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→
In 1922, the Extension Service at Montana State College in Bozeman hired Harriette Cushman to be Montana’s poultry specialist. Over the next thirty-two years, Cushman worked to build a profitable poultry industry that proved an economic godsend during Montana’s prolonged economic depression. A woman of many interests, Cushman also championed the Indian Center at Montana State University and advocated for libraries, museums, and the arts. She was also a lifelong supporter of 4-H, an environmental advocate, and a prolific writer.
Harriette Eliza Cushman was born in Alabama in 1890. She graduated from Cornell University in 1914 with a degree in bacteriology and chemistry. In 1918 she earned a poultry specialist degree from Rutgers University and became one of the few women pursuing a career as a poultry scientist.
As Montana’s poultry specialist, Cushman traveled the state, educating farmers on breeding, culling, egg and bird grading, poultry housing, proper feed, and poultry health. She authored numerous seminal poultry-raising manuals that emphasized the application of scientific methods and utilized local demonstration flocks for hands-on instruction.
Montana’s poultry industry expanded significantly under Cushman’s guidance. Prior to Cushman’s tenure as state poultry specialist, individual poultry growers worked independently, selling birds locally for whatever price they could get. In the 1920s, Cushman helped to form the nation’s first egg and turkey wholesale cooperatives, enabling Montana poultry growers to negotiate top prices. As the first poultry grader for the newly formed Northwest Turkey Federation, Cushman secured nationwide markets for Montana’s premium quality “Norbest” turkeys, making Montana’s turkey industry the most profitable in the nation during the Great Depression. Continue reading From Poultry to Poetry: The Life and Letters of Harriette E. Cushman→
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.”
When the Northern Pacific Railroad established its Central Division maintenance facility at Livingston, Montana, the town became a magnet for men seeking jobs on operational and maintenance crews. At the start of the twentieth century, one-sixth of the town’s population worked for the railroad. Most of these workers were recent immigrants to the United States. Later, during the two world wars, many of their daughters also found good-paying work with Northern Pacific, one of the few employers in the state that paid women equally to men.
One of the first women employees was Natalina Indendi, who had immigrated to the United States from Italy when she was five years old, in about 1905. Her father had emigrated three years earlier, but the rest of the family originally were denied passage because her brother was blind in one eye. When they were finally permitted to leave Italy, they went straight from the emigration office to the boat without a single piece of luggage. “We were supposed to meet Dad in Chicago. . . . [But] the day we landed in New York he took off for Montana, because they were building up a crew [to extend a railway line from Livingston] to Wilsall.” Natalina’s mother found a job in a garment factory in Chicago. As soon as he could, her father sent money, and the family moved to Livingston. Continue reading Like Father, like Daughter: Women Who Worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad→
Working for the Grace Shannon Balloon Company from 1893 through 1895, fearless Rubie Deveau thrilled crowds with her aerial acrobatics, ascending in a hot-air balloon until she “looked like a speck in the sky” and then parachuting back to earth. Like many other aerial pioneers, however, her career was short lived. After 175 successful jumps, she was caught in an unexpected air current during her final descent and landed against a brick chimney, breaking her back. She was just eighteen. After she recovered, Deveau homesteaded in McIntosh, South Dakota, before marrying and moving to Missoula in 1925.
Early aerialists, including Rubie Deveau Owen, possessed an adventurous spirit that often overwhelmed reason. The list of those hurt and killed is distressingly long. Nevertheless, flight remained an exciting curiosity, with airplane manufacturers feeding the public’s interest through exhibitions at fairs and other events.
Both men and women participated in these exhibitions. In 1913, just three years after Bud Mars made Montana’s first recorded flight in an airplane, Katherine Stinson performed at the Helena fairgrounds. On a tour promoting the idea that the U.S. Postal Service could use airplanes, she thrilled crowds at the Montana State Fair, not only by performing stunts but also by flying bags of mail from the fairgrounds, which she dropped onto Helena’s downtown post office. Officially designated “the postmaster of the fairgrounds,” she thus became one of the first to deliver airmail in Montana. Continue reading Queens of the Clouds→
In the twentieth century, rural women faced a different—and arguably more rigorous—set of gender expectations than did their urban sisters. They did, of course, preserve and cook food, mend and wash clothes, care for children, and clean their homes, but they were also intimately involved in farm labor. Rural women raised produce, chickens, and pigs; kept the farms’ books; and worked in the fields. Their work was so essential that historian Richard Roeder called Montana women the “economic linchpins” of the state’s farms and ranches.
Even more amazing than the number of tasks rural women performed is the fact that, before World War II, they largely completed their work without electricity. Anna Dahl, a farm wife from Sheridan County, helped change this. A key community activist promoting rural electrification in eastern Montana, Dahl helped bring power to six hundred families in Sheridan, Roosevelt, and Daniels counties. Her efforts significantly altered life on the farm, especially for Montana women.
Anna Boe Dahl (1892-1986) arrived in Plentywood, Montana, with her brother in 1917. She taught school in Dagmar for two years before marrying Andrew Dahl in 1919 and moving to a 640-acre farm near Coalridge. There she and Andrew raised five children. During the Depression, Anna also taught English and farm economics for the Works Project Administration to supplement the family income.
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 The Life and Legend of Mary Fields→
Born on a farm near Mansfield, Ohio, in 1879, Caroline McGill devoted her life to the people of Montana, her adopted state. In her work as a physician she earned the love and respect of the people of Butte, but her role in the creation of the Museum of the Rockies is her enduring legacy to all Montanans.
McGill’s family moved to Missouri when she was five, and at the age of seventeen she acquired a teaching certificate so she could support herself and complete high school. She achieved that goal in 1901 and continued her education at the University of Missouri. By 1908 she had a B.A. in science, an M.A. in zoology, and a Ph.D. in anatomy and physiology, thereby becoming the first woman to receive a doctorate from that school. She taught at her alma mater until 1911, and former students later “aver[ed] that she was the finest medical school instructor” they had had.
Although the University of Missouri offered McGill a full professorship, she decided to shift career paths and accepted a position as pathologist at Murray Hospital in Butte. In a letter to a family member, she explained her decision to move to Montana: “I’ll tell you right now I am making the biggest fool mistake to go . . . but I’m going.” “Feels sort of funny to stand off and serenely watch myself commit suicide, [but] I’ll just have to let her rip.” Continue reading A “Compassionate Heart” and “Keen Mind”: The Life of Doctor Caroline McGill→
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 Nineteenth-Century Indigenous Women Warriors→
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→