Ella Knowles: Portia of the People

Sometimes known as the "Portia of the People," Ella Knowles Haskell was a woman of many Montana firsts, including becoming Montana's first female attorney in 1889. Noted for her oratory skills, Haskell was also active in Populist politics and the women's suffrage campaign. MHS Photo Archives 942-591

Sometimes known as the “Portia of the People,” Ella Knowles Haskell was a woman of many Montana firsts, including becoming Montana’s first female attorney in 1889. Noted for her oratory skills, Haskell was also active in Populist politics and the women’s suffrage campaign. MHS Photo Archives 942-591

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