Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann: A Montana Renaissance Woman

Formal portrait (just head and shoulders) of Martha Edgerton, c. 1863.

Martha Edgerton arrived in Bannack in 1863. In later years she supported herself by writing articles about life in Montana Territory, some of which were based on her own memories. Photograph by E. C. Ely. MHS Photo Archives 942-065

Martha Edgerton came to Bannack as a teenager in 1863. As a teacher, musician, wife, mother of seven, clubwoman, and leader in the women’s suffrage movement, she successfully balanced traditional gender roles with an active public life. Widowed young, she entered the workforce, becoming the first woman editor of a Montana daily newspaper, a local and state leader in the Montana Socialist Party, and a prolific writer. Hers was a long life of striking achievements.

Edgerton was thirteen when she arrived in Bannack in 1863 after her father was appointed governor of Idaho Territory. Two years later, the family returned to Ohio, and she subsequently enrolled at Oberlin College to study music. Later, while teaching at the Ohio Institute for the Blind in Columbus, she met and married Herbert P. Rolfe. In 1876, the couple moved to Helena, where Herbert became the superintendent of public schools. Herbert and Martha Rolfe were kindred spirits: passionate advocates for equality of African Americans, women’s suffrage, and the rights of the workingman.

Their activism eventually took them to Great Falls, where, in 1884, the Rolfes took out a homestead right outside the city, which had been newly surveyed and platted by Herbert himself. Four years later, Herbert—long a Republican Party activist—established The Leader, a newspaper designed to counter the influence of Great Falls founder Paris Gibson’s Democratic Tribune. Though occupied with home-schooling the couple’s seven children, Martha also wrote for The Leader and stayed closely involved in her husband’s political crusades.

The Panic of 1893 erased much of the couple’s wealth. Nevertheless, the paper survived, and the Rolfes remained active in politics, including the women’s suffrage movement. Early in 1895, together with other Great Falls women, including Ella Vaughn, Josephine Trigg, and Josephine Desilets, Martha formed the Political Equality Club. The club gathered over a thousand signatures—about half of those from men— supporting women’s suffrage. Later that same year, a suffrage bill passed by over two-thirds in the Montana House, only to be tabled in the state Senate. Continue reading

The Power of Strong, Able Women: The League of Women Voters of Montana and Constitutional Reform

A large group of women holding a sign, League of Women Voters," stands in front o f an Intermountain Line bus.

Havre and Great Fall members of the League of Women Voters gather traveled to Helena for “League Day” at the Montana legislature, February 3, 1961. MHS Photo Archives PAc 88-96 Folder 5 of 5

In 1972, Grace Bates, a Gallatin Valley delegate to Montana’s Constitutional Convention, identified herself in the required biographical sketch as “farmer’s wife, public servant.” A member of the League of Women Voters of Montana, she represented, literally, a league of mid-century Montana women whose capacity for informed and skilled political action changed the state’s governance.

Nationally, the League (LWV) began in 1920, following passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the vote. Though Montana women joined in the 1920s, the League did not take ordered shape until after World War II. By 1952, Billings, Butte, Great Falls, Havre, Helena, and Missoula had official chapters.

The League championed educated, vigorous citizen engagement in government. National rules prohibited members supporting or opposing political parties or candidates. Instead, they investigated issues affecting government and citizens’ well-being, promoted informed political participation, and campaigned for the positions they reached after careful  research. Continue reading

Working to Give Women “Individual Dignity”: Equal Protection of the Laws under Montana’s Constitution

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Montana Women’s Political Caucus member Pat Regan, who served in the legislature from 1973 to 1989, chafed at the unconscious sexism many of her male colleagues exhibited. In response, she bought a small stuffed pig to which she affixed a button that read “Male Chauvinist Pig.” Whenever a senator made a particularly sexist remark, she’d have a page deliver the pig to his desk. Gradually, she said, consciousness was raised. Billings Gazette, October 31, 1972

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

Expanding Their Sphere: Montana Women in Education Administration and Public Health

McClellan style saddle, c. 1905

Lucile Dyas used this lightweight McClellan style saddle to visit Lewis and Clark County schools during her superintendency in the 1910s. Both county school superintendents and public health nurses traveled great distances on poorly maintained roads. Montana Historical Society Collection, 2013.39.04 Gift of Donald Gunderson in memory of Lucile Dyas Topping

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.

A makeshift doctor's office--probably in a school. A woman sits at a table (left.) Back left a female nurse holds a toddler while a male  doctor listens to his lungs with a stethoscope. Another woman holds a baby flat on a table, while a third woman  weights and measures a 3-4 year old on a doctor's scale. Two children sit in a rocking chair waiting.

Public health nurse Margaret Thomas (shown here circa 1925, back left) traveled throughout western Montana organizing well baby clinics, lecturing on nutrition, care of the sick, and sponsoring school health contests. MHS Photo Archives Lot 30 Box 2 Folder 9

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

Montana’s Postwar Women Politicians

It's hard to spot State Senator Ellenore Bridenstine (third row back, on the right) amidst her mail colleagues. When this photo was taken, in 1945, Bridenstine was the first woman to serve in the Montana state senate. MHS Photo Archives PAc 89-59 Senate of the 29th Legislative Assembly

It’s hard to spot State Senator Ellenore Bridenstine (third row back, on the right) amidst her male colleagues. When this photo was taken, in 1945, Bridenstine was the first woman to serve in the Montana state senate. Click image to enlarge. MHS Photo Archives PAc 89-59 Senate of the 29th Legislative Assembly

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

Elouise Pepion Cobell: Banker-Warrior

Elouise Cobel at her desk, looking at a document and talking on the telephone.

In 1996, banker Elouise Cobell became the lead plaintiff in a class action suit, demanding back payment and better accounting on Individual Indian Money Accounts managed by the BIA. Thirteen years later, the federal government settled for $3.4 billion, the largest settlement in U.S. history. 2005 Photo by Robin Loznak /Great Falls Tribune

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

Sister Providencia, Advocate for Landless Indians

Sister Providencia, 1980, book in hand.

Born Denise Hortense Tolan in Anaconda in 1909, Sister Providencia is pictured here in 1980, after years of working in collaboration with Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest, the National Congress of American Indians, and other Indian-led organizations to advance the cause of Indian people. Photo courtesy Providence Archives, Seattle, Washington.

In 1952, a nun teaching sociology at the College of Great Falls committed herself to alleviating poverty among the city’s Indians. What began as an effort to solve a local problem grew into a twenty-year crusade on behalf of all American Indians, taking Sister Providencia Tolan from Great Falls to Congress. In the process, she collaborated with charitable organizations and Indian advocates to change the course of federal Indian policy.

Great Falls’ Indian residents lived primarily in makeshift communities like Hill 57 on the edge of town. Their overcrowded shacks lacked utilities. Many were unskilled, undereducated seasonal laborers who struggled to provide for their families. For years, concerned citizens donated necessities to provide stopgap assistance. While supporting these efforts, Sister Providencia also approached the matter as a sociologist: studying the problem, ascertaining its root causes, and advocating social and political solutions.

One cause of the urban Indians’ plight was the matter of jurisdiction. The federal government denied responsibility for unenrolled, non-recognized, or off-reservation Indians. City, county, and state agencies frequently refused assistance out of the misconception that all Indians were wards of the federal government.

Compounding the jurisdictional conundrum were two federal Indian policies instituted in the 1950s that increased Indian landlessness and poverty: Termination and Relocation. Under Termination, the federal government dissolved its trust responsibilities to certain tribes. Deprived of services and annuities promised them in treaties, terminated tribes liquidated their assets for immediate survival. When the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe was terminated in 1953, some families moved to Great Falls to live with their already impoverished relatives on Hill 57. The Relocation policy also moved Indian families to cities without ensuring that they had the means for long-term survival. Meanwhile, the government did not increase aid to states or counties so that they could cope with the expanding numbers of people in need. Continue reading

Defining Gender Equality: The Debate over the Equal Rights Amendment in Montana

Handwritten letter from Sharon Luckenbill to Senator Lee Metcalf, dated February 27, 1975, opposing the ERA.

North Toole County High School student Sharon Luckenbell wrote this letter to Senator Lee Metcalf, expressing her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Click image to see larger copy. MHS Archives, MC 172 Box 352 F 1

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 reality, ratification was controversial from the beginning. The amendment “breezed through the House by a 73-23 vote” in 1973, but, despite the fact that forty out of Montana’s fifty state senators had signed on as sponsors of the bill, anti-ERA activists managed to convince the Senate to table discussion. Continue reading

Freda Augusta Beazley and the Rise of American Indian Political Power

Freda Beazley strides into a meeting holding a folder titled "Welcome Delegates. 15th Annual Convention, National Congress of American Indians.

Freda Beazley, a member of the Assiniboine Indian Tribe of Fort Peck Reservation and a vice-president of the National Congress of American Indians, at the 15th annual meeting of the National Congress of American Indians held in Missoula, Montana, during September 14-19, 1958. MHS Photo Archives Lot 31 B5/13.02

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.

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Lucille Otter: Doing Good for Tribe and Country

219WHMLucilleOtter upload

In addition to advocating for voting rights, Lucille Otter encouraged the creation of the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness, the first tribally designated wilderness in the country. She stands here in front of the Mission Mountains. Photo Courtesy Renee Roullier-Madrigal

“Politics, one way or another, controls your destiny. Choose yours today,” read a 1974 announcement written by Lucille Otter on the front page of the confederated Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes’ newspaper. Empowering tribal members to exercise their right to vote was one of the many ways Lucille Trosper Roullier Otter helped Indian people better their condition in life.

Lucille Trosper was born in 1916 on the Flathead Indian Reservation to Angeline McCloud, a member of the Salish tribe, and Belford Trosper. She grew up hunting and fishing with her brothers—activities that inspired her dedication to conservation efforts in the Flathead region. She graduated from Ronan High School in 1933. Although Lucille did exceptionally well in school, she did not attend college because her father objected.

Jobs were scarce in Montana during the Great Depression and nearly nonexistent on the reservation. “Life was terrible!” Lucille recalled. She worked briefly for the Works Progress Administration before being hired in 1934 to work at the Dixon headquarters of the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps, becoming the first woman to work in an administrative capacity in the Indian CCC. She was in charge of budgeting ICCC projects, keeping accounts, and overseeing payroll and purchase orders for the ICCC camps. The ICCC enrollees called her “buddy.” Continue reading