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→
In 1909 the Anaconda Standard ran an article called “The Uplift of the Indians.” It argued that Indians could be brought from their “untutored, childlike state” and transformed—through education, private property ownership, and conversion to Christianity—into productive American citizens. Perhaps no Montanan of her generation better exemplified this assimilationist ideal than Blackfeet descendent Helen Piotopowaka Clarke. While Clarke’s remarkable personal and professional accomplishments earned her great respect and admiration, they also revealed the persistence of anti-Indian prejudices at the turn of the twentieth century.
Helen was born in 1846 to a prominent Scottish-American, Malcolm Clarke, and his Blackfeet wife, Cothcocoma. She spent most of her childhood at a convent school in Cincinnati and returned to Montana just a few years before a group of Blackfeet men murdered her father in 1869. Later that year, Helen’s brothers participated in the Baker Massacre during which troops, ostensibly on a mission to capture Malcolm Clarke’s killers, slaughtered a peaceful and unassociated Blackfeet camp.
Following these tragic events, Helen Clarke moved back east and had a brief but successful acting career in New York. In 1875, she returned to Montana, where attorney and family friend Wilbur Sanders found her a teaching position in Helena. Not everyone in Helena was happy with her hire. Elizabeth Chester Fisk, whose husband edited the Helena Herald, withdrew her children from school because she objected so strenuously to Helen’s mixed ancestry. However, enough Helenans were accepting of the refined, devoutly Catholic, and talented woman that they elected Clarke county superintendent of schools in 1882. She held the position for three terms—one of the first two women (and only person of Indian descent) to hold elective office in Montana Territory. Continue reading Helen Piotopowaka Clarke and the Persistence of Prejudice→
In November 1916, Montana voters approved a referendum for the statewide prohibition of alcohol. Montana’s influential and well-organized branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had led the effort to ban the manufacture and sale of liquor. The passage of the new law, which went into effect at the end of 1918, reflected the growing influence of female reform in Montana. Not all Montana women supported temperance, however, and, ironically, for some women, the ban on liquor created new and lucrative—albeit illegal—economic opportunities.
Although Montanans were pioneers in the Prohibition movement, the law itself did little to curb drinking. Historian Michael Malone pointed out that the “enforcement of the law in wide open and fun-loving Montana proved nearly impossible.” Moreover, the state’s remoteness and abundant supply of wheat created ideal conditions for a thriving bootlegging economy. Although we now imagine bootlegging as a masculine activity dominated by gun-toting gangsters, in fact many women were quick to cash in on the illegal liquor trade. Women around the state manufactured moonshine and operated “home speaks” and roadhouses to supplement the family income. Because it could be done at home in the kitchen, making “hooch” was an especially attractive industry for working-class women hoping to supplement their family incomes and for widows who could not easily work outside the home.
Given the strength of drinking culture in Butte, it is perhaps unsurprising that female bootleggers thrived in that “wide open” mining town. When Butte voters opposed the Prohibition referendum in 1916, one dry advocate had explicitly criticized the city’s women who, she scolded, wouldn’t vote for prohibition “because you want to have beer on your own tables in your own homes.” Continue reading Montana’s Whiskey Women: Female Bootleggers during Prohibition→
Alma Smith Jacobs served as the head librarian of the Great Falls Public Library for almost twenty years before becoming the Montana state librarian in 1973. Both of these achievements were historic firsts for an African American woman. Throughout her life, Jacobs demonstrated a passion for education and for community building and a commitment to working for racial justice in Montana.
Alma Smith was born in 1916 in Lewistown, Montana, to Martin and Emma Riley Smith, members of the wave of African American migrants who had been drawn to the Pacific Northwest between 1865 and 1910. Although Montana now has a reputation for being predominantly white, in the early twentieth century there were sizeable black communities in the state, especially in larger cities like Helena, Butte, Missoula, and Great Falls.
The Smith family moved to Great Falls when Alma was a child. After graduating from Great Falls High School, Alma took advantage of scholarships to achieve an impressive education, first at Talladega College in Alabama and then at Columbia University, where she completed a degree in library science. Credentials in hand, and newly married to World War II veteran Marcus Jacobs, she returned to Great Falls, where she found a position at the public library in 1946. Eight years later she became head librarian. From that position, she worked to build the presence of the library throughout the city and central Montana. Continue reading Alma Smith Jacobs: Beloved Librarian, Tireless Activist→