noticed the children as they sat quietly in the Butte-Silver Bow County Courthouse. The six Freedman children, ages eight to fifteen, had filed in with their mother early that morning in 1938. Recently divorced from her husband and earning little in her job as a research editor, Alice Freedman was overwhelmed. Before leaving the children, she told them to wait for her return. As the day wore on, county workers noticed the children. At noon they bought them lunch and contacted the juvenile court. That evening, the Freedman children were taken to a local receiving home. Within two weeks, they were committed to the state orphanage and on their way to the facility in Twin Bridges.

Similar scenarios had played out for the thousands of other residents of the Montana State Orphanage. Most, like the Freedman children, were not true orphans, but rather “orphans of the living,” from homes shattered by devastating poverty, turbulent parental relationships, substance abuse, poor parenting skills, or physical and emotional abuse. In the absence of local, state, or federal social welfare programs, the state orphanage was one of the few options available to these children and the destitute women who could no longer care for them.

Between 1894, when the facility opened, and 1975, when legislative cuts forced its closure, the Montana State Orphanage housed over five thousand children. Established to provide “a haven for innocent children whose poverty and need might lead to lives of crime,” the orphanage was designed along nineteenth-century lines to prepare children for productive adult lives by segregating them and providing them with food, education, vocational training, and a rigid structure.

However, even as the orphanage’s first building, a sprawling Victorian structure known as “The Castle,” was being completed, attitudes toward needy children were changing. By the early 1900s, Progressive Era reformers began arguing that orphanages were dehumanizing and rife with abuse. Children, they claimed, needed a healthy home life, with their parents, if possible, or, if not, with a worthy foster family. To achieve this goal, they advocated the creation and expansion of government agencies to address the needs of abandoned, abused, or widowed women and their children.

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Montana’s “Rosies”: Female Smelter Workers during World War II

134WHM Copper Commando-Cover

Despite some initial resistance, the Anaconda Company celebrated women’s war work in its magazine, Copper Commando. MHS Library

134. Women Smelters - 19-16 Library Collection-Copper Commando-Cover uploadWorld War II represented a turning point for women’s employment in the United States. While women, especially unmarried women, had increasingly taken jobs outside the home since the turn of the century, most worked in service and clerical positions. In the early 1940s, however, wartime production combined with labor shortages to open new opportunities for women in high-paying industrial jobs.

Many of these jobs required moving to the Pacific Coast, but Montana did have its own version of “Rosie the Riveter” laboring in the smelters of Anaconda and Great Falls. Working in production and industrial maintenance positions for the first time, these Montana Rosies broke economic and social barriers. Their gains, however, were short-lived. Considered a temporary expedient rather than a permanent workforce, women were quickly pushed out of industry after the war, and their experiences foreshadowed the conservative gender expectations that women encountered in the 1950s. 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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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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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