Tuesday, September 12, 2017


Group of Women -- Elaine Liebenbaum
This is a photo I’ve kept a long time because I like it so much.  It’s not very extraordinary but I think it is English because the cups have saucers and because in Britain everyone takes a tea break at certain times rather than carrying coffee to-go cups with lids around all day.  And the dog is allowed even though they seem to be indoors.  They look like real people but modern (note all the “trainers” as opposed to one pair of boots and one of sandals.)  

They aren’t sitting at desks, though the lady with boots seems to be holding a pen.  The one with the sandals is holding a glass of some kind of cold drink.  The one second from the right seems to be wearing a backpack.  Look at the knees: three crossed legs, one pinched and one straight, plus a knees-apart individualist.  Is that “woman-spreading”?  Like “man-spreading”, the subway phenomenon?  One suspects the photographer rounded up the women and put them in a row.

These are “real” people, not the bleached, surgically-altered, whip thin females that occupy American media outlets.  I do not appreciate their shrill opinions and demands at news time in particular, esp. when looking at video of Somali or Bangladesh women with hardly anything in their arms but their starving babies.

Luckily, there is something to read:  “Beyond Schoolmarms and Madams: Montana Women’s Stories”, edited by Martha Kohl.  There are 265 of the vignettes, short and to the point.  Many indigenous women are included — the anthology ends with Eloise Pepion Cobell.  It begins with Kauxuma Nupika (Kootenai), Kwilqs (Pend O’Reille), and Woman Chief (Crow).  All three were women warriors.  The first took an unspecified number of wives and the last took four wives.  Don’t tell Trump, who only has had three.  He favors women from the Eurasian prairies over indigenous women from the American mid-continent.

The reason that these women are included, along with other startling and unexpected kinds of female as well as the reassuringly familiar, is that the book is the result of a project that deliberately set out to find women who were ordinary but extraordinary — that is, individual.  It was the Centennial of Women’s Suffrage in Montana and the vote was taken on November 3, 1914.  Only men could vote and they granted citizenship 53 to 47%.  Indian Citizenship wasn’t granted until 1924.

This book began as a blog.  Hallelujah.  I thought that the “humanities” community of Montana was too high-principled to read blogs, much less allow any to be compiled under the flag of the Montana Historical Society Press.  Historical societies function through middle-class people with enough money to attend conferences and enough time to do original research.  The stories of people outside the class system often go invisible. 

I’ve stood at the graves of some of the women in this collection, knew personally a few more, and read books by others.  I have a little Frances Senska ceramic partridge that I treasure, though it has a chipped beak from decades of travel.  There are more exemplars that didn’t get into the book:  the two remarkable but local historians, Dorothy Floerschinger in Conrad and Olga Monkman in Choteau.  

Dorothy, a large definite woman, knew where the old forts were before the Big Flood washed them away.  http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv02397.  Archives West is an index that records which library has which materials.  Dorothy’s files are at at the Mike Mansfield Library in Missoula.  There are 32.5 linear feet, including 105 volumes

Olga Wagnild Monkman (1895 to 1988) was one of my Unitarian stops when I was riding circuit.  Her father had been a Unitarian, the Scandinavian kind of free-thinker, and she was proud that he had been buried by AB Guthrie Sr, who was the Superintendent of the Schools at the time, a sort of secular officiant.  She was in the nursing home her husband helped to get built and which has aged, been recently sold, and is being rebuilt for renewal.  

Olga was in a wheelchair but I took her out for ice cream and to visit the cemetery where her son was buried.  She wanted me to take her home where her historical documents were in boxes.  Hopefully, her nephew, who was a historian, ended up using them well.  She has no library shelves, but a record at https://billiongraves.com/grave/Olga-Wagnild-Monkman/20025326  This website allows people to add facts and memories.
"Transition" by Bob Scriver

Mae Aubrey Coburn Williamson was Blackfeet, once married to a white lawyer, oil-rich at intervals through her life and several marriages, and in 1932 founded the Blackfeet Indian Welfare Association.  (I don't know whether it still exists.)  In 1938-39 she was the first woman on the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.  The middle figure of Bob Scriver’s “Transition” bronze portrays Mae in her elk-tooth embroidered dress.  She was active with the crafts movement that was the seed of the Museum of the Plains Indian and formed part of a triad with her cousin, Nora Spanish, as well as Louise Pepion Rutherford.  They were dynamic, not always in agreement, always aware of the audience.

One can’t expect to include every member of a category as motley and wide-spread as “remarkable women” but this is an excellent beginning and I hope my suggestions for additional others might be the beginning of a second volume.  I try to put people into my blog — whatever gender they are and some are rather indeterminate.  Evelyn Cole, for instance, ran the family ranch wearing bib overalls and bossed her brother around unmercifully, according to him.  She was also a self-taught sculptor and entered the contest for the Charlie Russell statue to be put in the Washington DC capitol Hall of Statuary.  She didn’t win — the one you see behind reporters who are doing interviews these days was Jack Weaver's, the original commissioned sculptor.  Gay, if anyone cares.  There might be an anthology of gay lives in Montana somewhere by now.  (Might need a new term for the category to include women and "fluid" or bi-.)

Brain theory tells us — in slightly more sophisticated language — that what we expect is what we see, what we get.  Then we should expect the best from women and they should expect to receive the kind of support and opportunity that will make the best possible, however it is described.  But it’s not the sort of thing where one can pass a law, like Title 9.  Instead it is a daily small accumulation of attention.

No comments: