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.”
Cecilia LaRance was born in 1915 in a cabin on the South Fork of the Teton River. Her grandparents were among the Métis families who had settled along the Rocky Mountains between Heart Butte and Augusta in the late 1800s. Growing up in the distinct culture formed by the fusion of French, Scottish, Chippewa, and Cree heritages, Cecilia belonged to the last generation of children to experience the self-sufficiency and “old ways” of this Métis community.
The French Canadian LaRance family settled along the Rocky Mountain Front in the 1870s. Cecilia’s grandmother, Marguerite LaRance, was the first person buried at the Métis cemetery nestled in the trees along the South Fork. Cecilia’s father, James LaRance, was born at St. Peter’s Mission west of Fort Benton. When James was left with three small children after his first wife’s death, he married soft-spoken and hardworking Mabel Fellers, whose family had fled to Montana after the failed Northwest Rebellion of 1885.
The couple raised their family on a squatter’s homestead on Willow Creek, furnishing their single-room cabin with a woodstove, a large table, and apple-box benches. James’ rocker sat near Mabel’s sewing machine by the window. The cabin lacked electricity and indoor plumbing, and the LaRances bathed in a galvanized tub behind two chairs draped with a sheet for privacy. Cecilia and her sisters shared a bed, their brothers slept on a foldout sofa, and the baby’s hammock hung over the parents’ bed. When guests visited, they slept in the only space left: under the table. “We didn’t have room enough to keep a moth’s suitcase in that house,” Cecilia remembered. Continue reading A Métis Girlhood→
Rose Gordon was born 1883 in White Sulphur Springs to a former slave and a black Scottish-born immigrant. Her commitment to service makes her life notable, while the grace and advocacy she showed in navigating the racist currents common to small-town Montana sheds light on the African American experience.
Rose’s father, John, came to Montana Territory by steamboat in 1881 to cook on the mining frontier; her mother, Mary, followed a year later. The family purchased a home in White Sulphur Springs, Meagher County, where John worked as a chef for the town’s primary hotel. At the time the family settled there, Meagher County was home to some forty-six hundred people, including thirty African Americans.
In the 1890s John Gordon was killed in a train accident, leaving Mary Gordon to support five children by cooking, doing laundry, and providing nursing care for area families. Despite the long hours she gave to helping her mother, Rose graduated from high school as valedictorian. Her graduation oration, “The Progress of the Negro Race,” ended with praise for the African American educator Booker T. Washington, and Rose’s life thereafter gave testimony to Washington’s emphasis on self-improvement, self-reliance, education, and non-confrontational relationships with white people.
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→
Among the formidable obstacles that prevented Ella Knowles from practicing law in Montana was the law itself. A statute prohibited women from passing the bar. However, after much debate, upon statehood in 1889 Montana lawmakers amended the statute, allowing Knowles to take the bar exam. To their amazement, she passed with ease. In fact, Wilbur Fisk Sanders, one of the three examiners, remarked that “she beat all I have ever examined.” Thus Ella Knowles became the first woman licensed to practice law in Montana and the state’s first female notary public, before going on to accomplish other “firsts.”
Ella Knowles was born in 1860 in Northwood Ridge, New Hampshire. She completed teaching courses at the Plymouth State Normal School and taught in local schools for four years. She then attended Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, which at that time was one of very few coeducational colleges in the country. Honored in oratory and composition, she graduated from Bates in 1884, one of the first women to do so.
Knowles began to read law in New Hampshire, but, under doctor’s orders, moved to Helena, Montana Territory, in 1888 to seek a healthier climate. She served as principal of Helena’s West Side School for a while but, to the dismay of her friends, gave up job security to resume legal studies under Helena attorney Joseph W. Kinsley. Through her gift of oratory, Knowles successfully lobbied the 1889 Montana territorial legislature to allow women to practice law, even though that same legislature rejected women’s suffrage. Continue reading Ella Knowles: Portia of the People→
In 1909 the Anaconda Standard ran an article called “The Uplift of the Indians.” It argued that Indians could be brought from their “untutored, childlike state” and transformed—through education, private property ownership, and conversion to Christianity—into productive American citizens. Perhaps no Montanan of her generation better exemplified this assimilationist ideal than Blackfeet descendent Helen Piotopowaka Clarke. While Clarke’s remarkable personal and professional accomplishments earned her great respect and admiration, they also revealed the persistence of anti-Indian prejudices at the turn of the twentieth century.
Helen was born in 1846 to a prominent Scottish-American, Malcolm Clarke, and his Blackfeet wife, Cothcocoma. She spent most of her childhood at a convent school in Cincinnati and returned to Montana just a few years before a group of Blackfeet men murdered her father in 1869. Later that year, Helen’s brothers participated in the Baker Massacre during which troops, ostensibly on a mission to capture Malcolm Clarke’s killers, slaughtered a peaceful and unassociated Blackfeet camp.
Following these tragic events, Helen Clarke moved back east and had a brief but successful acting career in New York. In 1875, she returned to Montana, where attorney and family friend Wilbur Sanders found her a teaching position in Helena. Not everyone in Helena was happy with her hire. Elizabeth Chester Fisk, whose husband edited the Helena Herald, withdrew her children from school because she objected so strenuously to Helen’s mixed ancestry. However, enough Helenans were accepting of the refined, devoutly Catholic, and talented woman that they elected Clarke county superintendent of schools in 1882. She held the position for three terms—one of the first two women (and only person of Indian descent) to hold elective office in Montana Territory. Continue reading Helen Piotopowaka Clarke and the Persistence of Prejudice→
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→
The legacy of a nineteenth-century Apsáalooke grandmother lives on in the traditions of the Crow people today. Born in 1856, Pretty Shield belonged to the last generation of children raised in an intact Apsáalooke culture. Just thirty years later, the tribe faced the loss of their indigenous identities and cultural heritage as well as their lands. Thus, by the 1920s and 1930s, as she raised her grandchildren, Pretty Shield confronted a twofold challenge: first, to bring them up in the poverty of the early reservation years; second, to instill in them a strong Apsáalooke identity during the era of assimilation. She was well aware of the difficulty—and importance—of her task.
Pretty Shield herself had enjoyed a happy childhood. Her elders taught her how to harvest plants, preserve meat, cook, and sew. They guided her spiritually, educated her, and brought her up according to the traditions of the Apsáalooke worldview. Too soon, these happy years gave way to the destructive forces of American colonization.
In 1872, smallpox killed hundreds of Crow people, including Pretty Shield’s beloved father, Kills in the Night. At the same time, American military campaigns against other Plains tribes threatened all intertribal trade and safety while the extinction of the bison destroyed tribal economies. Reduced to poverty and starvation, tribes were forced to relinquish more and more of their homelands. Between 1851 and 1904, the Crows themselves lost 35 million acres. The U.S. government outlawed indigenous ceremonies, mandated that Native children attend government or mission schools, and sent emissaries of assimilation onto the reservations to enforce American policies. Many Crows converted to Christianity, took up farming, and sent their children to be raised at boarding schools, where their Apsáalooke identity succumbed to white American values and a wholly different relationship to the natural world. Continue reading Pretty Shield’s Success: Raising “Grandmother’s Grandchild”→
Evelyn Cameron (1868-1928) and Julia Tuell (1886-1960) were two women with similar talents but opposite perspectives. Each left an invaluable photographic record of life and culture in eastern Montana. Each was an artist in her own right, and because the work of each is so different, the two complement each other remarkably well.
Terry, Montana, on the state’s eastern edge, was home to Evelyn Cameron, who documented women in particular in both traditional and nontraditional roles on ranches and homesteads during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cameron’s photographs capture the spirit of the West with shutter, lens, and expert eye.
Evelyn Cameron came to Montana from England with her husband, Ewen, to raise polo ponies, an enterprise that failed. While Ewen was a noted ornithologist and never actively worked on the ranch, Evelyn quickly learned to milk cows, break horses, and cultivate a garden. When they needed money, Evelyn learned the art of photography. She sold photographs, especially portraits, of neighbors. She also sold produce and took in wealthy boarders to support herself and her husband. Continue reading Photographic Legacies of Evelyn Cameron and Julia Tuell→