In 1937, Josephine Pease became one of the first Crow (Apsáalooke) people to graduate from college. Cultural and linguistic differences made obtaining an education challenging, but even greater were the difficulties that came with being a Crow woman who wanted a career in the mid-twentieth century. Crows discouraged women from being more successful than men, while some whites refused to hire Indians. Nevertheless, Pease persisted in her dreams to become a teacher, blazing a trail for future generations of Crow women.
The oldest of five children, Josephine was born in 1914 and grew up near Lodge Grass. Her parents wanted her to go to school because neither of them had had a chance at an education. There was a missionary school in Lodge Grass, but Josephine’s parents wanted her at the public school. For two years Josephine was the only Crow child at the school. The rest were “English” (white) children who wouldn’t play with her. She remembered feeling as if she were “in a foreign country.”
Upon statehood in 1889, 5,600 farms spread across Montana. By 1910, that number had jumped to 26,000. The Enlarged Homestead Act was one reason thousands flooded into Montana, including many married couples. Although federal census records consistently note that women whose husbands were involved in agriculture had no occupations, women were often the linchpins of the family economy and played key roles in building their communities.
Helena Hagadone, Janet Smith, Lilly B. “Ma” Smith, Ruth Garfield, and others represent different experiences, but share a unique sisterhood. What women brought to the marriage influenced the success, and sometimes failure, of the partnership. They were neither as frail nor as frightened as they have sometimes been portrayed.
Frank and Helena Hagadone married in 1913. In 1917, the Hagadones homesteaded with their three children in a hostile place in the Missouri Breaks called the Devil’s Pocket. The Missouri River bottomlands were unbearably hot in summer and cruelly cold in winter. The family grew vegetables and caught fish, but they had no well. They carried river water to the house, let the silt settle, and boiled it for cooking and drinking. Rattlesnakes were everywhere, and one of the children survived a near-fatal bite. After four years, the Hagadones separated. Mrs. Hagadone sent the young girls to board in town and paid for their schooling by working the homestead alone. The girls were glad to leave because their mother had become a mean woman.
Partnerships were sometimes uneven. “I was just like a hired man,” recalled Katie Adams of Hill County. “I was right there. I helped harness the horses and unharness them and hitch them up. And I followed the plow more than once and the harrow and the rake, raked the fields.” Women worked alongside men in haying, threshing, and branding. But they also did the cooking, the washing, and raised the children.
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 Like Father, like Daughter: Women Who Worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad→
Following the publication of Owen Wister’s The Virginian in 1902, Western novels became extremely popular, and several Montana women became successful genre writers. These writers, including Caroline Lockhart and Bertha Muzzy Sinclair Cowan (best known as B. M. Bower), drew inspiration from the life, land, and folklore of Montana. Their stories suggest the enduring place that Montana has in the imagined, symbolic West. They also reveal the role gender discrimination played in popular expectations about Westerns and their creators.
Scholar Jane Tompkins has explored the power of the Western—both in novels and on film—in the American psyche. She argues, “The West functions as a symbol of freedom, and of the opportunity for conquest. It seems to offer escape from the condition of life in modern industrial society. . . . [T]he creak of saddle leather and the sun beating down, the horses’ energy and force—these things promise a translation of the self into something purer and more authentic, more intense, more real.” This version of the West was decidedly masculine. And while largely mythic, it was an idea that was wildly popular—especially among the country’s young men—from 1900 to 1975. Continue reading Writing a Rough-and-Tumble World: Caroline Lockhart and B. M. Bower→
Working for the Grace Shannon Balloon Company from 1893 through 1895, fearless Rubie Deveau thrilled crowds with her aerial acrobatics, ascending in a hot-air balloon until she “looked like a speck in the sky” and then parachuting back to earth. Like many other aerial pioneers, however, her career was short lived. After 175 successful jumps, she was caught in an unexpected air current during her final descent and landed against a brick chimney, breaking her back. She was just eighteen. After she recovered, Deveau homesteaded in McIntosh, South Dakota, before marrying and moving to Missoula in 1925.
Early aerialists, including Rubie Deveau Owen, possessed an adventurous spirit that often overwhelmed reason. The list of those hurt and killed is distressingly long. Nevertheless, flight remained an exciting curiosity, with airplane manufacturers feeding the public’s interest through exhibitions at fairs and other events.
Both men and women participated in these exhibitions. In 1913, just three years after Bud Mars made Montana’s first recorded flight in an airplane, Katherine Stinson performed at the Helena fairgrounds. On a tour promoting the idea that the U.S. Postal Service could use airplanes, she thrilled crowds at the Montana State Fair, not only by performing stunts but also by flying bags of mail from the fairgrounds, which she dropped onto Helena’s downtown post office. Officially designated “the postmaster of the fairgrounds,” she thus became one of the first to deliver airmail in Montana. Continue reading Queens of the Clouds→
Historians estimate that up to 18 percent of homesteaders in Montana were unmarried women. Passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any twenty-one-year-old head of household the right to homestead federal land. Single, widowed, and divorced women fit this description, and they crossed the country to file homestead claims of 160 acres. After the turn of the century, when the Enlarged Homestead Act doubled the acreage to 320, even more women took up free land in Montana. While not all succeeded, those who did proved that women were up to the task. Gwenllian Evans was Montana’s first female homesteader. A widow from Wales, she emigrated to the United States in 1868. Her son, Morgan Evans, was Marcus Daly’s land agent and a well-known Deer Lodge valley rancher. In 1870, Gwenllian Evans filed on land that later became the town of Opportunity; she received her patent in 1872. She was one of the territory’s first post mistresses and lived on her homestead until her death in 1892. Continue reading A Farm of Her Own→
In the twentieth century, rural women faced a different—and arguably more rigorous—set of gender expectations than did their urban sisters. They did, of course, preserve and cook food, mend and wash clothes, care for children, and clean their homes, but they were also intimately involved in farm labor. Rural women raised produce, chickens, and pigs; kept the farms’ books; and worked in the fields. Their work was so essential that historian Richard Roeder called Montana women the “economic linchpins” of the state’s farms and ranches.
Even more amazing than the number of tasks rural women performed is the fact that, before World War II, they largely completed their work without electricity. Anna Dahl, a farm wife from Sheridan County, helped change this. A key community activist promoting rural electrification in eastern Montana, Dahl helped bring power to six hundred families in Sheridan, Roosevelt, and Daniels counties. Her efforts significantly altered life on the farm, especially for Montana women.
Anna Boe Dahl (1892-1986) arrived in Plentywood, Montana, with her brother in 1917. She taught school in Dagmar for two years before marrying Andrew Dahl in 1919 and moving to a 640-acre farm near Coalridge. There she and Andrew raised five children. During the Depression, Anna also taught English and farm economics for the Works Project Administration to supplement the family income.
Laura Spencer Howey was a prominent Helena pioneer and activist. Her work as librarian of the State Historical and Miscellaneous Library (now the Montana Historical Society) is her enduring legacy, as she ensured the preservation of thousands of books, documents, and artifacts relevant to Montana’s early history. Her abrupt dismissal from that position in 1907 shows one way that sex discrimination operated in the early twentieth century.
Laura was born in Cadiz, Ohio, in 1851. Her father died when she was young, and her mother taught school to support herself and two young children. A biography of Howey credits her mother as “one of the foremost and best female teachers in that part of Ohio” and a “remarkably well read woman” who raised her children “in the refining atmosphere of books and music.” Laura attended Beaver College, a prominent women’s college in Pennsylvania, where she studied music, French, and drama. While teaching at Harlem Springs College in Ohio, she met fellow professor and her future husband Robert E. Howey.
The first telephone arrived in Montana in 1876, the same year Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention, and by the 1890s many Montana cities had telephone exchanges. According to Ellen Arguimbau, author of “From Party Lines and Barbed Wire: A History of Telephones in Montana,” early telephones needed to be connected directly by wire. To facilitate that connection, telephone companies established exchanges, staffed almost entirely by young female operators. “The caller telephoned the operator and asked to be connected to someone. The operator then plugged the wire into the call recipient’s slot.”
Arguimbau describes the working conditions of these female employees in “Number, please,” originally published in Montana The Magazine of Western History and excerpted below.
Often a maze of cords and sockets, switchboards were attended by one operator in a small exchange or by a roomful of operators in the larger towns, usually all young women. According to a 1902 U.S. Census Bureau report: “For many years it has been recognized that operators’ work in telephone exchanges attracts a superior class of women. It has been demonstrated beyond all doubt that the work of operating is better handled by women than by men or boys and that trained and well-bred women operators perform the most satisfactory service.” Continue reading Number, Please: Women Telephone Operators→
Born around 1832, possibly in Tennessee, Mary Fields celebrated her birthday on March 15. The details of her life before she came to Montana in 1885 are difficult to trace—complicated by her birth into slavery and the fact that, although she was literate, she left no written record. According to one biographer, Fields’s mother was a house slave and her father was a field slave. After the Civil War, Fields worked as a chambermaid on the Robert E. Lee, a Mississippi River steamboat. According to some accounts, she met Judge Edmund Dunne while working on the Robert E. Lee, and eventually became a servant in his household.
In the 1870s, Fields began working at the Ursuline Convent in Toledo, Ohio, where Dunne’s sister, Mother Mary Amadeus, was the superior. In 1884 Mother Amadeus traveled to Montana to join the Jesuits at St. Peter’s Mission. The next year she wrote to request that the convent send more people to staff the struggling mission and boarding school. Mary Fields traveled upriver with the nuns sent by the order.
Thus Mary Fields began her new life among the sisters in Montana. She worked at the mission for the next ten years, raising chickens, growing vegetables, and freighting supplies from nearby Cascade. She developed a reputation for having “the temperament of a grizzly bear,” but tales also spread about her toughness and devotion to the nuns and students. Continue reading The Life and Legend of Mary Fields→