Dialogue About MT Women History

Women's History Matters
Image courtesy Montana Historical Society


It’s been said that those who don’t know their history are destined to repeat it, but what about those for whom the past is a blank (or nearly blank) page? Beyond those who willingly ignore their past—that’s the focus of the quote attributed to Winston Churchill and others—how can marginalized groups achieve their full potential if they do not see themselves represented positively, if at all, in the nation’s chronicles?

To reconcile that, many organizations in a position to do so are increasingly committed to reshaping the dialogue, namely about women and people of color. On a national level, the government created Women’s History Month in March of 1987, six years after first recognizing Women’s History Week. It can be the catalyst for further celebration and recognition.

National Celebration and Recognition

More recently, the Smithsonian got the greenlight from Congress to create a Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C. (and an institution recognizing Latinos), some 23 years after grassroots activists began pushing for such a place.

Montana Women’s History Matters

In Montana, the Historical Society has helped fill in the gaps with such efforts as their Women’s History Matters website.

The site was created in 2014 to commemorate the anniversary of Montana women’s right to vote 100 years prior. That’s actually five years ahead of the hundredth anniversary of the passing and ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution when voting rights “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The MHS website is about more than suffrage, however.

Harriette Cushman, for example, and Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail are but two women featured in blog entries on the site, which also includes oral histories, photographs, 130 articles originally published in Montana The Magazine of Western History, and an extensive bibliography collection to make any researcher swoon.

Yellowtail was the first Apsáalooke (Crow) to not only graduate from college, but to also use her nursing degree to better the lives of her people through medical care and advocacy on the state and national level. Cushman almost singlehandedly helped grow the state’s fledgling poultry industry from the 1920s onward, founded the Montana Institute for the Arts in 1948, and championed educational success for Indian students at Montana State University.

“I really like the blog entries the best—especially ones that feature lesser known people/issues,” said Martha Kohl, website project manager who serves as the MHS Outreach and Interpretation Historian, which includes curriculum development.

According to Kohl, the blog entries were created for the site through two contests: one for established scholars and one for graduate students.

Women-Centric Curriculum

Site organizers also worked with Montana’s Office of Public Instruction to create women-centric curriculum materials. Resilience: Stories of Montana Indian Women includes essays originally written for the WHM website and later published by MHS, entitled Beyond Schoolmarms and Madams: Montana Women’s Lives. Kohl said several related lesson plans are featured on the MHS website (mhs.mt.gov/education/women), including “Ordinary People Do Extraordinary Things,” which addresses both English/Language Arts and Social Science standards.

Still Active

MHS tracks usage to the site, which Kohl said has remained consistent: between 65,854 and 77,936 hits since 2014.

Topics pulling in higher viewer counts include the Montana State Orphanage and the Native American championship girls basketball team from Fort Shaw. Another popular post describes the extraordinary life of Mary Fields, a former slave who arrived in Cascade during the 1880s to help with St. Peter’s Mission, forged her own path with jobs (and a few nefarious habits) traditionally reserved for men, and was admired in print by Montana’s own Gary Cooper.

Although MHS is no longer adding to the Women’s History Matters website, their Facebook has about 3,800 followers, according to Kohl. Learn more at montanawomenshistory.org or Facebook.com/montanawomenshistory. MSN