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

There’s No Place like Home: The Role of the Montana State Orphanage

Children pose in front of "the Castle" in 1896, three years after the Montana State Orphanage was built. Many of them were not true orphans, but from destitute families whose parents could not care for them. MHS Photo Archives 951-328

Children pose in front of “the Castle” in 1896, three years after the Montana State Orphanage was built. Many of them were not true orphans, but from destitute families whose parents could not care for them. MHS Photo Archives 951-328

At first no one noticed the children as they sat quietly in the Butte-Silver Bow County Courthouse. The six Freedman children, ages eight to fifteen, had filed in with their mother early that morning in 1938. Recently divorced from her husband and earning little in her job as a research editor, Alice Freedman was overwhelmed. Before leaving the children, she told them to wait for her return. As the day wore on, county workers noticed the children. At noon they bought them lunch and contacted the juvenile court. That evening, the Freedman children were taken to a local receiving home. Within two weeks, they were committed to the state orphanage and on their way to the facility in Twin Bridges.

Similar scenarios had played out for the thousands of other residents of the Montana State Orphanage. Most, like the Freedman children, were not true orphans, but rather “orphans of the living,” from homes shattered by devastating poverty, turbulent parental relationships, substance abuse, poor parenting skills, or physical and emotional abuse. In the absence of local, state, or federal social welfare programs, the state orphanage was one of the few options available to these children and the destitute women who could no longer care for them.

Between 1894, when the facility opened, and 1975, when legislative cuts forced its closure, the Montana State Orphanage housed over five thousand children. Established to provide “a haven for innocent children whose poverty and need might lead to lives of crime,” the orphanage was designed along nineteenth-century lines to prepare children for productive adult lives by segregating them and providing them with food, education, vocational training, and a rigid structure.

However, even as the orphanage’s first building, a sprawling Victorian structure known as “The Castle,” was being completed, attitudes toward needy children were changing. By the early 1900s, Progressive Era reformers began arguing that orphanages were dehumanizing and rife with abuse. Children, they claimed, needed a healthy home life, with their parents, if possible, or, if not, with a worthy foster family. To achieve this goal, they advocated the creation and expansion of government agencies to address the needs of abandoned, abused, or widowed women and their children.

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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

“A Man in the Mountains Cannot Keep His Wife”: Divorce in Montana in the Late Nineteenth Century

Newspaper clipping. Headline reads "How to Get a Divorce. States in Which a Decree Can Be Obtained with Little Trouble." Includes clip art of a man holding a crying baby in front of a sign reading "Home Sweet Home."

On May 15, 1892, the Helena Independent ran an article comparing state divorce laws. It also compared divorce rates in Europe and the U.S. explaining that one reason the U.S. had more divorces was that “women are here more independent and able to make their way in the world.” Read the full article here.

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.

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The Lifelong Quest of Frieda Fligelman and Belle Fligelman Winestine

Wearing the same costume she wore when she addressed the Wisconsin legislature on women’s suffrage, Belle Fligelman poses in front of Belle Chabourne Hall at the University of Wisconsin. MHS Photo Archives PAc 85-31

Wearing the same costume she wore when she addressed the Wisconsin legislature on women’s suffrage, Belle Fligelman poses in front of Belle Chabourne Hall at the University of Wisconsin. MHS Photo Archives PAc 85-31

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

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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“We Are No Longer Criminals”: The Fight to Repeal Deviate Sexual Misconduct Laws

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Supporters of repealing Statute 45-5-505 produced and distributed this pin which featured the gay rights symbol of a pink triangle. Courtesy of Linda Gryczan.

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.

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“Lifting as We Climb”: The Activism of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs

Catalog #PAc 96-25.2

This photo captured the women (and children) of the first MFCWC Annual Convention, which took place in Butte on August 3, 1921. Photograph by Zubick Art Studio, Butte, Montana. MHS PAc 96-25.2.

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.”

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