Prairie Lights: New book full of amazing Montana women

Operator

Library of Congress

Helen, an operator at Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park, in 1925, from the new book “Beyond Schoolmarms and Madams.”

When I got to the third paragraph of a new book from the Montana Historical Society Press, I was hooked.

Beyond Schoolmarms and Madams: Montana Women’s Stories” is a collection of 98 short pieces about notable women or topics germane to the history of women in Montana. The first piece is titled “Nineteenth-Century Indigenous Women Warriors,” and here’s that third paragraph:

Ed

Ed Kemmick

“One especially fearless warrior was Kaúxuma Núpika, a Kootenai woman who was also a cultural intermediary and prophet. In 1808, young Kaúxuma Núpika married a Frenchman working for explorer David Thompson. She was so rowdy that Thompson exiled her from his camp. She divorced her husband, claimed to have been changed into a man, and then took a succession of wives.”

That’s not just a paragraph, it’s virtually an elevator pitch for a Hollywood movie. There are many other priceless vignettes in this book, which was edited by Martha Kohl, with contributions from 14 other writers.

We learn of Ella Knowles, the first woman licensed to practice law in Montana, way back in 1889, the year of statehood. Just three years later, Knowles ran on the Populist ticket for attorney general. She lost to Henri Haskell, her Republican opponent, but he was so impressed with Knowles that he appointed her assistant attorney general and then married her in 1895.

“In 1902,” the story continues, “when Henri decided to move to Glendive, Knowles, always sure of her own direction, chose not to follow and divorced him. Taking back her maiden name, she moved to Butte, where she owned mining property, and became an expert in mining litigation.”

Or how about Sarah Gammon Bickford, who was born a slave in the mid-1850s and ended up as the sole owner of the Virginia City Water Co., “the first and only woman in Montana—and probably the nation’s only female African American—to own a utility.”

Then there is Caroline McGill, an Ohioan who was a beloved physician in Butte for many years and later was instrumental in the creation of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. She decided to take a job at Murray Hospital in Butte after having been offered a full professorship at the University of Missouri.

Explaining her decision in a letter to her family, she said: “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.”

That attitude of indomitable pluckiness is displayed again and again by the women in this book, many of whom didn’t have nearly the number of advantages enjoyed by Dr. McGill.

Kohl explains in the introduction that this book grew out of the Historical Society’s yearlong “Women’s History Matters” project in 2014, to coincide with the centennial of women’s suffrage in Montana. And though suffrage and related matters get plenty of ink, Kohl said, “we wanted to use the centennial as a springboard to tell a broader, more inclusive story.”

Beyond-BookThat they did. I was amazed, and then a little embarrassed, to learn for the first time of so many fascinating women. And not a one of them seems to have been wedged in to satisfy notions of political correctness. These are people all Montanans—especially Montanans like my three daughters—should be aware of.

The writing is strong throughout and the book was impeccably edited and proofread. Between them, Annie Hanshew and Laura Ferguson wrote nearly two thirds of the pieces. Ferguson, who has a master’s degree in Native American Studies from Montana State University, deserves special mention because nearly all her contributions are about Indian women.

From that opening piece about Kaúxuma Núpika and other indigenous warriors to the last chapter, on Elouise Cobell, the Blackfoot woman who was the lead plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Ferguson’s work is invaluable and invariably interesting.

Two other women deserve special mention: sisters Frieda Fligelman and Belle Fligelman Winestine. Born in Helena, these two Jewish women were involved in so many of the struggles of the Progressive Era that a summary is almost impossible. And while they get their own chapter, they appear over and over in other chapters as well, because their histories are so intertwined with other characters in this book. What a pair!

The book tilts heavily toward women involved in liberal or progressive causes, but as the bumper sticker has it, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” The women who battled against discrimination, violence, condescension and neglect are the ones who ultimately deserve our respect and who deserve to be better known.

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