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.
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 Drawing on Motherhood: The Cartoons and Illustrations of Fanny Cory Cooney→
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 The Lifelong Quest of Frieda Fligelman and Belle Fligelman Winestine→
“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 Writing Our Lives: Novelist Mildred Walker’s Illumination of Montana Women→
In 1922, the Extension Service at Montana State College in Bozeman hired Harriette Cushman to be Montana’s poultry specialist. Over the next thirty-two years, Cushman worked to build a profitable poultry industry that proved an economic godsend during Montana’s prolonged economic depression. A woman of many interests, Cushman also championed the Indian Center at Montana State University and advocated for libraries, museums, and the arts. She was also a lifelong supporter of 4-H, an environmental advocate, and a prolific writer.
Harriette Eliza Cushman was born in Alabama in 1890. She graduated from Cornell University in 1914 with a degree in bacteriology and chemistry. In 1918 she earned a poultry specialist degree from Rutgers University and became one of the few women pursuing a career as a poultry scientist.
As Montana’s poultry specialist, Cushman traveled the state, educating farmers on breeding, culling, egg and bird grading, poultry housing, proper feed, and poultry health. She authored numerous seminal poultry-raising manuals that emphasized the application of scientific methods and utilized local demonstration flocks for hands-on instruction.
Montana’s poultry industry expanded significantly under Cushman’s guidance. Prior to Cushman’s tenure as state poultry specialist, individual poultry growers worked independently, selling birds locally for whatever price they could get. In the 1920s, Cushman helped to form the nation’s first egg and turkey wholesale cooperatives, enabling Montana poultry growers to negotiate top prices. As the first poultry grader for the newly formed Northwest Turkey Federation, Cushman secured nationwide markets for Montana’s premium quality “Norbest” turkeys, making Montana’s turkey industry the most profitable in the nation during the Great Depression. Continue reading From Poultry to Poetry: The Life and Letters of Harriette E. Cushman→
Temperance advocate Carrie Nation once pronounced Mary MacLane “the example of a woman who has been unwomanly in everything that she is noted for.” MacLane was no doubt delighted with the description. Writer, bohemian, and actress, Mary MacLane (1881-1929) was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and grew up in Butte, Montana. Best known for her two autobiographical books, The Story of Mary MacLane (1902) and I, Mary MacLane (1917), she also wrote features for newspapers, starred in a motion picture, and became notorious for her outrageous, unwomanly behavior.
MacLane was the child of failed fortune. Her father died when she was eight; after her mother remarried, her stepfather took the family to Butte in search of riches. According to legend, on the eve of Mary’s departure for Stanford University, her stepfather confessed that he had lost the family’s money in a mining venture and could not afford to send her to college. Whatever the truth, Mary did not attend college after graduating from Butte High School, but spent her days feeling restless and trapped, walking through Butte and recording her thoughts in her diary. In 1902, she sent the handwritten text to a Chicago publisher, Fleming H. Revell Co, under the title, I Await the Devil’s Coming. The editor who read the piece judged it the “most astounding and revealing piece of realism I had ever read.” But it was not the kind of material that the Revell, “Publishers of Evangelical Literature,” brought to the market. Fortunately, the editor sent it to another publisher, Stone & Kimball, who released it as The Story of Mary MacLane. Within a few months the book had sold eighty thousand copies, and MacLane may have earned as much as $20,000 in royalties in 1902 (approximately $500,000 in 2013 dollars).
Born in 1910 as Halley’s Comet streaked by, Inez Ratekin Herrig died ninety-four years later, an exemplary engaged citizen and community champion. For all but two of those years Herrig lived in Libby, Montana; for all but twenty years she occupied her parents’ small art- and music-filled home. In young adulthood, she helped to care for her older brother, who had encephalitis and Parkinson’s. She also helped support her family when her father lost his sight. In 1953, at the age of forty-three, she married Bob Herrig, an educator and forester with deep local roots. In a life framed by duty, social convention, and the economic and geographical confines of her remote northwestern Montana home, Herrig served her community as librarian, engaged volunteer, policy advocate, and local historian.
Herrig’s passion for books and for community service surfaced at age twelve when she began volunteering at Libby’s tiny public library. In 1927, a year out of high school, she took library work in Seattle to fund classes at the University of Washington. Two years later, facing the Depression and her parents’ poverty, she returned home to fill the vacant Lincoln County librarian position, a job she would hold for the next sixty years.
When the state college in Bozeman—now Montana State University—hired Frances Senska to teach ceramics in 1946, both the college art department and Senska herself were fairly new to the art form. The school’s small fine arts program focused primarily on two-dimensional art, and Senska, who had a master’s degree in applied art, had taken just two classes in ceramics. Nonetheless, hiring Senska proved fortuitous for the college and for America’s burgeoning midcentury crafts movement. At Montana State, Senska also met printmaker Jessie Wilber, who became her lifelong companion and with whom she helped cultivate Montana’s art community.
Frances Senska was born in 1914 and grew up in Cameroon, where her parents were missionaries. Her father, a cabinet maker and woodworker as well as a doctor, taught Frances how to use woodworking tools. The people of Batanga, Cameroon, also predisposed the girl to appreciate utilitarian crafts. “Everything that was used there was made by the people for the purposes they were going to use it for. It was low-tech. . . . And they were experts at what they did,” Senska later recalled.
Senska discovered her own love of clay while stationed in San Francisco with the WAVES during World War II. At a night course from Edith Heath at the California Labor School, Senska got her hands into “real, useable clay.” She immediately appreciated the autonomy of making utilitarian items by hand. “Clay is such a universal medium,” she said in a later interview. “You can do anything with it. . . . It doesn’t have to go through a factory system to be converted into a metal structure or something like that. . . . You do the whole thing yourself: you have the clay, you make the pot, you decorate it, you fire it; it’s all your work.”
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.
Following the publication of Owen Wister’s The Virginian in 1902, Western novels became extremely popular, and several Montana women became successful genre writers. These writers, including Caroline Lockhart and Bertha Muzzy Sinclair Cowan (best known as B. M. Bower), drew inspiration from the life, land, and folklore of Montana. Their stories suggest the enduring place that Montana has in the imagined, symbolic West. They also reveal the role gender discrimination played in popular expectations about Westerns and their creators.
Scholar Jane Tompkins has explored the power of the Western—both in novels and on film—in the American psyche. She argues, “The West functions as a symbol of freedom, and of the opportunity for conquest. It seems to offer escape from the condition of life in modern industrial society. . . . [T]he creak of saddle leather and the sun beating down, the horses’ energy and force—these things promise a translation of the self into something purer and more authentic, more intense, more real.” This version of the West was decidedly masculine. And while largely mythic, it was an idea that was wildly popular—especially among the country’s young men—from 1900 to 1975. Continue reading Writing a Rough-and-Tumble World: Caroline Lockhart and B. M. Bower→
Laura Spencer Howey was a prominent Helena pioneer and activist. Her work as librarian of the State Historical and Miscellaneous Library (now the Montana Historical Society) is her enduring legacy, as she ensured the preservation of thousands of books, documents, and artifacts relevant to Montana’s early history. Her abrupt dismissal from that position in 1907 shows one way that sex discrimination operated in the early twentieth century.
Laura was born in Cadiz, Ohio, in 1851. Her father died when she was young, and her mother taught school to support herself and two young children. A biography of Howey credits her mother as “one of the foremost and best female teachers in that part of Ohio” and a “remarkably well read woman” who raised her children “in the refining atmosphere of books and music.” Laura attended Beaver College, a prominent women’s college in Pennsylvania, where she studied music, French, and drama. While teaching at Harlem Springs College in Ohio, she met fellow professor and her future husband Robert E. Howey.