In the mid-twentieth century, American Indian tribes faced crippling poverty, enormous land loss, and attacks on their status as semi-sovereign nations. One Montanan integrally involved in the efforts to fight these injustices was Freda Beazley, an Assiniboine woman from Klein and the widow of a former state legislator. Beazley served on the advisory council to Montana’s Office of Indian Affairs, the first such agency in the nation. She was an officer on the Montana Intertribal Policy Board (MIPB), the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. She was also the first coordinator of Rural and Indian Programs for Montana’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Beazley worked steadfastly at state and federal levels to protect tribal sovereignty, end poverty, and improve Indians’ education and employment opportunities.
Women have worked for the American military in every major conflict, but until World War II they were largely classified as “civilians” and denied the benefits extended to men in uniform. The creation of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp (later renamed the Women’s Army Corp) in 1942 represented the first step toward official recognition of women’s military service. Other branches of the military quickly followed suit, and, like their national counterparts, Montana women took advantage of new opportunities to serve in the armed forces.
Mary Jo Hopwood, who was born in Colorado but eventually settled in Darby, Montana, served for three years in the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). A combination of civic duty and desire for adventure motivated her to enlist: “[I]t was right after Pearl Harbor and everybody was patriotic,” she said. “[A]nd my brother was in the Navy, and I was just kinda restless. . . . It was adventure, mostly.” Although Hopwood worked in payroll, a common occupation for civilian women by the 1940s, she encountered doubts about her fitness to serve. “When we went in,” she recalled, “[the] commander said, ‘Well, I’m not used to having women around the office,’ but he said, ‘You have to take what they send you now days.’” Ultimately, that commander changed his mind, as did many other servicemen: “[T]hey didn’t think much of all these women,” Hopwood remembered. “But before we got out, they accepted us.”
Mamie Anderson Bridgewater and her daughter, Octavia, were strong African American women who lived under the veil of racism in Helena during the first half of the twentieth century. Each earned the respect of the Helena community, and each helped to make a difference in the lives of other African Americans.
Mamie was born at Gallatin, Tennessee, in September 1872, one of eight children. In 1892, she married a career “buffalo soldier,” Samuel Bridgewater, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona Territory. In 1903 she followed her husband to Fort Harrison, Montana, where he was stationed after the Spanish-American War. There she raised five children and worked as a matron at the veterans hospital. All the while, she cared for Samuel during his frequent bouts of illness from wounds received at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898.
After her husband’s death in 1912, Mamie Bridgewater worked as a domestic in private homes, always scraping together enough to care for her children and grandchildren whenever they needed her assistance. She was a leader of Helena’s black Baptist congregation and was heavily involved in fund-raising for Helena’s Second Baptist Church, completed circa 1914. She was also a founder of the local Pleasant Hour Club, which organized in 1916 and became the Helena chapter of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. At her death in 1950 at age seventy-seven, she was serving as chaplain of the Pleasant Hour Club. Continue reading
In 1937, Josephine Pease became one of the first Crow (Apsáalooke) people to graduate from college. Cultural and linguistic differences made obtaining an education challenging, but even greater were the difficulties that came with being a Crow woman who wanted a career in the mid-twentieth century. Crows discouraged women from being more successful than men, while some whites refused to hire Indians. Nevertheless, Pease persisted in her dreams to become a teacher, blazing a trail for future generations of Crow women.
The oldest of five children, Josephine was born in 1914 and grew up near Lodge Grass. Her parents wanted her to go to school because neither of them had had a chance at an education. There was a missionary school in Lodge Grass, but Josephine’s parents wanted her at the public school. For two years Josephine was the only Crow child at the school. The rest were “English” (white) children who wouldn’t play with her. She remembered feeling as if she were “in a foreign country.”
In 1993, Linda Gryczan told her neighbors she was suing the state of Montana to overturn a law that criminalized gay sex. Though she “was afraid that someone might burn down her house,” her neighbors—and activists across the state—rallied to her cause. But those who believed homosexuality should remain a crime also mobilized. Women took leading roles on both sides of the decades-long fight over Montana’s deviate sexual misconduct law.
Passed in 1973, Statute 45-5-505 of the Montana Code Annotated defined “deviate sexual relations” as “sexual contact or sexual intercourse between two persons of the same sex or any form of sexual intercourse with an animal.” Though rarely enforced, the law carried a fine of up to fifty thousand dollars, as well as ten years in prison, and made same-sex consensual intimacy a felony.
At the urging of gay and lesbian rights advocates, Montana state representative Vivian Brooke (D-Missoula) introduced bills in both 1991 and 1993 to strike the law from the books. The bill failed in both sessions. Many legislators agreed with Rep. Tom Lee, who argued that “[God] has declared homosexual activity to be wrong, and I don’t think we serve the other people of this state by contradicting him.” Others, noting that the law was not enforced, wished to avoid political fallout over what they saw as a symbolic vote.
In 1921, the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (MFCWC) organized “to encourage true womanhood . . . [and] to promote interest in social uplift.” While its members engaged in many traditional women’s club activities—raising money for scholarships, creating opportunities for children, and providing aid to the sick—advancing the cause of civil rights in Montana was one of the organization’s most important legacies.
MFCWC (originally the Montana Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs) held its inaugural meeting in Butte, where members agreed on five organizing principles: “Courtesy—Justice—The Rights of Minority—one thing at a time, and a rule of majority.” At the local level, member clubs engaged in a variety of volunteer work, from bringing flowers to hospital patients to adding works by African American authors to local libraries. But at both the local and the state levels, MFCWC members also concentrated on racial politics, raising funds for the NAACP and taking positions on abolishing the poll tax and upholding anti-lynching laws.
The MFCWC’s legislative committee became especially active after World War II, and from 1949 to 1955 it led the campaign to pass civil rights legislation in Montana. The committee’s efforts reflected Montana’s complicated racial climate. As its members advocated for legislative change, the MFCWC often encountered resistance from white Montanans, who simultaneously asserted that Montana did not have a “racial problem” and that, where prejudice did exist, it could not “be changed by passing a law.”
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.
The Howeys moved to Helena in 1879 so that Robert could take a position as superintendent of schools. Both Laura and Robert were ardent progressives who supported a number of reforms, ranging from women’s education to prostitution reform. Laura was especially active in the temperance movement. She served as the president of the Montana Women’s Christian Temperance Union and was friends with national president Frances Willard. Continue reading
Born around 1832, possibly in Tennessee, Mary Fields celebrated her birthday on March 15. The details of her life before she came to Montana in 1885 are difficult to trace—complicated by her birth into slavery and the fact that, although she was literate, she left no written record. According to one biographer, Fields’s mother was a house slave and her father was a field slave. After the Civil War, Fields worked as a chambermaid on the Robert E. Lee, a Mississippi River steamboat. According to some accounts, she met Judge Edmund Dunne while working on the Robert E. Lee, and eventually became a servant in his household.
In the 1870s, Fields began working at the Ursuline Convent in Toledo, Ohio, where Dunne’s sister, Mother Mary Amadeus, was the superior. In 1884 Mother Amadeus traveled to Montana to join the Jesuits at St. Peter’s Mission. The next year she wrote to request that the convent send more people to staff the struggling mission and boarding school. Mary Fields traveled upriver with the nuns sent by the order.
Thus Mary Fields began her new life among the sisters in Montana. She worked at the mission for the next ten years, raising chickens, growing vegetables, and freighting supplies from nearby Cascade. She developed a reputation for having “the temperament of a grizzly bear,” but tales also spread about her toughness and devotion to the nuns and students. Continue reading
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.
Because Montana contains vast tracks of public lands, the U.S. Forest Service played an important role in the state in the twentieth century. Known for its rough-and-tumble rangers and daring smokejumpers, the Forest Service is seemingly synonymous with the rugged style of masculinity associated with Montana and the American West. Even Smokey Bear, with his bulky muscles and stern face, seems like a man’s man.
Nevertheless, women have worked for the Forest Service since its creation in 1905. Throughout the twentieth century, women’s labor was indispensable to the Forest Service, even as women consistently struggled against the agency’s masculine reputation and the belief that they were unsuited for forestry work. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s—when they moved into traditionally masculine fields like firefighting and law enforcement—that women were able to gain positions of leadership in the agency.
In the early twentieth century, women were generally limited to clerical positions within the Forest Service, and in some cases even these “feminine” jobs were off limits to them. Albert Cousins, an early forestry professional, recalled that some foresters preferred to hire men, even for office work, “the idea being that a woman clerk would not handle the ‘rough’ work required in the administration of a forest, such as assembling and shipping fire tools, rustling fire fighters, etc. Such work properly was for a ‘two fisted’ ranger.” Continue reading