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

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

Celebrating Sarah Gammon Bickford

Sarah Bickford arrived in Virginia City in 1871. The former slave became the first and only women in Montana to own a utility company.

Sarah Bickford arrived in Virginia City in 1871. The former slave became the first and only women in Montana to own a utility company. Courtesy Ellen Baumler.

On April 10, 2012, Montana honored Sarah Bickford by inducting her into the Gallery of Outstanding Montanans in the Capitol Rotunda in Helena. A former slave who became one of Montana’s most prominent businesswomen, Bickford richly deserved this honor. She was the first and only woman in Montana—and probably the nation’s only female African American—to own a utility. Yet despite her public success, Sarah Bickford’s life is difficult to piece together. Like most African Americans who came west, she carried the burden of slavery, making her past especially difficult to trace.

Sarah Gammon Bickford was born on Christmas Day in 1852, or 1855, or 1856 in North
Carolina or Tennessee. Her parents were slaves of John Blair, a wealthy Tennessee attorney and state senator. As was common, Sarah (nicknamed Sallie) and her family took the last name of their owner. At some point Sarah’s parents were sold and she never saw them again.       Continue reading

The Ladies Busted Broncs

Montana cowboys say that rodeos weren’t born; “they just growed” out of custom and necessity. Montana has bred some of the best cowboys and meanest mounts as well as some of the West’s most famous women riders. Four bucked their way to renown. Fannie Sperry Steele, Marie Gibson, and Alice and Marge Greenough were world-class champions, tough to top. Each wore her laurels with a grace and dignity that belied her chosen path.

Fannie Sperry Steele on Dismal Dick at Windham, Montana, Roundup, August 20-21, 1920. Photographer unidentified. MHS Catalog #952-169.

Fannie Sperry Steele on Dismal Dick at the Windham, Montana, Roundup, August 20-21, 1920. Photographer unidentified. MHS 952-169.

Fannie Sperry was born in the Prickly Pear Valley in 1887. Her mother taught her to ride almost before she could walk. Sperry cast aside Victorian decorum and rode astride in a divided skirt, rounding up wild horses. Local ranch kids gathered on Sunday afternoons for neighborly competitions. In 1903, sixteen-year-old Sperry awed spectators with such a ride on a bucking white stallion that onlookers passed the hat.

Fannie Sperry earned a reputation for courage, skill, grit, and sticking power on the backs of the wildest broncos, and in 1907, Sperry began to ride in women’s bucking horse competitions. At the Calgary Stampede in 1912, her ride on the killer bronc, Red Wing, earned her the title “Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World.” She earned the title again in 1913.

Continue reading

“I am a very necessary evil”: The Political Career of Dolly Smith Cusker Akers

Dolly Cusker Akers, 1933

Elected to the Montana House of Representatives in 1932, with almost 100 percent of the vote, Dolly Cusker Akers was the first Native American to serve in the Montana legislature and the only woman to serve during her two-year term. She was also the first woman to serve on the Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board. Legislative Collection, MHS Photo Archives.

Montana’s first Native American legislator and the first woman chair of the Tribal Executive Board of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes was not a women’s liberation advocate because she refused to acknowledge women’s limits. The fight Dolly Smith Cusker Akers did champion, however, was that of American Indians to determine their own destinies free from federal oversight and interference. Assertive and self-reliant—as she believed tribes should be—Akers achieved many notable accomplishments in her lifetime, but not without conflict and criticism.

Born in 1901 in Wolf Point, Dolly Smith was the daughter of Nellie Trexler, an Assiniboine, and William Smith, an Irish-American. She attended school on the Fort Peck Reservation and at the all-Indian Sherman Institute in California. Graduating at age sixteen, she returned to Montana and married George Cusker in 1917.

In the early 1920s, the Fort Peck tribes sent two elders to Washington, D.C., to lobby for school funding. Neither elder spoke English, so Dolly accompanied them as interpreter. The articulate young woman impressed the congressmen, whom she then lobbied in favor of universal citizenship for American Indians—an issue that had been debated for many years. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act became law, establishing the basis for American Indian suffrage and furthering the government’s long-term goal of gradual absorption of American Indians into American society.

Continue reading

Queens of the Clouds

Aviatrix Katherine Stinson, in front of her plane at the Helena Fairgrounds in 1913

Barnstormer Katherine Stinson performed at the Montana State Fair in 1913. Among other stunts, she flew bags of mail from the fairgrounds, which she dropped onto Helena’s downtown post office, thus becoming the first person to deliver airmail in Montana. Photograph by R. H. McKay, Missoula, Montana, MHS Photo Archives 949-885

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

Work Done by Muscle Power or Grit: Anna Dahl, Rural Electrification, and the Transformation of Rural Women’s Work

The Sheridan Electric Coop's first board of trustees, 1946

Posed here in October 1946 with the Sheridan Electric Coop’s first board of trustees, Anna Dahl became used to being the only woman at the table. She went on to become the second woman in the United States elected president of the board of a rural electric coop, the first woman member of the board of directors of the Montana State REA, and the first woman trustee of Northwest Public Power Association, Anna Dahl Scrapbook, SC909, MHS Archives

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.

Continue reading

Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail: “Our Bright Morning Star”

In 1927 Susie Walking Bear (seen here, back row, center, with her graduating class from the Boston  City Hospital's School of Nursing) became the first member of the Crow Nation and one of the first Indians in the country, to become a registered nurse.

In 1927 Susie Walking Bear (seen here, back row, center, with her graduating class from the Boston City Hospital’s School of Nursing) became the first member of the Crow Nation and one of the first Indians in the country, to become a registered nurse. MHS PAc 87-70

Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail was among the first Apsáalooke (Crow) people to achieve a higher education. Like many Native children of her generation, she attended mission boarding schools where students were expected to give up their indigenous languages, beliefs, and cultural ways. Instead, Yellowtail maintained her Apsáalooke identity and, guided by her cultural heritage, used her education to improve the lives of American Indian people.

Born in 1903 and orphaned as a child, Susie grew up in Pryor and attended a boarding school on the Crow Reservation. As the only child who spoke English, Susie translated for the other students. With her missionary foster parents, Susie soon left the reservation for Oklahoma, where she briefly attended a Baptist school. Her guardian, Mrs. C. A. Field, then sent Susie to Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts. Mrs. Field paid Susie’s tuition, but Susie earned her room and board by working as a housemaid and babysitter.

After graduation, Susie continued her education by enrolling at Boston City Hospital’s School of Nursing. She graduated with honors in 1923 and finished her training at Franklin County Public Hospital in Greenfield, Massachusetts. In 1927, Susie Walking Bear became the first registered nurse of Crow descent and one of the first degreed registered nurses of American Indian ancestry in the United States. Continue reading

Champions: The Girls of Fort Shaw

Jessie Tarbox took this picture of the Fort Shaw girls’ basketball team in 1904 on their visit to St. Louis. Standing, from left: Rose LaRose, Flora Lucero, Katie Snell, Minnie Burton, Genevieve Healy, Sarah Mitchell. Seated, from left: Emma Sansaver, Genie Butch, Belle Johnson, Nettie Worth.

Jessie Tarbox took this picture of the Fort Shaw girls’ basketball team in 1904 on their visit to St. Louis. Standing, from left: Rose LaRose, Flora Lucero, Katie Snell, Minnie Burton, Genevieve Healy, Sarah Mitchell. Seated, from left: Emma Sansaver, Genie Butch, Belle Johnson, Nettie Wirth. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis

Amid the ruins of the Fort Shaw Industrial Indian Boarding School, a metal arch and granite monument honor ten Native American girls who overcame separation from their families and forced estrangement from their Native cultures to become the finest female basketball players in the country. Declared the “World Basket Ball Champions” in 1904, the girls from Fort Shaw also deserve praise for having triumphed over extraordinary life challenges.

In 1892 the federal government opened the Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School. Such off-reservation schools were designed to break the chain of cultural continuity by removing children from their tribal communities. The schools’ paramount educational objectives were cultural assimilation and English language fluency. Students were trained for employment in domestic services, industrial labor, and farming. Classes in music, theater, and physical education rounded out their instruction. Continue reading

Jeannette Rankin: Suffragist, Congresswoman, Pacifist

When this photograph of Jeannette Rankin was taken in Washington, D. C., in April 1917, she was at the beginning of what appeared to be a very promising political career. Her unpopular votes against the U.S.'s entry into World Wars I and II would bring an end to her political aspirations but would ultimately earn her widespread respect for adhering to her principles.

When this photograph of Jeannette Rankin was taken in Washington, D. C., in April 1917, she was at the beginning of what appeared to be a very promising political career. Her unpopular votes against the U.S.’s entry into World Wars I and II would bring an end to her political aspirations but would ultimately earn her widespread respect for adhering to her principles. MHS Photo Archives 944-480

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