In 1972 Americans were engaged in a national debate over whether to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. That debate informed discussion during Montana’s 1972 constitutional convention, and convention delegates enshrined equal protection in the “individual dignity” clause of its Declaration of Rights. Backed by this promise of equality, women’s rights advocates and members of the newly formed Montana Women’s Political Caucus, an organization of female state legislators, worked to reform Montana’s laws to erase sex discrimination. Through their efforts, the 1970s saw important steps toward equalization of Montana’s laws; however, the Montana Supreme Court’s conservative application of the individual dignity clause to sex discrimination undercut the potential for radical strides toward legal equality.
The “Declaration of Rights” in Montana’s 1889 Constitution had stated that “all persons are born equally free,” but the new constitution went far beyond that vague provision in its individual dignity clause. Working on the language for the state’s new constitution, delegate Virginia Blend of Great Falls proposed that the actual language of the Equal Rights Amendment be included in the Declaration of Rights. Instead the 1972 Constitution addressed the issue of gender equity in the constitution’s “individual dignity” clause, which guaranteed equal protection of the laws. Notable for its expansiveness, Article II, Section 4, of the 1972 constitution promised that “Neither the state nor any person, firm, corporation, or institution shall discriminate against any person in the exercise of his civil or political rights on account of race, color, sex, culture, social origin or condition, or political or religious ideas.” The clause links equality to human dignity and includes a long list of protected classes, making it, according to scholars Larry Elison and Fritz Snyder, the “most inclusive scheme of ‘equal rights’ of any known constitution.” Continue reading Working to Give Women “Individual Dignity”: Equal Protection of the Laws under Montana’s Constitution→
As mothers and homemakers, women have historically presided over child and family welfare. By extension, their purview has included education and healthcare. Before the mid-twentieth century, teaching and nursing were the socially acceptable occupations providing avenues for women to expand their influence in public affairs. Making the most of limited opportunities, many teachers and nurses became school superintendents or public health nurses. Often collaborating to achieve their goals, these leaders in education and community health significantly improved Montanans’ lives.
Montana’s women did not obtain full suffrage until 1914, but they had participated in school elections since the 1880s. In 1882, Helen Clarke and Alice Nichols became the first two women elected to public office in Montana, both of them as county school superintendents. Their duties included visiting schools, recommending necessary improvements to buildings and curricula, and creating teacher licensure exams. They also coordinated teacher institutes to advance teachers’ skills. By 1890, twelve of Montana’s sixteen county superintendents were women. Since that time, the majority of the state’s county superintendents have been women.
Coinciding with the ascendance of women county superintendents was the rise of public health nurses. The Montana State Board of Health, formed in 1901, employed four field nurses in an effort to decrease high infant and maternal mortality rates and to curb the spread of infectious diseases. Serving a population spread across hundreds of square miles, these field nurses traveled extensively to educate the public about disease transmission, hygiene, nutrition, and infant care. “These women supervise the work of all nurses in their districts,” reported the director of the state’s Child Welfare Division. “In conjunction with the county superintendent of schools and women’s organizations, they … hold children’s health conferences in schools . . . and advise prospective mothers concerning the importance of securing medical supervision.” One of these field nurses, Henrietta Crockett, established the first infant health clinic on a Montana Indian reservation in 1925 and engaged tribal members in the public health campaign. Continue reading Expanding Their Sphere: Montana Women in Education Administration and Public Health→
Shortly before eleven on February 8, 1946, as Hazel Kauf stepped off the Aero Club’s dance floor, she was confronted by her ex-husband, Howard Kauf, who had entered the club a few minutes earlier. Grabbing Hazel by the arm, Howard “spun her around . . . and in the spin just . . . blasted that first one [shot].”As Hazel lay on the floor, Howard, standing over her, fired a second shot into her chest. According to the Montana Standard, the horrific event quickly drew a crowd and “within a few minutes traffic at Park and Main [just outside the club] was virtually at a standstill.”
This was not an isolated incident. Following World War II, rates of violence increased nationally, and rising rates of wife assault and wife homicide, like other forms of violence, peaked in postwar Butte. Hazel’s case, however, represents more than a historically persistent crime, often addressed only in whispers. It demonstrates that even as social constraints on women lifted, cultural beliefs that dictated women’s and wives’ behaviors remained firmly intact. These beliefs perpetuated the narrative that assault on wives can, in some situations, be justified.
The lives of Hazel and Howard Kauf, in many ways, resembled the lives of couples across Montana and the United States during World War II. Philipsburg native Hazel Alda Henri married Howard Kauf, a local manganese miner, in 1936. Howard spent the early war years laboring in a strategic industry, mining. In 1945, however, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, joining fifty-seven thousand other Montanans in the armed services. Shortly after Howard’s deployment, Hazel and the couple’s four-year-old son moved to Butte, where Hazel, like over a million other military wives nationwide, entered the workforce. Continue reading Womanhood on Trial: Examining Domestic Violence in Butte, Montana→
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a series of economic and social changes culminated in a nationwide increase both in divorce rates and in the liberalization of divorce laws. This pattern played out in Montana on an even larger scale. Based on her extensive study of Montana divorces in the late nineteenth century, historian Paula Petrik found that frontier conditions in mining cities like Helena and Butte created a climate in which divorces were common. Petrik also argued that, over the course of the late nineteenth century, women seeking to divorce ushered in changes to Montana law that made divorces easier to obtain and on terms more favorable to women. In doing so, they confirmed the ideal of “companionate marriage”—or marriage based on mutual affection and reciprocal duties. This ideal would come to define the institution in the early twentieth century.
For Montanans facing the frontier conditions of social upheaval, an unbalanced ratio of men to women, and rising and falling fortunes, divorces were common. Indeed, in 1868, Helenan Elizabeth Chester Fisk remarked, “Divorces are common here, and it is a common comment that a man in the mountains cannot keep his wife.” Fisk’s observation was based in fact, as Lewis and Clark County had an unusually high divorce rate in that era. In 1867, the number of divorces actually exceeded the number of marriages.
The story of women’s military service during World War II is relatively well known; less familiar is the story of the women who served during World War I, sometimes on or near the front lines. During World War I, over twenty-five thousand women worked for American forces or support organizations in Europe. These women performed integral work and helped chip away at gender stereotypes, paving the way for the more famous WACs and WAVEs of World War II.
Among those serving during World War I was Merle Egan of Helena, a telephone switchboard operator for the Army Signal Corps. A vitally important technology to U.S. military operations, telephones allowed officers to communicate across battlefields, between dispersed units, and with other allied forces. Unfortunately, war had devastated the French telephone system, so in 1917, when the U.S. Army was building up its forces in France, Gen. John Pershing ordered the construction of an American telephone system throughout the country.
The creation of a military telephone system opened up new opportunity for female service since civilian telephone operators were almost exclusively female. As Col. Parker Hitt, chief signal officer of the U.S. First Army, explained: “[A]n Army telephone central would have to have American women operators to be a success. Our experience in Paris with the untrained and undisciplined English-speaking French women operators, and experience elsewhere with the willing but untrained men operators was almost disastrous.” Thus, in November 1917, General Pershing requested that the War Department deploy one hundred French-speaking American women with telephone operating experience. Thousands of women applied and the first of these “Hello Girls” traveled overseas in the spring of 1918. Continue reading Merle Egan Anderson: Montana’s “Hello Girl”→
Theresa Chandler Walker Lamebull was still teaching when she died in 2007 at 111 years of age. Her subject was A’aniiih, or White Clay, the language of the A’aninin (Gros Ventre) people and one of the world’s most endangered languages. By the 1990s, Theresa Lamebull was one of only a dozen people to speak the language fluently. Her willingness to share her knowledge of the White Clay language became the foundation for its recovery.
Theresa Elizabeth Chandler, or Kills At Night, was born to Kills In The Brush and Al Chandler in 1896 in a tipi near Hays on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Raised by her grandmother, Sharp Nose, for the first few years of her life, young Kills At Night was fully immersed in White Clay culture. She then lived with her mother and stepfather, White Weasel, until she was twelve and the federal government mandated she go to school. Without the option of a day school, Theresa attended St. Paul’s Catholic boarding school in Harlem, Montana. She long remembered the fences that surrounded the mission school to keep children from running away and returning to their families.
According to one common narrative, the post-World War II period marked a “return” to traditional gender roles, including breadwinner husbands and homemaker wives. But contrary to this stereotype, in the 1940s and 1950s married women entered the paid workforce in greater numbers than ever before. Women also volunteered with community organizations and were actively involved in both political parties. In Montana, a small but significant number of women even ventured into—and achieved success in—the traditionally masculine world of electoral politics. These postwar politicians achieved a number of important “firsts” and gained political experience that would be invaluable in the push for equal rights in the 1960s and 1970s.
Among these postwar women politicians was Ellenore Bridenstine of Terry, who in 1945 became the first woman elected to the state senate. An active participant in the local Republican Party and the wife of the only physician in Prairie County, Bridenstine recalled her decision to run for office: “Many of my women friends felt that I was crazy to try for it. But I decided to try for it anyway just to see what would happen. The man holding the office had never campaigned, and I am sure that he felt he would not need to against a woman.” Bridenstine won her seat by a mere six votes but was reelected in the next cycle. Continue reading Montana’s Postwar Women Politicians→
Frieda and Belle Fligelman were born in Helena in 1890 and 1891, respectively. Their parents taught them the value of education, the importance of civic engagement, and the necessity of being reasonable. In the Fligelmans’ Jewish household, “God was the idea of goodness,” and being reasonable was inextricably linked to being a good person. On that premise, the Fligelman sisters became dedicated global citizens, actively participating in important twentieth-century social movements as part of their lifelong commitment “to do something good for the world.”
That quest began in 1907, when Frieda persuaded her father to send her, and later Belle, to college rather than finishing school. Articulate, bright, and principled, both sisters excelled at the University of Wisconsin, coming of age during the Progressive Era’s struggles for political, economic, and social equality. After graduating in 1910, Frieda joined the activists marching for women’s suffrage in New York. Back on campus, Belle was elected president of the Women’s Student Government Association and, as an editor for the student newspaper, championed progressive causes. During her senior year, she lobbied the Wisconsin legislature in favor of granting women the vote. Continue reading The Lifelong Quest of Frieda Fligelman and Belle Fligelman Winestine→
“Montana was so vast and strange to me that I didn’t dare to write about it for almost ten years,” novelist Mildred Walker said during the 1960s, a decade after she had left the state. But three of her best-known works—Winter Wheat, The Curlew’s Cry, and If a Lion Could Talk—are set in Montana. The novels’ richly developed female characters reflect Walker’s own ambivalence about the state: its traditions, weather, landscape, and capacity to nurture or starve women.
Walker was born in 1905 in Philadelphia to a schoolteacher mother and a preacher father—a family for whom the right words had power. She wrote her way through Wells College in New York and set the terms of her marriage to Michigan-born physician Ferdinand Schemm: that she would write, that he would embrace his profession unstintingly, that she would not do the washing. They started married life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula logging communities but soon moved to Ann Arbor, where Walker earned her M.A. in creative writing. Her award-winning and first published novel, Fireweed, paid for the young couple’s move to Great Falls in 1933.
There they found a craftsman bungalow that gave their two oldest children, Ripley and George, tricycle-riding, small-town freedom; Schemm an easy commute to both hospitals; and Walker a niche for her desk. For the next decade Mildred Walker Schemm intertwined the multiple roles she had established for herself: well-dressed doctor’s wife, arms-length mother, friend, and writer.
In 1944, the family moved to a rambling haven south of Great Falls and next to the Missouri River. By then, they had welcomed their third child, Christopher, begun escaping to a rustic cabin on the Rocky Mountain Front, and celebrated Dr. Schemm’s growing prominence in heart research. The family’s friendships included artist Fra Dana and literary lights Joseph Kinsey Howard and A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Household help and a quiet study of her own allowed Walker her most productive writing years before Schemm’s death in 1955. Continue reading Writing Our Lives: Novelist Mildred Walker’s Illumination of Montana Women→
In late August and early September of 1927, Daniel Slayton, a Lavina, Montana, businessman and farmer, lay dying of bone cancer. During the final three weeks of his life, he spent no moment alone. Daughters, daughters-in-law, his cousin Mary, the community midwife, a nurse hired from Billings, and Slayton’s wife, Lizzie, cared for him and kept vigil. Though Slayton’s adult sons had earlier helped him seek treatment and, in the end, came to say their goodbyes, the women in his life mostly watched over him in his final hours.
In serving as family caregivers, Montana women have joined a legion of women across time. Before 1900, hospitals typically cared for soldiers, the poor, and the homeless. On Montana’s frontier, where single men far outnumbered women, churches underwrote Montana’s earliest hospitals. Soon self-supporting matrons converted boardinghouses into private hospitals. In the first half of the twentieth century, Montana pest houses, poor farms, and finally, state institutions such as the Montana State Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Galen provided some long-term care for Montanans without families. Nevertheless, a family’s women—its mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, daughters, and cousins—typically assumed responsibility for the care of relatives. Into the 1960s, and beyond, women performed this work out of necessity, longstanding tradition, and often love. Continue reading The Watchers: Montana Women Care for the Sick and Dying→