Beyond Schoolmarms and Madams: Montana Women’s Stories

BeyondSchoolmarmsCoverThe main page of this website features over 100 articles on Montana women, from activists and artists to pilots and politicians. The majority of these essays have now been pulled together into a 336-page book, Beyond Schoolmarms and Madams: Montana Women’s Stories, published by the Montana Historical Society Press in April 2016.

You can order your copy today from the Montana Historical Society Museum Store or your favorite local or online store.

Though this site is no longer being updated, the essays will also remain available here for those who prefer online reading. You can also use the tabs at the top of the page to access bibliographies (current through 2014); over 130 articles published in Montana The Magazine of Western History; and to find educator resources, information on selected historic places, and resources specifically related to the suffrage campaign.


Merry Christmas

A girl hangs an ornament on a Christmas tree, and another girl poses in front of the tree holding a doll. On the left side of the photograph, four shelves of books can be seen and a painting above on the wall. Flooring is wood and two rugs are visible on the floor.

Sherburne Photographs ; Mss 638 Collection, Archives and Special Collections at the University of Montana.

We know nothing about this scene, captured in an undated, untitled photograph now in the University of Montana’s Archives and Special Collections, except that it depicts a small moment common to the lives of many Montana families.

One of the goals of Women’s History Matters has been to promote a view of  history that recognizes the significance of such private moments while exploring the larger cultural, political, and economic forces that informed them.

Happy holidays to all our readers from Women’s History Matters.


A Department of One’s Own: Women’s Studies at the University of Montana

Logo, reading "Women's Studies Emphasis Liberal Arts Program."

Although the University of Montana began offering Women’s Studies classes in 1974, it did not become a formally recognized program until 1991. This logo was taken from its fall 1992 brochure. Photo courtesy of the Department of Women’s Studies Records (RG 87), Archives and Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana–Missoula.

In the 1970s, women activists across the nation experienced growing dissatisfaction. As participants in the civil rights and antiwar movements, they had learned to question the status quo. Nevertheless, many of these women felt as if their own concerns—from unequal pay to sexual harassment to the lack of recognition for women’s contributions to social movements—went unnoticed. Eager to challenge gender discrimination, these women formed groups that would become the bedrock of Second Wave Feminism. In Missoula, Montana, one such group blended activism and scholarship to create the University of Montana’s Women’s Studies Program.

It began after a 1974 symposium on women, featuring speakers from various university departments, when English professor Carolyn Wheeler circulated a handwritten memo to other women faculty members, asking if they would teach a class focused on women. History professor Maxine Van de Wetering initially resisted the idea, saying she “couldn’t even imagine what that would be.” However, according to Wheeler, Van de Wetering quickly changed her mind when “she just started thinking what it could mean to . . . history.”

The response from other faculty members was electric. Joan Watson, a liberal studies professor and later director of the Women’s Studies Program, observed: “The contributions of women have been hidden from history . . . women, like people of color, have been largely absent from the texts we study.” For many students, correcting that omission seemed to be both a revelation and a revolution. Continue reading

“You Had to Pretend It Never Happened”: Illegal Abortion in Montana

Although he was never convicted, Helena homeopath Edwin Kellog, whose 1898 advertisement is shown here, had at least seven encounters with the law between 1893 and 1915 over allegations that he performed abortions. At least two of his alleged patients died from the procedure. Polk's Helena City Directory, 1898, p. 238, MHS Library

Although he was never convicted, Helena homeopath Edwin Kellog, whose 1898 advertisement is shown here, had at least seven encounters with the law between 1893 and 1915 over allegations that he performed abortions. At least two of his alleged patients died from the procedure. Polk’s Helena City Directory, 1898, p. 238, MHS Library

Terminating a pregnancy was illegal in Montana until 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Roe v. Wade that abortion was a constitutionally protected right. Nevertheless, the practice of abortion was still commonplace. The stories of Montana women who obtained illegal abortions reveal the uncertainty, fear, shame, and danger they experienced.

Abortion before “quickening” (fetal movement) was legal in the United States prior to the 1860s, but around 1860 politicians and members of the American Medical Association campaigned to outlaw the practice. During Montana’s territorial period, it was illegal to induce abortions with either medicine or instruments, except in cases where the life of the mother was at risk. By 1895, the woman receiving the abortion as well as the person performing it were subject to prosecution.

The criminalization of abortion did not mean the end of the practice, and Montana women continued to seek professional help, or in some cases, to help each other, when they wanted to terminate a pregnancy. The practice decreased as women had greater access to contraceptives in the twentieth century, but a variety of factors—ranging from fear of complications during pregnancy to the shame of childbirth out of wedlock—meant that there was continued demand for underground abortions. Continue reading