March may usually mean Spring Break and warmer weather, but it also means Women’s History Month. Celebrated annually across the United States, March is a time for honoring influential women and their contributions to culture, society and history. This year’s theme is “Nevertheless, She Persisted: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,” as the National Women’s History Project recently announced. While successful women can be found across the nation, Montana has its own monumental women to celebrate this March as well.
Perhaps most famously known, Rankin was born near Missoula in 1880, when Montana was still just a territory. In 1916, Rankin first ran for the Republican ticket for Congress, winning by a margin of over 7,500 votes. She was the first ever woman elected to Congress. Upon her election, she announced, “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.”
During her first term in Congress, Rankin was one of the founding members of the Committee on Woman Suffrage. In 1918, she opened congressional debate on the amendment granting universal suffrage to women, helping with the beginning phases of what would eventually become the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
However, Rankin faced her own hardships in politics as well. During her first term, Rankin was one of 50 votes against US participation in World War I and was singled out for her veto, particularly because she was the only female. After her re-election in 1940, Rankin was the only dissenting vote against U.S. involvement in World War II, which caused such a stir that she had to hide in a Capital telephone booth from an angry mob until police came to safely escort her out.
Despite the hatred she received, Rankin continued her involvement in politics, with particular interest in women’s issues and anti-war protests. She worked continuously with the Women’s Peace Union and the National Council for the Prevention of War throughout her life. Before her death in 1973, Rankin wished, “If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”
Elouise Cobell, also known as Yellow Bird Woman, was born on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana in 1945. She became treasurer for the Blackfeet Nation, founded the Blackfeet National Bank, became Executive Director of the Native American Community Development Corporation, and won a MacArthur Genius Award for her work in Native financial literacy.
A portion of the money Cobell won from the MacArther award went towards supporting her class-action suit against the federal government in the groundbreaking case of Cobell v. Salazar. Perhaps Cobell’s grandest achievement, this class-action suit challenged the United States’ mismanagement of over half a million Native American trust funds.
While serving as treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe, Cobell found that tribal members were not receiving their fair share of trust funds. Upon discovering this misappropriation, Cobell sought reform in Washington, D.C. with the help of the Intertribal Monitoring Association, for which she served as president. Despite these efforts, Cobell was forced to bring a class-action suit against the Department of Interior to enforce reform and require the trust funds be properly managed.
Originally filed in 1996, Cobell v. Salazar was settled in 2009 under the Obama administration. In 2010, Congress passed a three-part bill to appropriate $3.4 billion for the settlement of the longstanding class-action suit. Along with payments to individual plaintiffs on the class-action suit, the bill established a $60 million scholarship to be funded by sales in the bill, named the Cobell Education Scholarship Fund.
Although not a native-born Montanan, Beth Judy knows a thing or two about fascinating women in Montana’s history. In her recent biographical book “Bold Women in Montana History”, Judy described the fascinating lives of more than 15 women across the Big Sky State.
Not only is Judy an accomplished author who earned her Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Montana, but she is also a producer at Montana Public Radio. Her medicinal-plants program, “The Plant Detective,” investigates homoeopathic plants from around the world with the help of Bastyr University, Tai Sophia Institute and the Vermont School of Integrative Herbalism. Judy is also a producer for “In Other Words,” a radio show “by and about women, made in Montana” that looks at different issues from the perspectives of women.
Alma Smith Jacobs
Alma Smith Jacobs was the first African-American to serve as Montana State Librarian. Born in Lewistown in 1916, she and her family moved to Great Falls when Jacobs was seven years old. Jacobs received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Talladega College in Alabama before receiving another bachelor’s degree in library sciences from Columbia University in 1942.
Jacobs returned to Great Falls in 1946 to serve as Catalog Librarian for the Great Falls Public Library, before being promoted to Head Librarian in 1954. There, Jacobs was instrumental in the construction of the city’s current library and the expansion of the rural library service program throughout Montana. In 1973, she was selected to serve as Montana State Librarian. Aside from being the first Black state librarian, Jacobs became the first Black president of the Montana Library Association, the first Black president of the Pacific Northwest Library Association and the first Montanan to serve on the American Library Association executive board.
Not only was Jacobs instrumental in improving Montana’s libraries, she became a civil rights leader in Montana. She worked to break down racial barriers in her community through the Great Falls Interracial Council, as well as working on the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and co-founding the Montana Committee for the Humanities.
In 2016, Jacobs was named to the State Capitol Gallery of Outstanding Montanans.
Bold Women Everywhere
It’s clear that Montana has a deep history of its own influential women, whether from the beginning of Montana’s statehood or those who only recently began calling Montana home. This March, remember the historical women who have helped shape so much of our history while also celebrating the monumental women in your own life.