“Some say basketball is a metaphor for life,” mused NBA Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson during an interview about Montana’s Class C girls’ basketball tradition, “but it’s bigger than that. It’s . . . joy.”
For the first half of the twentieth century, Montana’s young female basketball players knew that joy—sprinting full court in front of enthusiastic crowds. In 1904, ten girls from Fort Shaw Indian School drew enormous Great Falls crowds and beat all rivals at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Phil Jackson’s mother captained her 1927 Wolf Point girls’ basketball team. Patricia Morrison’s 1944-45 Fairfield High girls’ team beat the boys, playing boys’ rules.
But by 1950, mainstream sensibilities and school funding limits had corralled Montana’s exuberant female athletes. Their opportunities became limited to tamer intramural activities—often characterized by cast-off equipment, unskilled coaching, and poor facilities. It took congressional action and a court fight to bring equal opportunity in all sports to Montana’s young women athletes.
The question, of course, was never about girls’ physical prowess or fearlessness. Instead, the issue was equal access to resources. In response, Congress enacted the Education Amendments of 1972. These regulations covered many educational issues, but the best-known section reads, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Though it prohibited gender discrimination in all areas of education, Title IX’s most far-reaching impact occurred in women’s sports.
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 “Must a woman . . . give it all up when she marries?”: The Debate over Employing Married Women as Teachers
World 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 Montana’s “Rosies”: Female Smelter Workers during World War II
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.
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 Expanding Their Sphere: Montana Women in Education Administration and Public Health
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 Merle Egan Anderson: Montana’s “Hello Girl”
According to one common narrative, the post-World War II period marked a “return” to traditional gender roles, including breadwinner husbands and homemaker wives. But contrary to this stereotype, in the 1940s and 1950s married women entered the paid workforce in greater numbers than ever before. Women also volunteered with community organizations and were actively involved in both political parties. In Montana, a small but significant number of women even ventured into—and achieved success in—the traditionally masculine world of electoral politics. These postwar politicians achieved a number of important “firsts” and gained political experience that would be invaluable in the push for equal rights in the 1960s and 1970s.
Among these postwar women politicians was Ellenore Bridenstine of Terry, who in 1945 became the first woman elected to the state senate. An active participant in the local Republican Party and the wife of the only physician in Prairie County, Bridenstine recalled her decision to run for office: “Many of my women friends felt that I was crazy to try for it. But I decided to try for it anyway just to see what would happen. The man holding the office had never campaigned, and I am sure that he felt he would not need to against a woman.” Bridenstine won her seat by a mere six votes but was reelected in the next cycle. Continue reading Montana’s Postwar Women Politicians
In 1924, headlines across the state decried the “butchery of the helpless” at the Montana State Hospital for the Insane at Warm Springs, where eleven inmates were forcibly sterilized. Hospital staff responded that all sterilizations had received the required approval and that eugenics was “necessary to the future welfare of Montana.” Eugenics—the idea that “human perfection could be developed through selective breeding”—grew in popularity in the early twentieth century, including support for forced sterilization. The movement reached its zenith in Montana in the early 1930s, and, despite growing concerns, the practice of forced sterilizations continued into the 1970s.
Montanans’ support for forced sterilization was part of a national trend. Eugenics proponent Albert E. Wiggam, a national lecturer and trained psychologist, helped spread the eugenics gospel in Montana through a column in the Missoulian. “Already we are taxing ourselves for asylums and hospitals and jails to take care of millions who ought never to have been born,” Wiggam wrote. Many Montanans agreed, including the Helena mother who wrote the state hospital in 1924 in support of sterilization polices. “I am a tax payer. That means I wish there was no insane, no feeble minded, and no criminals to support and to fear. . . . The very fact that these people are inmates of state institutions proves that they are morally or mentally unfit to propagate their kind.” Continue reading The Right to Procreate: The Montana State Board of Eugenics and Body Politics
When Blanche McManus arrived to teach at a one-room schoolhouse on the south fork of the Yaak River in 1928, the school contained a table, boards painted black for a chalkboard, and a log for her to sit on. She had four students: a seventh-grade boy who quit when he turned sixteen later that year; a thirteen-year-old girl who completed the entire seventh- and eighth-grade curriculum in just four months; a sweet-natured first grader; and a lazy fifth-grade boy whose mother expected McManus to give him good grades. “I used to teach arithmetic and then go out behind the school house and cry,” McManus remembered. Like other teachers across Montana’s rural landscape in the early twentieth century, McManus relied on her own resourcefulness and creativity to succeed while facing innumerable challenges.
In the early 1900s, an aspiring teacher could obtain a two-year rural teaching certificate, provided she was a high school graduate, was unmarried, and passed competency exams in various subjects. Some high schools provided limited teacher training during the junior and senior years. Rural district trustees, some of whom had little formal education themselves, assumed students would become miners, wives, or farmers like their parents and therefore needed only a rudimentary education. They frequently hired two-year certified teachers fresh out of high school.
Nonetheless, when eighteen-year-old Loretta Jarussi applied for her first teaching position at Plainview School in Carbon County in 1917, the school board initially balked at her lack of experience. Then one board member declared they ought to hire Jarussi because she had red hair and “the best teacher I ever had was a redhead.” Jarussi got the job. Once employed, Jarussi felt she was “getting rich fast.” A female teacher in a rural school could earn sixty to eighty dollars per month at that time; a male teacher earned roughly 20 percent more. Continue reading “Be Creative and Be Resourceful”: Rural Teachers in the Early Twentieth Century
Telling a young Blackfeet woman that she was “not capable” of understanding basic accounting may have been the most ridiculous thing the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) ever did. The woman was Elouise Pepion Cobell, treasurer for the Blackfeet tribe and founder of the first American Indian-owned national bank. She became the lead plaintiff in Cobell v. Salazar, successfully suing the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the BIA on behalf of nearly half a million American Indians for mismanagement of trust funds.
Elouise Pepion Cobell grew up in the 1950s in a home without electricity or indoor plumbing. Across the Blackfeet reservation, many families lived in similar circumstances, despite the existence of income-producing enterprises such as oil and gas extraction and ranching on land belonging to tribal members. Cobell wondered how such profitable development on the Indians’ lands could fail to provide them with a significant income. Continue reading Elouise Pepion Cobell: Banker-Warrior
Born to Mexican immigrants Petra Ortega and Fidencio Acebedo in 1922, Lula Martinez grew up in Butte but left as a teenager for agricultural work in the Pacific Northwest. She returned over forty years later to work on behalf of the city’s impoverished and unemployed. Her memories of her childhood in Butte reveal the complex racial dynamic that existed in the mining city in the early twentieth century, and her experiences as an ethnic minority instilled a lifelong commitment to community activism and female empowerment.
Martinez’s father worked construction on the railroad, and his job took the family from Texas to Montana. The Acebedos settled in Butte, and Fidencio worked in the mines. The Acebedos were part of Butte’s small but significant Hispanic population, drawn to the booming copper mines in the first decades of the twentieth century. By World War II, “several hundred Mexicans and Filipinos” lived in Butte. The majority of the Mexican immigrants worked at the Leonard Mine and lived on the city’s east side. Unlike Filipinos, who encountered violence in the mines and tended not to stay, Mexican workers seem to have been generally accepted by the other miners, and Mexican families did not live in segregated neighborhoods. Martinez recalled that growing up “we were surrounded by different nationalities. We had Vankoviches and Joseviches and Biviches, and we had Serbians, and we had Chinese. We had italianos, españolas, and Mexican people. We had the whole United Nations around on the East Side.”
In spite of this ethnic diversity, Martinez did encounter discrimination. As she got older, and especially after she began to attend school, it became clear that she was trapped in a racial hierarchy that discriminated against Mexicans and Mexican Americans. She remembered, “As children we didn’t know there was a difference so we got along fine. It was when you’re . . . going to school when the teachers started to say, ‘well you gotta sit over there. All the Mexicans sit on that side.’ . . . [A]nd then we found out that there was a difference.” Martinez’s encounters with racism in her childhood instilled a determination to work for social justice, but they also gave her a “hatred” of Butte that she carried with her into adulthood.