Born in Helena in 1906, Elge attended that city’s public schools and went on to graduate from law school at the University of Montana in 1930. Reflecting on her time at UM and her subsequent career as an attorney, Elge recalled, “I was a novelty when I went through law school. The men helped me along because they didn’t see me as competition. Men today know better.”
After law school she returned to Helena, where Wellington Rankin—a prominent Helena attorney and public official and brother of Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin—allowed her to use his library and office and gave her ten cases to start a private practice. She continued in private practice until 1932, when she was elected to the position of public administrator in Lewis and Clark County. Two years later the voters elected her county attorney, the second woman elected in Montana to that office.
On November 3, 1914, Montana became the eleventh state to empower women with the right to vote. Two years later, newly enfranchised Montana women helped elect Jeannette Rankin to the U.S. House of Representatives. She took her seat as the first woman to serve in Congress four years before women achieved national suffrage. Rankin’s victory largely eclipsed another, equally significant 1916 victory: that year Montana also seated the first two women in the state’s House of Representatives. These women opened the door for those who followed in the political arena.
Emma Ingalls, a Republican from Flathead County, and Maggie Smith Hathaway, a Democrat from Ravalli County, represented opposing parties, but they both championed the cause of women’s suffrage and spoke out for the disenfranchised. As Ingalls and Hathaway took their seats in the Montana House in 1917, they represented the ribbon at the end of the finish line in a hard-won race. Conscious of their role as female reformers, both championed child welfare and women’s rights in the legislature. Continue reading After Suffrage: Women Politicians at the Montana Capitol→
Because Montana contains vast tracks of public lands, the U.S. Forest Service played an important role in the state in the twentieth century. Known for its rough-and-tumble rangers and daring smokejumpers, the Forest Service is seemingly synonymous with the rugged style of masculinity associated with Montana and the American West. Even Smokey Bear, with his bulky muscles and stern face, seems like a man’s man.
Nevertheless, women have worked for the Forest Service since its creation in 1905. Throughout the twentieth century, women’s labor was indispensable to the Forest Service, even as women consistently struggled against the agency’s masculine reputation and the belief that they were unsuited for forestry work. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s—when they moved into traditionally masculine fields like firefighting and law enforcement—that women were able to gain positions of leadership in the agency.
In the early twentieth century, women were generally limited to clerical positions within the Forest Service, and in some cases even these “feminine” jobs were off limits to them. Albert Cousins, an early forestry professional, recalled that some foresters preferred to hire men, even for office work, “the idea being that a woman clerk would not handle the ‘rough’ work required in the administration of a forest, such as assembling and shipping fire tools, rustling fire fighters, etc. Such work properly was for a ‘two fisted’ ranger.” Continue reading Work Fit for “Two Fisted” Rangers: Women in the U.S. Forest Service→
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→