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

“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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