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.
During World War I, many women joined the workforce both for the economic opportunity and out of a sense of patriotism. The War Department cataloged this photo of two women working on the Great Northern Railway near Great Falls, c. 1918. National Archives, Records of War Department, General and Special Staffs (165-WW-595-D-14).
When the Northern Pacific Railroad established its Central Division maintenance facility at Livingston, Montana, the town became a magnet for men seeking jobs on operational and maintenance crews. At the start of the twentieth century, one-sixth of the town’s population worked for the railroad. Most of these workers were recent immigrants to the United States. Later, during the two world wars, many of their daughters also found good-paying work with Northern Pacific, one of the few employers in the state that paid women equally to men.
One of the first women employees was Natalina Indendi, who had immigrated to the United States from Italy when she was five years old, in about 1905. Her father had emigrated three years earlier, but the rest of the family originally were denied passage because her brother was blind in one eye. When they were finally permitted to leave Italy, they went straight from the emigration office to the boat without a single piece of luggage. “We were supposed to meet Dad in Chicago. . . . [But] the day we landed in New York he took off for Montana, because they were building up a crew [to extend a railway line from Livingston] to Wilsall.” Natalina’s mother found a job in a garment factory in Chicago. As soon as he could, her father sent money, and the family moved to Livingston. Continue reading