The American Association of University Women has always aspired to the promotion of women as fully contributing, educated members of society. Until the 1960s, this organization of female college graduates remained largely apolitical. At the division (state) level, Montana’s AAUW had created the highly successful AAUW Education Foundation to provide college fellowships for women, while local branches had focused primarily on community-building projects. However, the social, economic, and political changes during the 1960s and 1970s spurred a transformation in AAUW. “There are things to be done which money and men will never provide,” said one Montana member. Under the leadership of courageous feminists, AAUW evolved into a prominent activist organization that brought women to the forefront of public policy making.
In 1960, most AAUW members were homemakers or held traditionally “female” occupations in teaching or clerical work. Few Montana women had attained professional careers or had advanced to leadership positions; fewer still worked in the public-policy arena. When Governor Tim Babcock created a state Commission on the Status of Women in 1965, AAUW seized the chance to initiate policy changes and secured the appointment of several of its members to the commission.
In 1967, Montana’s AAUW formed its own Status of Women Committee. That same year, the Billings branch organized a unique Inter-club Committee on the Status of Women that included two members from each of the participating groups: AAUW, Soroptimists, Altrusa, Zonta, and the Business and Professional Women. Its goals were to get more women into local, county, and statewide appointed offices; to encourage women to stand for state elective office; and to keep women in office as state superintendent of schools. Continue reading “Things to be done which money and men will never provide”: The Activism of Montana’s AAUW→
In 1972 Americans were engaged in a national debate over whether to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. That debate informed discussion during Montana’s 1972 constitutional convention, and convention delegates enshrined equal protection in the “individual dignity” clause of its Declaration of Rights. Backed by this promise of equality, women’s rights advocates and members of the newly formed Montana Women’s Political Caucus, an organization of female state legislators, worked to reform Montana’s laws to erase sex discrimination. Through their efforts, the 1970s saw important steps toward equalization of Montana’s laws; however, the Montana Supreme Court’s conservative application of the individual dignity clause to sex discrimination undercut the potential for radical strides toward legal equality.
The “Declaration of Rights” in Montana’s 1889 Constitution had stated that “all persons are born equally free,” but the new constitution went far beyond that vague provision in its individual dignity clause. Working on the language for the state’s new constitution, delegate Virginia Blend of Great Falls proposed that the actual language of the Equal Rights Amendment be included in the Declaration of Rights. Instead the 1972 Constitution addressed the issue of gender equity in the constitution’s “individual dignity” clause, which guaranteed equal protection of the laws. Notable for its expansiveness, Article II, Section 4, of the 1972 constitution promised that “Neither the state nor any person, firm, corporation, or institution shall discriminate against any person in the exercise of his civil or political rights on account of race, color, sex, culture, social origin or condition, or political or religious ideas.” The clause links equality to human dignity and includes a long list of protected classes, making it, according to scholars Larry Elison and Fritz Snyder, the “most inclusive scheme of ‘equal rights’ of any known constitution.” Continue reading Working to Give Women “Individual Dignity”: Equal Protection of the Laws under Montana’s Constitution→
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a series of economic and social changes culminated in a nationwide increase both in divorce rates and in the liberalization of divorce laws. This pattern played out in Montana on an even larger scale. Based on her extensive study of Montana divorces in the late nineteenth century, historian Paula Petrik found that frontier conditions in mining cities like Helena and Butte created a climate in which divorces were common. Petrik also argued that, over the course of the late nineteenth century, women seeking to divorce ushered in changes to Montana law that made divorces easier to obtain and on terms more favorable to women. In doing so, they confirmed the ideal of “companionate marriage”—or marriage based on mutual affection and reciprocal duties. This ideal would come to define the institution in the early twentieth century.
For Montanans facing the frontier conditions of social upheaval, an unbalanced ratio of men to women, and rising and falling fortunes, divorces were common. Indeed, in 1868, Helenan Elizabeth Chester Fisk remarked, “Divorces are common here, and it is a common comment that a man in the mountains cannot keep his wife.” Fisk’s observation was based in fact, as Lewis and Clark County had an unusually high divorce rate in that era. In 1867, the number of divorces actually exceeded the number of marriages.
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→
In the 1970s, women activists across the nation experienced growing dissatisfaction. As participants in the civil rights and antiwar movements, they had learned to question the status quo. Nevertheless, many of these women felt as if their own concerns—from unequal pay to sexual harassment to the lack of recognition for women’s contributions to social movements—went unnoticed. Eager to challenge gender discrimination, these women formed groups that would become the bedrock of Second Wave Feminism. In Missoula, Montana, one such group blended activism and scholarship to create the University of Montana’s Women’s Studies Program.
It began after a 1974 symposium on women, featuring speakers from various university departments, when English professor Carolyn Wheeler circulated a handwritten memo to other women faculty members, asking if they would teach a class focused on women. History professor Maxine Van de Wetering initially resisted the idea, saying she “couldn’t even imagine what that would be.” However, according to Wheeler, Van de Wetering quickly changed her mind when “she just started thinking what it could mean to . . . history.”
The response from other faculty members was electric. Joan Watson, a liberal studies professor and later director of the Women’s Studies Program, observed: “The contributions of women have been hidden from history . . . women, like people of color, have been largely absent from the texts we study.” For many students, correcting that omission seemed to be both a revelation and a revolution. Continue reading A Department of One’s Own: Women’s Studies at the University of Montana→
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.
When the U.S. Senate approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in March 1972, the next step—passage by two-thirds of state legislatures—seemed a formality. However, over the next decade, the battle over ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment revealed that America was still divided over equality between the sexes. In Montana the controversy over the ERA suggests equal unease.
The Equal Rights Amendment read simply, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” First proposed in 1923, the amendment passed out of Congress in 1972. It then went to the states for approval. In theory, Montana’s ratification should have been easy; the state constitution, recently passed in 1972, included an “individual dignity” clause that already guaranteed Montana women equal rights. In fact, ERA proponents argued that ratification was a way for Montanans to ensure that “their loved ones in other states . . . enjoy the same benefits and protections which we have under our state laws.”
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.
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.