Jeannette Rankin of Missoula, Montana, was the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Unsurprisingly, her election made headlines across the country. People wanted to know who this western upstart was and what this radical change might portend. The Kentucky Courier-Journal captured the magnitude of the political quake when it wondered, “Breathes there a man with heart so brave that he would want to become one of a deliberate body made up of 434 women and himself?”
Born on a ranch near Missoula in 1880, Jeannette Rankin was the oldest of John Rankin and Olive Pickering Rankin’s seven children. She attended the University of Montana, and in 1908—inspired by the career of Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, the famed Chicago settlement house—she headed to New York to study social work at the New York School of Philanthropy. She worked briefly as a social worker and then as an organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association in several states’ suffrage campaigns. In 1914 Rankin returned to Montana to help lead her state’s suffrage movement to victory. Rankin believed that western conditions, in which men and women had to share the tasks of settlement, encouraged greater gender equality than existed in the East, making it easier to convince Montana men to give women the vote.
Building on the grassroots organization she had created in 1914, she ran for Congress as a Progressive Republican in 1916 and won the seat. When she learned that she had been elected, she said, “I knew the women would stand by me.” And indeed, newly enfranchised Montana women went to great lengths to vote for her. Edith Mutchler wrote to Rankin from Chester to tell her that she was eight months pregnant when she “rode 14 mi on a cold windy day” to cast her ballot, but testified that she “would gladly do it again.” Continue reading Jeannette Rankin: Suffragist, Congresswoman, Pacifist→
Born in Helena in 1906, Elge attended that city’s public schools and went on to graduate from law school at the University of Montana in 1930. Reflecting on her time at UM and her subsequent career as an attorney, Elge recalled, “I was a novelty when I went through law school. The men helped me along because they didn’t see me as competition. Men today know better.”
After law school she returned to Helena, where Wellington Rankin—a prominent Helena attorney and public official and brother of Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin—allowed her to use his library and office and gave her ten cases to start a private practice. She continued in private practice until 1932, when she was elected to the position of public administrator in Lewis and Clark County. Two years later the voters elected her county attorney, the second woman elected in Montana to that office.
Although Montana midwives had a long history of working with doctors to serve the needs of women in their communities, their profession—and especially the idea of home birth—faded from mainstream acceptance as the hospital replaced the home as the “normal” birthing location. By the 1950s, a majority of women across the United States delivered their babies in hospitals. Even as hospital births became more common, midwives continued to assume that pregnancy and delivery were nonmedical events. Physicians, on the other hand, began to insist that medical assistance and access to technology were necessary for safe deliveries.
The conflict crystalized in 1988 when the Montana Board of Medical Examiners, at the request of a Missoula physician, pressed charges against a Montana midwife, Dolly Browder, and initiated a court case, accusing her of violating the Medical Practice Act by practicing medicine without a license.
After a three-day civil trial, the Missoula judge ruled against Browder. He concluded that she was practicing medicine and banned her from assisting pregnant women. The case concluded in January 1989, just as the Fifty-first session of the Montana legislature convened. With the looming threat of additional lawsuits, the Montana Midwifery Association hired a lobbyist, raised funds, and organized supporters. Their goal: To change the Montana Medical Practice Act to exempt home birth midwifery. Continue reading Legalized Midwifery: Montana Leads the Way→
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.”
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 After Suffrage: Women Politicians at the Montana Capitol→
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 Speaking for Those Who Could Not Speak for Themselves: The Journalism and Activism of Gretchen Garber Billings→
A former member of the Communist Party who could brag of an FBI file over four hundred pages in length that monitored her political activity, Elsie Gilland Fox was a tireless and formidable activist and community builder from Miles City, Montana. Her modest upbringing in rural eastern Montana shaped her sense of economic justice, and Fox spent her life advocating democratic social change to alleviate the inequalities of the capitalist system.
Elsie Gilland was born on a Powder River ranch south of Broadus in 1907. Her parents divorced when she was four, leaving her mother, Marcie, to homestead and raise three young children by herself. Living on the edge of poverty meant that each member of the family had to contribute to the economic production of the homestead, and Elsie recalled planting potatoes and cleaning the chicken coop to help out. From her brother, she also learned how to hunt and fish, and fishing would become her lifelong love: “Whenever I’ve had a real crisis, fishing has brought me out of it,” she said in later years. “It’s being out of doors, the movement of the water, hearing the birds sing. Lots cheaper than a psychiatrist.” Continue reading “May the World Be a Peaceful and Happy Place to Live”: The Lifelong Activism of Elsie Gilland Fox→
Alma Smith Jacobs served as the head librarian of the Great Falls Public Library for almost twenty years before becoming the Montana state librarian in 1973. Both of these achievements were historic firsts for an African American woman. Throughout her life, Jacobs demonstrated a passion for education and for community building and a commitment to working for racial justice in Montana.
Alma Smith was born in 1916 in Lewistown, Montana, to Martin and Emma Riley Smith, members of the wave of African American migrants who had been drawn to the Pacific Northwest between 1865 and 1910. Although Montana now has a reputation for being predominantly white, in the early twentieth century there were sizeable black communities in the state, especially in larger cities like Helena, Butte, Missoula, and Great Falls.
The Smith family moved to Great Falls when Alma was a child. After graduating from Great Falls High School, Alma took advantage of scholarships to achieve an impressive education, first at Talladega College in Alabama and then at Columbia University, where she completed a degree in library science. Credentials in hand, and newly married to World War II veteran Marcus Jacobs, she returned to Great Falls, where she found a position at the public library in 1946. Eight years later she became head librarian. From that position, she worked to build the presence of the library throughout the city and central Montana. Continue reading Alma Smith Jacobs: Beloved Librarian, Tireless Activist→
On November 3, 1914, Montana men went to the polls, where they voted 53 to 47 percent in favor of women’s suffrage. Along with Nevada, which also passed a suffrage amendment that year, Montana joined nine other western states in extending voting rights to non-Native women. (Indian women would have to wait until passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act to gain the ballot.) Montana suffrage supporters rejoiced, and in 1916 followed up their victory by electing Maggie Smith Hathaway (D) and Emma Ingalls (R) to the state legislature and Jeannette Rankin (R) to the U.S. Congress. In this seeming wave of feminism, May Trumper (R) also became the state superintendent of public instruction.
An air of inevitability surrounded the victory but it had not come easily. Montana women’s rights advocates first proposed equal suffrage twenty-five years earlier at the 1889 state constitutional convention. Fergus County delegate Perry McAdow (R), husband of successful businesswoman and feminist Clara McAdow, championed the cause. He even recruited long-time Massachusetts suffrage proponent Henry Blackwell to address the convention.
Blackwell was an articulate orator, but he did not have the backing of a well-organized, grassroots movement. “There has never been a woman suffrage meeting held in Montana,” he lamented. Nevertheless, Blackwell hoped to convince the delegates to include constitutional language allowing the legislature to grant equal suffrage through a simple majority vote instead of requiring a constitutional amendment. That proposal failed on a tie ballot.