Helena, Montana

Special Report: Montana history is full of extraordinary “ordinary” women

HELENA – Women are making strides for equality all over the world, taking on roles that were only done by men in the past. As we celebrate leaders during national Women’s History Month this March, we talked with the Montana Historical Society to learn about some women who left their mark on The Treasure State.

“Looking back at this history reminds us of what changes have happened,” says Montana Historical Society Historical specialist Martha Kohl.

A lot of changes have happened in Montana’s history giving women more rights and power in all aspects of their lives.

“We think about school teachers and we think about prostitutes and women’s history and our communal history is so much richer than that,” adds Kohl.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was an organization that gave women a platform to start change.

“They made it okay for women to become politically active,” says Kohl. “That allowed women to leave their homes and to take to the streets and to advocate for things like women’s suffrage.”

When thinking about prominent women in Montana’s political history, many people think of the same names.

“Like to think of the big names like Janette Rankin or Blackfeet banker Elouise Cobell who took on the federal government,” says Kohl.

But, it wasn’t just Rankin that made change happen.

“Janette Rankin is important, she gets a lot of credit but it was a mass movement,” points out Kohl.

Other people have contributed to the success of women’s involvement in Montana politics.

Maggie Smith Hathaway for instance, “Traveled more miles in Montana promoting women’s suffrage than Janette Rankin did,” explains Kohl.

Helena native Belle Fligelman Winestine took to the streets, trying to get elected to the state legislature during The Depression only to find the community did not agree.

“She went door to door campaigning and people said well, you don’t need the money, it’s the Depression,” says Kohl.

When thinking about suffrage and the work that went into carving out a spot for women on the political stage, it is important to look at the whole picture.

“It’s just by that single minded focus, we miss a lot of the nuance of the story,” says Kohl. “We also re-write it as a heroic tale of a single woman as opposed to a mass movement that involved thousands and thousands of people.”

Nonetheless, Rankin did give women someone they could look to, “They felt like there was someone there representing them.”

Beyond the political world, women play major roles as well.

“The people who I think are actually more important are the ordinary women. These kind of extra ordinary lives,” adds Kohl.

In fact, 18 percent of homesteaders were single women. Plus, “Seventy five percent of libraries in Montana and across the nation were founded by women’s groups,” says Kohl. “We owe these women a tremendous debt.”

When thinking about women’s rights and other prominent women throughout the course of American history, other names come to mind.

“We all know about Rosie the Riveter during World War II who went into the factories. I think fewer people know in World War I, women also went into non-traditional fields,” explains Kohl.

These women are known as ‘Engine Wipers,’ people who worked for the railroad companies and cleaned locomotive engines. These jobs were union jobs, which meant a lot for women during this time period.

“What that meant was women got the same pay as men,” says Kohl.

As people celebrate women’s history throughout this month and for months to come, it’s easy to forget the determination and drive it took to get where we are today.

“Our attitudes have really changed and they’ve changed because of social movements and they’ve changed because of laws,” explains Kohl.

Remember the women who paved the way for women today and for generations to come.

“In looking at what was and helping us think about what is and then what could be,” says Kohl. “It makes us think about what we can do ourselves for our communities.”

The Montana Historical Society has put together an extensive website called Women’s History Matters, which chronicles the lives of women throughout Montana’s history in a wide range of fields.

Reporting by Mikenzie Frost for MTN News

MTN News

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