By Martin Kidston
Life for women in the United States at the end of the 20th century has changed dramatically over the past 100 years. Names like Elizabeth Stanton, Susan Anthony and Montana's own Jeannette Rankin remain paramount in the push for women's rights. Without their defiance, perseverance and selfless devotion to fair change, it could be said that things would be different. After all, at one time, they were different.
Perhaps one of the biggest rights women have gained in the last 100 years is the right to vote.
In 1871, a woman named Victoria Woodhull stepped in front of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives to argue that women should have the right to vote, as defined under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, the committee disagreed, and by doing so, it cleared the way for the beginning of social change.
One year after Woodhull's attempt to sway Congress failed, Susan B. Anthony took the argument for women's rights one step further.
In the state of New York, Anthony literally broke the law when she registered to vote, then cast her ballot, also standing behind the 14th amendment. Anthony was arrested for her "illegal" act, and during her trial, the judge denied her the right to testify on her own behalf. Documents suggest that instead of listening to her case, the judge dismissed the jury and found Anthony guilty, no questions asked. She was fined $100, which she refused to pay.
But Anthony's defiant act, however bold, did little to create immediate change. Two years after her trial, the Supreme Court ruled that being a U.S. citizen did not give women the right to vote. Instead, the court said that a woman's political rights should be governed by the jurisdiction of each state.
By the 1880s, however, the Woman's Suffrage Movement had picked up steam and in 1890, the state of Wyoming became the first state to "give" women the right to vote. Montana granted women the right to vote in 1914, six years before the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was added, granting women the right to vote nationally, regardless of what state they called home.
But the struggle for the women's right to vote was just one struggle in many attempts at social change, and depending on whom one asks, the struggle for equal rights for women is far from over.
In a speech given by Aileen O'Carroll in Dublin in 1992, O'Carroll made the argument from both a feminist and socialist standpoint that women are still oppressed in many facets of modern society.
"Feminist analysis starts from the point that women's oppression evolves from patriarchy, defined as a society that is run with an interest on men, dominated by male values and their ideas," O'Carroll said. "The socialist analysis is that women are not oppressed by a class of men, but rather, it is the existence of a class society ... that ensures that women remain oppressed."
Whichever side of the oppression argument one chooses to look at, several factors, according to O'Carroll and others, can't be ignored, such as this: Women earn an average wage of 68 percent compared to what their male counterparts earn while performing the same task. O'Carroll also cited a study conducted by Fortune Magazine, which indicated that the leading occupations for women in the 1990s haven't changed much from the top jobs in 1940. In 1990, secretary, cashier and bookkeeper were the top three occupations for women, while in 1940, they were servant, secretary and teacher.
While the women's movement across the country has involved prominent names, countless theories and many successes, Havre, too, has seen it's share of strong, independent women who played their part in advancing the system of equality.
Harriet Markle Bossuot, an active civic leader in Montana for 54 years, helped establish the Havre Public Library. Born on Aug. 14, 1883, Bossuot came to Havre in 1903 with a degree from the University of Wisconsin. While in Havre, she taught school and served as a volunteer librarian. She also served on the board of directors until her death in 1957 and was active in the Red Cross of Hill County.
But Bossuot's greatest accomplishment was perhaps her role in establishing the Havre Women's Club. She served as the chapter's local president, district president and, eventually, state president. During both World War One and World War Two, Bossuot was active on the hospital committees of the Havre Women's Club, where she visited patients with baked gifts and flowers. One month before her death, she was named "Woman of the Year" by the Havre Business Association and Professional Women's Club.
Then there was Marie Gibson, a Belgian immigrant, who settled south of the Milk River in 1914. Nicknamed "Buckskin Mary," it is said that Marie kept a close eye on her male counterparts, and soon learned their ways with horses until her talents topped her every aspiration.
Marie began a professional riding career in 1917, where she found world-wide success. In 1927, she was name World Championship Cowgirl Bronc Rider. Gibson was eventually killed in a riding accident in Idaho, but her nickname stuck around.
Legend has it that Gibson's nickname came about the day she borrowed a buckskin horse from "Long George" Francis. She rode the horse into Havre where, witnesses said, the horse spooked "in front of Kirt Wagner's barn." However, Gibson simply calmed the horse and rode off. Awed by the woman rider, all witnesses could remember was "that was Marie on the buckskin."
Montana State University-Northern also owes much of its history to women. The Havre Women's Club was attributed with helping save Northern when, in 1933, state government attempted to close the school due to lack of funds. In response, the Havre Women's Club organized an effort which, without funds of its own, traveled the Hi-Line in both directions, circulating petitions and raising support for the fledgling college. Consequently, the Legislature's attempt to close the school was easily defeated.
The school's cry for support was heard, and Mrs. F.A. Buttrey and Mrs. Bonine both contributed money to the college. The donations enabled the school to grow from 60 acres to 106. As a historical note, the school's first librarian was Elizabeth McCoy, while Marie Phillips was the school's first secretary. What's more, upon opening as a liberal arts college, Northern had five professors, two of whom were women; Marion Leeper taught English, while Anna Van Tobel taught foreign language.
Mrs. Buttrey, who was the wife of grocery and department store legend F.A. Buttrey, not only donated money to Northern for land, but also was fundamental in the success of her husband's store. In fact, a report suggests that Mrs. Buttrey's "business judgment was responsible for many innovations that took place" within the chain.
At a time when women were educated to be dainty and refined, elegant and silent, Havre's Alice Pleasant, or Ma Plaz as she was better known, shattered all prior conceptions. But people didn't seem to mind because, as an old newspaper article suggests, "her cooking was out of this world, and when her wrath was aroused, she could swear like a trooper, but, above all, she had a heart of gold."
Ma's husband was Sergeant Pleasant, a soldier stationed at Fort Assinniboine. When he was discharged in the late 1890s, he and Ma moved to Havre, where Ma started a restaurant known as the "Home Cafe." Her specialties were fried chicken and steak, and she was in high demand by Havre housewives for catered affairs.
But while squabs and fried platters were her specialities, her political interest was focused. The same newspaper article that calls Ma a "200 pound Amazon," also suggests that she "prided herself upon being a politician, and she took an active part in all campaigns. She did not favor any party, but worked hard for her favorite candidate."
Even though her political actions have faded, her reputation remains strong. Fond of Halvorson Brothers and Rexora cigars, the woman with an "unforgivable temper," who could "speak the English language in words not found in any dictionary," stole the hearts of all Havre residents. Ma was said to be a born gambler, and often played "Chinese Fan Tan" at Shorty Young's place of business. But while she gambled, she also gave a nickel to the parents of every child born in Havre, so that the kids could brag that she had given them the first nickel they had ever owned. Ma died in 1935, 21 years after Montana gave women the right to vote, and three years before a fellow black woman was elected to a state legislature for the first time. The state was Pennsylvania.
From Susan B. Anthony in New York to Alice Pleasant in Havre, women have played a key role in forging the nation's history and building its future.
But still, many believe there's a long way to go, a fact to which O'Carroll summed up best in her Dublin speech.
"Women can vote. Contraception is more readily available. Most sport clubs are open to women. We can hold property in our own right, we don't need our husbands permission to get a bank loan, and we are allowed into pubs and can drink pints. In other words, a lot of the institutional oppression that women such as my mother would have argued against in the 1960s has disappeared," O'Carroll said. "Yet, it is also obvious that women are still far from equal. ... The only way to permanently get out of the circle is to change the system."
If at one time women couldn't welcome the right to a simple vote, today, in cities such as Havre, women can not only vote, they run the local government. Havre's Mayor Phyllis Leonard is just one example demonstrating how far women have progressed in the last 100 years. It's easy to wonder how, 100 years from now, true equality will have advanced.