“Things to be done which money and men will never provide”: The Activism of Montana’s AAUW

A woman speaks into a microphone. Four other panel members (all well-coifed women) sit at a head table facing the audience.

AAUW members concerned themselves with a broad range of issues. At this Great Falls workshop in 1965, members hear from a panel that included Alma Jacobs, far right, the Special Chair for implementing Library Resolution, as well as the Legislative Program Chair, Division Publicity Chair, Special Chairman for Mental Health, and I.C. for Science. MHS Photo Archives PAc 90-20 f10 Continuing interests

The American Association of University Women has always aspired to the promotion of women as fully contributing, educated members of society. Until the 1960s, this organization of female college graduates remained largely apolitical. At the division (state) level, Montana’s AAUW had created the highly successful AAUW Education Foundation to provide college fellowships for women, while local branches had focused primarily on community-building projects. However, the social, economic, and political changes during the 1960s and 1970s spurred a transformation in AAUW. “There are things to be done which money and men will never provide,” said one Montana member. Under the leadership of courageous feminists, AAUW evolved into a prominent activist organization that brought women to the forefront of public policy making.

In 1960, most AAUW members were homemakers or held traditionally “female” occupations in teaching or clerical work. Few Montana women had attained professional careers or had advanced to leadership positions; fewer still worked in the public-policy arena. When Governor Tim Babcock created a state Commission on the Status of Women in 1965, AAUW seized the chance to initiate policy changes and secured the appointment of several of its members to the commission.

A group portrait of seven women, four standing behind three who are seated.

In the 1960s, the AAUW transformed itself from a scholarship and local service organization to one focused on public policy and advancing women’s public influence. State officers are pictured here in 1970. MHS Photo Archives 940-352

In 1967, Montana’s AAUW formed its own Status of Women Committee. That same year, the Billings branch organized a unique Inter-club Committee on the Status of Women that included two members from each of the participating groups: AAUW, Soroptimists, Altrusa, Zonta, and the Business and Professional Women. Its goals were to get more women into local, county, and statewide appointed offices; to encourage women to stand for state elective office; and to keep women in office as state superintendent of schools. 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

The Women’s Protective Union

Young woman (and WPU member) behind the candy counter of Butte's Rialto Theatre

The WPU represented women who worked in service industries, including waitresses, cooks, maids, elevator girls, and janitors. By the 1940s, the union had won eight-hour shifts, the right to overtime pay, sick leave, and paid vacations for its members. Above, a WPU member is shown working the candy counter at the Rialto Theater. PH088 W.P.U./H.E.R.E. Photograph Collection, Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives.

In what must have been an unusual sight on a June evening in 1890, thirty-three women walked into the Butte Miners’ Union hall. They were waitresses, dressmakers, milliners, and saleswomen, and they had gathered to organize a protective association for Butte’s women workers. As the Butte Daily Miner reported the following day, “The ladies of Butte—God bless them!—are not going to be behind their brothers in demanding their rights.” From its inception, the Butte Women’s Protective Union (WPU) labored to improve the conditions of women’s work and to extend a network of support and friendship to Butte’s working women.

Most working women in Butte engaged in “commercialized domesticity.” Miners, carpenters, blacksmiths, pipefitters, and men who worked in scores of other occupations dominated the mining city. Until well into the twentieth century the majority of them were single. They needed to be fed, clothed, nursed, entertained, and generally looked after by women who performed domestic tasks for wages. Working men ate in cafes and boardinghouses, slept in rooming houses, sent their laundry out, and spent their evenings in saloons, dance halls, and theaters—except for the saloons, these were all places where women worked. Women’s work made men’s work possible. Continue reading

“Becoming Better Citizens of Our Adopted Country”:  Montana’s Ethnic Women’s Groups

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Cornish women in Anaconda came together to form the Daughters of St. George, shown here picnic at Gregson Springs, July 30, 1925. MHS Photo Archives 941-933

 “Thanksgiving Day is over and we have Women’s Meeting Sale at Elling Rogenes and it is quite enjoyable when there are so many Norwegians together,” Rakel Herein wrote in her daybook in 1917. Two years later, a March entry reads simply, “Have had Women’s Meeting. . . . Yes it was extremely delightful.”

Herein arrived in Carbon County in 1899 as a twenty-year-old immigrant from Norway and married a local Norwegian immigrant sheep farmer within the year. Translated years after her 1943 death, her scattered, terse daybook documents the birth and growth of five children and a lonely, despairing life. This context makes her descriptions of Red Lodge’s St. Olaf Lutheran Church women’s group—“delightful” and “enjoyable”—that much more telling. Herein yearned for the companionship and support of women who understood how hard it was to immigrate to a foreign, male-dominated western landscape. She found that companionship and support within the Women’s Meeting.

Herein’s Women’s Meeting was one of hundreds of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Montana women’s groups. Montana women gathered whenever they could under a wide range of banners: to pursue education, art, community improvement, children’s activities, homemaking, health, their families’ occupational interests, and church growth and stability. Typically, these women’s groups supported the status quo, celebrating their members’ primary roles as mothers, wives, and daughters; yet for the women themselves, they were lifelines leading out of their homes and into a larger world. Continue reading

Montana Women of the Ku Klux Klan

099WHM Western Heritage 86.71.01 a,b Car on south bridge with banner Ku Klux Klan annual meeting

The Ku Klux Klan had a national membership of 3 to 5 million men during its height in the 1920s, and over a million women joined the women’s auxilliary. This photo was likely taken near either Billings or Livingston. The lead car sports a Billings license plate. Photo courtesy Billings’ Western Heritage Center 86.71.01 a, b.

In the 1920s, a group of women banded together under the auspices of a shared political belief and religious background. They dedicated themselves to installing memorials in their communities, hosting family picnics, and delivering flowers to local hospitals. In many ways they resembled other civic organizations of their time, many of which served a social function by bringing women of similar interests together. Committed to “tenets of the Christian religion,” “freedom of speech and press,” and “the protection of pure womanhood,” the ideology of this group overlapped with other groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Yet their commitment to “white supremacy” separated the Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK) from other women’s organizations—and provides a reminder that female participation in politics was not always a progressive force.

At its height, in the 1920s, the Montana Realm of the Ku Klux Klan boasted fifty-one hundred members across more than forty chapters. Committed to what they called “100% Americanism,” KKK members espoused xenophobic policies against immigrants and racist policies against nonwhites, and fostered hatred toward Jews and Catholics. In a Montana suffering from economic downturn, rapid technological advances, drought, labor unrest, and a generally chaotic postwar period, the Klan provided an appealing organization for those looking for scapegoats.

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“The Men Would Never Have Survived”: Women, Union Activism, and Community Survival in Butte

95WHM women  children picket

Betty Jo Houchin and Ruby Larson used their informal network to organize a picket of St. James Hospital in July 1971. Their husbands were both on strike when the women decided to protest the hospital’s decision to treat strikers and their families “only on an emergency basis” because striking workers were not covered by the Anaconda Company’s health insurance. Photo courtesy of the Montana Standard (July 4, 1971).

Although excluded from most jobs in the mines and smelters of Butte and Anaconda (with the short-lived exception of female smelter workers in World War II), women played integral roles in the survival of these company towns. The success of each community depended on the wages of laborers who toiled for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. When those wages were threatened—during strikes or company shutdowns—the entire community mobilized. During periods of conflict, women’s contributions to the household economy became especially significant, as women pinched pennies and took on paid employment to help their families survive. These and other activities in support of labor were crucial to community survival, but men’s resistance to women’s full participation in union efforts also reveals the prevalence of conservative gender ideals in mid-century Butte and Anaconda.

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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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Cultivating Female Reform: The Montana Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

Etta Weatherson, Candace Shaw, Elizabeth Blakeman ride on the WCTU float in 1916 Fourth of July Parade, Columbus, Montana

Etta Weatherson, Candace Shaw, Elizabeth Blakeman ride on the WCTU float in 1916 Fourth of July Parade, Columbus, Montana. MHS Photo Archives 951-822

Founded in 1883, the Montana chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was a popular, well-organized women’s club focused on reducing the consumption of alcohol in the state. Part of a broad series of reform movements that swept the country at the turn of the century, the WCTU was witness to women’s growing political power in the area of social reform.

The national WCTU was founded in Ohio in 1873 and quickly gained a broad base of support around the country. Like their national counterparts, Montana women joined the WCTU because they believed that limiting access to alcohol would in turn reduce the incidence of other social ills, such as gambling, prostitution, and public and domestic violence. In addition to advocating temperance (and later complete prohibition), Montana WCTU members also worked for a broad range of social reforms. At their state convention in Billings 1910, for example, the members voted for resolutions that “urged enforcement of juvenile court law [and] government aid to destitute mothers, . . . condemned the use of coca-cola, and recommended sanitary fountains.”

In her study of the WCTU and similar women’s clubs in this period, historian Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs argues that Montana women enjoyed a “growing sense of social and political power through their clubs’ active participation in social and civil affairs.” By­­ assertin­­g their role as reformers, the middle-class women involved in the Montana WCTU were restructuring ideas about femininity and women’s role in the public sphere. They challenged the traditional idea that a woman’s place was in the home, suggesting instead that society had become so morally corrupt that it required women’s political participation. They drew on the Victorian idea of women’s natural moral superiority to make the case that women had to take the lead in reform. Continue reading

Early Social Service Was Women’s Work

A nun and children looking through the rubble after the 1935 Helena earthquake.

St. Joseph’s Home for Orphans fulfilled one of the missions of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. Earthquakes in 1935 left the children homeless and they spent nearly two years as the guests of wealthy U. S. Senator James E. Murray at Boulder Hot Springs. Photo courtesy Independent Record

Parochial institutions in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Montana, which were almost exclusively under the supervision of women, were the forerunners of our modern social services. Catholic nuns, Methodist deaconesses, and nondenominational Christian women offered comfort, sanctuary, and stability to the lost, the desperate, and the destitute. Their contributions were far-reaching and some of their pioneering services evolved and remain viable today.

Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth (Kansas) came to Helena in 1869 at the invitation of Jesuit priests who saw a dire need for feminine influence in the rough-and-tumble gold camp. The sisters’ mission was threefold—to teach youth, care for orphans, and minister to the sick—and it fit in with the real needs of the frontier community. St. Vincent’s Academy, the first boarding school for non-Indian girls, opened in 1870 and educated girls until 1935. Continue reading

Empowering Women: The Helena YWCA

This 1957 photo shows the interior of the Helena YWCA. A piano sits in the corner. On the other side of the room, three women drink tea.

The forty-three room Helena YWCA has provided women with a place to stay, and organizations a place to meet, since 1919. Photograph by L. H. Jorud, 1957. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2003-48 Box 41 1957 YWCA women + piano

During the Victorian era, strict social rules constrained women’s lives. It was scandalous for a woman to go out alone, eat in a restaurant without a companion, or travel without a chaperone. Women were expected to stay at home and attend to domestic duties. Thus, those who left their homes for employment or educational opportunities in urban areas faced major obstacles. A young woman in an unfamiliar city often had nowhere to turn for housing, support, or advice. In the early twentieth century, YWCAs began to fill this need in Montana, where Billings, Missoula, Great Falls, and Helena all had YWCA chapters. Continue reading