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→
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→
In 1924, headlines across the state decried the “butchery of the helpless” at the Montana State Hospital for the Insane at Warm Springs, where eleven inmates were forcibly sterilized. Hospital staff responded that all sterilizations had received the required approval and that eugenics was “necessary to the future welfare of Montana.” Eugenics—the idea that “human perfection could be developed through selective breeding”—grew in popularity in the early twentieth century, including support for forced sterilization. The movement reached its zenith in Montana in the early 1930s, and, despite growing concerns, the practice of forced sterilizations continued into the 1970s.
Montanans’ support for forced sterilization was part of a national trend. Eugenics proponent Albert E. Wiggam, a national lecturer and trained psychologist, helped spread the eugenics gospel in Montana through a column in the Missoulian. “Already we are taxing ourselves for asylums and hospitals and jails to take care of millions who ought never to have been born,” Wiggam wrote. Many Montanans agreed, including the Helena mother who wrote the state hospital in 1924 in support of sterilization polices. “I am a tax payer. That means I wish there was no insane, no feeble minded, and no criminals to support and to fear. . . . The very fact that these people are inmates of state institutions proves that they are morally or mentally unfit to propagate their kind.” Continue reading The Right to Procreate: The Montana State Board of Eugenics and Body Politics→
Dr. Sadie Lindeberg of Miles City had an exceptional career by any standard. She became a doctor in 1907, a time when there were perhaps as few as three women physicians in all of Montana. She practiced well into her eighties and delivered, by her own count, over eight thousand babies in a career that spanned more than half a century. These accomplishments alone make Lindeberg a notable figure in Montana history, but her work helping girls and women through unwanted pregnancies—at a time when pregnancy out of wedlock was shameful and abortion was illegal—makes Dr. Lindeberg’s story truly extraordinary.
Born in 1884 to Swedish immigrants Nels and Hanna Lindeberg, who homesteaded a few miles west of Miles City, Lindeberg claimed to have been the first white baby born in the area. Sadie graduated from high school in Miles City in 1901. After working for a few years as a substitute teacher, she enrolled in medical school at the University of Michigan. Graduating in 1907, she took a yearlong internship at the Women and Children’s Hospital in Chicago, then returned home to establish a private practice.
Mamie Anderson Bridgewater and her daughter, Octavia, were strong African American women who lived under the veil of racism in Helena during the first half of the twentieth century. Each earned the respect of the Helena community, and each helped to make a difference in the lives of other African Americans.
Mamie was born at Gallatin, Tennessee, in September 1872, one of eight children. In 1892, she married a career “buffalo soldier,” Samuel Bridgewater, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona Territory. In 1903 she followed her husband to Fort Harrison, Montana, where he was stationed after the Spanish-American War. There she raised five children and worked as a matron at the veterans hospital. All the while, she cared for Samuel during his frequent bouts of illness from wounds received at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898.
After her husband’s death in 1912, Mamie Bridgewater worked as a domestic in private homes, always scraping together enough to care for her children and grandchildren whenever they needed her assistance. She was a leader of Helena’s black Baptist congregation and was heavily involved in fund-raising for Helena’s Second Baptist Church, completed circa 1914. She was also a founder of the local Pleasant Hour Club, which organized in 1916 and became the Helena chapter of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. At her death in 1950 at age seventy-seven, she was serving as chaplain of the Pleasant Hour Club. Continue reading Contributions of a Mother and Daughter→
Like their national counterparts, Montana women in the early twentieth century generally considered marriage, childbirth, and motherhood to be natural (and expected) elements of womanhood. At the same time, they did attempt to control their fertility. Conservative attitudes about sex, religious prescriptions against artificial contraception, and isolation and scarcity of medical care all conspired to limit Montana women’s access to birth control. Nevertheless, through female social networks and activism, the women of the state were able exercise a degree of control over reproduction.
Montana women had a variety of reasons for seeking contraception. Many could sympathize with the anonymous ranch wife who, when interviewed, said that she limited her family to two children “because when you had so much work to do, you can’t do all of it. So the children were the minor thing.” Other women, struggling with the hard times that hit Montana farmers and ranchers in the 1920s, sought to delay pregnancy until they were on better financial footing.
For women in the early twentieth century, pregnancy and childbirth were natural facts of life. But because of economic, cultural, and demographic circumstances, pregnancy and childbirth could also present great risks. Women, especially rural homesteaders in eastern and central Montana, often lacked access to reliable care and information. Remoteness, harsh weather, poverty, and cultural taboos against openly discussing pregnancy made childbirth unusually hazardous in Montana.
Maternal and infant mortality in the state were serious problems in the first decades of the twentieth century, especially among rural women. Vanessa Paradise, the author of a 1917 survey of an eastern county, found that, compared with other rural states, Montana had a “very bad record of maternal losses.” Two years later, according to historian Dawn Nickel, the state was in the “ ‘unenviable position’ of having the highest reported infant mortality rate” in the Northwest. For Native Americans, the statistics were even more grim. A 1927 report found that “in Montana the infant mortality rate among Native Americans was 185.4 [per one thousand births], compared to only 69.1 for whites.” Continue reading Childbirth and Maternal Health in Early-Twentieth-Century Montana→
Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail was among the first Apsáalooke (Crow) people to achieve a higher education. Like many Native children of her generation, she attended mission boarding schools where students were expected to give up their indigenous languages, beliefs, and cultural ways. Instead, Yellowtail maintained her Apsáalooke identity and, guided by her cultural heritage, used her education to improve the lives of American Indian people.
Born in 1903 and orphaned as a child, Susie grew up in Pryor and attended a boarding school on the Crow Reservation. As the only child who spoke English, Susie translated for the other students. With her missionary foster parents, Susie soon left the reservation for Oklahoma, where she briefly attended a Baptist school. Her guardian, Mrs. C. A. Field, then sent Susie to Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts. Mrs. Field paid Susie’s tuition, but Susie earned her room and board by working as a housemaid and babysitter.
After graduation, Susie continued her education by enrolling at Boston City Hospital’s School of Nursing. She graduated with honors in 1923 and finished her training at Franklin County Public Hospital in Greenfield, Massachusetts. In 1927, Susie Walking Bear became the first registered nurse of Crow descent and one of the first degreed registered nurses of American Indian ancestry in the United States. Continue reading Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail: “Our Bright Morning Star”→
Terminating a pregnancy was illegal in Montana until 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Roe v. Wade that abortion was a constitutionally protected right. Nevertheless, the practice of abortion was still commonplace. The stories of Montana women who obtained illegal abortions reveal the uncertainty, fear, shame, and danger they experienced.
Abortion before “quickening” (fetal movement) was legal in the United States prior to the 1860s, but around 1860 politicians and members of the American Medical Association campaigned to outlaw the practice. During Montana’s territorial period, it was illegal to induce abortions with either medicine or instruments, except in cases where the life of the mother was at risk. By 1895, the woman receiving the abortion as well as the person performing it were subject to prosecution.
The criminalization of abortion did not mean the end of the practice, and Montana women continued to seek professional help, or in some cases, to help each other, when they wanted to terminate a pregnancy. The practice decreased as women had greater access to contraceptives in the twentieth century, but a variety of factors—ranging from fear of complications during pregnancy to the shame of childbirth out of wedlock—meant that there was continued demand for underground abortions. Continue reading “You Had to Pretend It Never Happened”: Illegal Abortion in Montana→
Born on a farm near Mansfield, Ohio, in 1879, Caroline McGill devoted her life to the people of Montana, her adopted state. In her work as a physician she earned the love and respect of the people of Butte, but her role in the creation of the Museum of the Rockies is her enduring legacy to all Montanans.
McGill’s family moved to Missouri when she was five, and at the age of seventeen she acquired a teaching certificate so she could support herself and complete high school. She achieved that goal in 1901 and continued her education at the University of Missouri. By 1908 she had a B.A. in science, an M.A. in zoology, and a Ph.D. in anatomy and physiology, thereby becoming the first woman to receive a doctorate from that school. She taught at her alma mater until 1911, and former students later “aver[ed] that she was the finest medical school instructor” they had had.
Although the University of Missouri offered McGill a full professorship, she decided to shift career paths and accepted a position as pathologist at Murray Hospital in Butte. In a letter to a family member, she explained her decision to move to Montana: “I’ll tell you right now I am making the biggest fool mistake to go . . . but I’m going.” “Feels sort of funny to stand off and serenely watch myself commit suicide, [but] I’ll just have to let her rip.” Continue reading A “Compassionate Heart” and “Keen Mind”: The Life of Doctor Caroline McGill→