Montana’s “Rosies”: Female Smelter Workers during World War II

134WHM Copper Commando-Cover

Despite some initial resistance, the Anaconda Company celebrated women’s war work in its magazine, Copper Commando. MHS Library

134. Women Smelters - 19-16 Library Collection-Copper Commando-Cover uploadWorld 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

Merle Egan Anderson: Montana’s “Hello Girl”

A row of women sitting at a switchboard. One woman supervisor is standing behind them.

Initially the Signal Corps only accepted women fluent in French. Merle Egan joined after the military lifted the language requirement. Pictured here are some of Egan’s Signal Corps colleagues, operating a switchboard in Chaumont, France. Photo from Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, p. 171

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

“You Have to Take What They Send You Now Days”: Montana Women’s Service in World War II

Butte native Irene Wold posed with her friend Helen in an army camp in Tlemcen, Algeria, in October 1944.

Butte native Irene Wold (pictured left, with her friend Helen in Tlemcen, Algeria, in 1944) titled this photograph “Combat Kids.” Wold joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1941 and served in both Algeria and France. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2008-34A1p17b

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.”

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Contributions of a Mother and Daughter

Members of Pleasant Hour Club, including  the club's founder Mamie Bridgewater (third from right) and her daughter Octavia (far right) picnic in Colorado Gulch west of Helena, ca. 1926. Octavia, who graduated from Helena High School in 1925 and then attended the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York, served as an army nurse during World War II. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2002-36.11

Members of Pleasant Hour Club, including the club’s founder Mamie Bridgewater (third from right) and her daughter Octavia (far right) picnic in Colorado Gulch west of Helena, ca. 1926. Octavia, who graduated from Helena High School in 1925 and then attended the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York, served as an army nurse during World War II. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2002-36.11

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

A Young Mother at the Rosebud and Little Bighorn Battles

This drawing, from the Spotted Wolf-Yellow Nose Ledger, shows Buffalo Calf Road Woman rescuing her brother through a hail of bullets. Buffalo Calf Road Woman wears an elk tooth dress. Her brother, Comes in Sight, wears a war bonnet. According to the book We, The Northern Cheyenne People, the horse’s split ears indicates that it is a fast one. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, Bureau of American Ethnology, ms. 166.032

This drawing, from the Spotted Wolf-Yellow Nose Ledger, shows Buffalo Calf Road Woman rescuing her brother through a hail of bullets. Buffalo Calf Road Woman wears an elk tooth dress. Her brother, Comes in Sight, wears a war bonnet. According to the book We, The Northern Cheyenne People, the horse’s split ears indicates that it is a fast one. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, Bureau of American Ethnology, ms. 166.032.

In 1876, the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho people defended their sovereignty, their land, and their lives against the United States. The Rosebud and Little Bighorn battles proved the tribes’ military strength but ultimately contributed to tragic consequences for the victors. A young Cheyenne mother, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, fought alongside her brother and husband at both battles in defense of Cheyenne freedom.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman lived during the Indian wars, an era of extreme violence against the Native inhabitants of the West. American settlers frequently trespassed onto tribal lands, and tribes retaliated by raiding settler camps. Several brutal massacres of peaceful tribal groups by whites led to widespread fear among the tribes and shocked the American public. Such violence increased tensions in the region.

After Lakota chief Red Cloud decisively defeated the U.S. military in 1864 to close the Bozeman Trail, the United States negotiated a peace treaty with the Lakotas. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty established the Great Sioux Nation, a huge reservation encompassing present-day western South Dakota, and designated the unceded lands between the Black Hills and the Bighorn Mountains, including the Powder River country, for the Indians’ “absolute and undisturbed use.” Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho bands also occupied this region. Continue reading

Doris Brander and the Fight to Honor Women’s Military Service

Doris Brander, shown here in her enlistment photo, joined the navy’s Women’s Auxiliary Voluntary Expeditionary Service (WAVES) in 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor.

Doris Brander, shown here in her enlistment photo, joined the navy’s Women’s Auxiliary Voluntary Expeditionary Service (WAVES) in 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor. Courtesy Linda Brander

Born in Malta, Montana, on August 29, 1921, Doris I. Palm Brander graduated from Malta High School, joined the navy’s Women’s Auxiliary Voluntary Expeditionary Service (WAVES) in 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor, and attended the U.S. Naval Training School in New York.

Like most of her compatriots, Brander enlisted in the navy out of the dual desires: for adventure and to contribute to the war effort. As she recalled, “I think most of us women that volunteered in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and coast guard did it out of a sense of adventure, but also because we knew that until the war was over, both in Europe and in Asia, things would not go back to normal. So by pitching in and helping, we felt we would get things back to normal faster. We wanted to do what we could to stop the war.”

As reasonable as she found these goals, she discovered that her male comrades often questioned her motives and abilities. “Because we were cutting a new path in history with our volunteering for the service, we were really looked at with question marks as to what our purpose was, what our motive was, what our morals were,” she recalled.

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Nineteenth-Century Indigenous Women Warriors

Jesuit missionary and artist Nicholas Point, who lived with the Salish and Pend d'Oreille in 1842, captioned this illustration "Women warriors proved themselves rivals of the men in courage." From Wilderness Kingdom: Indian Life in the Rocky Mountains: 1840-1847, The Journals and Paintings of Nicholas Point, S.J. (Chicago ,1967).

Jesuit missionary and artist Nicholas Point, who lived with the Salish and Pend d’Oreille in 1842, captioned this illustration “Women warriors proved themselves rivals of the men in courage.” From Wilderness Kingdom: Indian Life in the Rocky Mountains: 1840-1847, The Journals and Paintings of Nicholas Point, S.J. (Chicago ,1967).

Among the indigenous peoples of Montana, being a warrior was not an exclusively male occupation. Women commonly dominated the realms of housekeeping, food preparation, and child rearing. They influenced leadership, articulated their political concerns, and exercised a great deal of control over economic, domestic, and intertribal matters. A few women, however, gave up their traditional domestic role altogether and became “career warriors.”

People who knew these female warriors personally—tribal members, traders, missionaries, and military officers—provide details about their lives in oral histories, expedition journals, and drawings. The women’s military skill and bravery caught non-Indians off guard since they were unaccustomed to women participating in combat. The women’s male enemies were perhaps even more taken aback, sometimes fearing these women warriors possessed special, even supernatural abilities.

One especially fearless warrior was Kaúxuma Núpika, a Kootenai woman who was also a cultural intermediary and prophet. In 1808, young Kaúxuma Núpika married a Frenchman working for the explorer David Thompson. She was so rowdy that Thompson exiled her from his camp. She divorced her husband, claimed to have been changed into a man, and then took a succession of wives. Continue reading