In celebration of International Women’s day, we’ve perused our archives searching for the best stories about the remarkable women who have help to shape Montana, the nation, and the world.
Of course, no such post could start without mentioning Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Despite her relative lack of agency and her restricted status as a native woman, Sacagawea proved an essential member of the Corps. She served as a translator, a facilitator of peace, and a cool head under pressure. Sacagawea’s story is passed down to us only because of her proximity to influential white men, we will never know the stories of countless other women of equal bravery and courage who called the area home long before the fur trappers and gold miners arrived.
We have much better records from the gold mining era, and among the many remarkable women of the time are two of particular note. Through the stories she told her daughter, Mary Ronan preserved a remarkable memory of the state in its early days. From growing up in the mining towns of Virginia City and Helena, to living on the Flathead Indian Reservation and dining with chiefs Charlo, Arlee, and Michell, Mary Ronan offered a warm and compassionate vision of Montana history. If Mary Ronan’s story followed the mold, then Sarah Bickford’s broke it altogether.
Born a plantation slave, Sarah moved to Montana after the Civil War, where she apparently divorced her abusive husband, married again, and opened a bakery, boarding house, orchard, and garden in Virginia City. In V.C., she also served as the bookkeeper for the Virginia City Water Company, which her husband part-owned. When he died in 1900, Sarah inherited his shares, and purchased the remainder, meaning that—decades before white women could vote, and in the midst of the Jim Crow era—Sarah Bickford was the only black woman in Montana (probably in the nation) to own and operate a utility company.
The early 1900s were an amazing period of Montana women’s history. In addition to the likes of Sarah Bickford, you have Dr. Mollie Atwater, a physician who made her start in the mining camps, and who was a powerful campaigner for public health and women’s suffrage. You also have another physician, Dr. Maria Dean, who organized the Helena YWCA in order to support the women of Helena. Incidentally, although founded in 1911, the Helena YWCA didn’t affiliate with the national or international organization until the 1980s, because they were implicitly Christian while, from its start, the Helena organization was interfaith.
So strong was the women’s movement in Montana that in 1913, nearly a decade before (white) women had the right to vote nationally, a suffrage bill had already passed through both of the houses of Montana’s legislature. When Jeannette Rankin returned to her home state in 1914, she added even more momentum to the wave, spearheading the campaign for the popular vote to ratify the 1913 bill. In 1914, Montana became the 11th state to give women the right to vote. Rankin made headlines again in 1916, when she became the first woman elected to Congress, and spent the next nearly 60 years fighting for peace and for women across the globe.
Rankin’s remarkable story can sometimes overshadow just how important the 1916 election was in Montana. In addition to Jeannette, Flathead County sent Emma Ingalls to the Montana house of representatives, and Ravalli County sent Maggie Smith Hathaway. May Trumper, also from the Flathead, beat three men to become State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Montana has a patchy history, it’s true. There’s a lot to be proud of, but also things to be ashamed of. But I’m proud to say that these women are part of our legacy. These remarkable women. These diverse women. These women with different life stories, different agendas, different political views. These women who spoke for the disenfranchised. These women who were the disenfranchised. These women are our legacy. These women are Montana.
I’ve been writing a fast as I can, and I’ve only made it to women’s suffrage! For even more about Montana’s inspiring women, head over to the Montana Women’s History website, which has done an amazing job collecting their stories.
Oh, and one more thing, I know she’s not from Southwest Montana, but if you want another remarkable woman to add to the list, look up Minnie Two Shoes. “A tireless activist, a powerful writer, and an astute journalist,” Minnie Two Shoes’ work for the Fort Peck Wotanin Wowapi is incendiary, profound, and witty. Like the women above, Minnie Two Shoes is among the best that Montana has to offer.