The YWCA in Missoula has played a vital role in the lives of community members since it began on April 5, 1911 in one room across from the post office at Broadway and Pattee. Some of the problems of the day, according to a traveling evangelist, were the “evils of liquor, dance halls, cards, and prostitution. Times were tough for some women, and employment was often limited to jobs as servants, laundresses, boarding house proprietors, schoolteachers, dressmakers, cooks, stenographers, and saleswomen. The “Y” formed the Travelers Aid to help girls arriving by train with no money and no jobs. Strident women protested to the city fathers that Front Street’s houses of ill repute be closed, and by 1916 they were – temporarily, at least.
Montana State University (now called the University of Montana) opened in 1895 and Missoula County High School in 1908, so high school and college were options for some girls. But, for many young people, hardly more than children, social workers and women’s club members throughout the nation realized the need for child-labor laws. Churchwomen and groups such as the Christian Women’s Temperance Union and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs worked for improved health and sanitation laws and an end to political corruption. They saw their votes as a way to improve social conditions and thus supported passage of woman suffrage.
Jeannette Rankin in 1911 urged the state Legislature to grant women the right to vote. As the first female member of the U.S. Congress, in 1917 she voted against the U.S. entry into World War I. That war brought many changes. Women began to fill jobs formerly held by men. University enrollment dropped; two dormitories were converted, and tents were set up and used as barracks for soldiers. Women took short courses in nursing and Red Cross work. One of their jobs was to feed soldiers coming though on the train. One night they served over 1,000 men in the waiting room of the Northern Pacific depot. The “Y” organized the Girl Reserves at that time. The girls were advised to “Face Life Squarely and Find and Give the Best.” The “Y” also formed a Household Assistants Efficiency League to train girls to fill jobs as much-needed maids.
Women won the vote in 1920 and this decade brought them new freedoms. This was the era of the “flapper” and the Charleston, and Prohibition. Women enjoyed the change in styles! They continued working mainly as domestics, cooks, nurses, teachers, and dieticians. There were many volunteers in Missoula in the late Twenties. Women working for the Travelers Aide assisted 6000 women in one year. The Missoula Woman’s Club helped the “Y” establish baby clinics in 1929. Fifty clinics were held, with over 1,000 children examined free.
In the work force, most women intended to work only until they married and settled down into expected roles of wife and mother. But with the “Crash” and the Great Depression of 1929, attitudes began to change.
As the decade of the Thirties began, it was acceptable for a woman to hold a job as long as she was not denying it from a man. Teachers, who ere mainly women, were often expected to give up their jobs when they married, and this idea was felt in other areas of employment as well.
By tightening their belts, hunting, fishing, gardening, and canning prodigiously, many of Missoula’s people learned to get by on small salaries during the Depression. But there were some families who were really “hard hit.” Organizations like the Salvation Army made efforts to help these people, and one woman in particular, Mrs. Ted Shoemaker, who was on the Salvation Army Board, became known for the assistance she rendered, using her own financial resources and seeking aid form her friends.
Some women worked for the WPA, one of President Roosevelt’s relief measures. They worked in the sewing room of the old Whittier School or at the public library mending books. Wages were $48.00 a month, the same as a man’s. It was during this time that the Missoula Woman’s Club, having saved money for 35 years, also obtained WPA assistance and was able to build a brick building on the university campus to serve as their meeting place and as a community art gallery.
During the Depression, people in Missoula enjoyed life by playing cards, picnicking, listening on their new radios to “Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins,” one of the original soap operas. They laughed at the antics of “Amos and Andy.” They sang with Eddie Cantor, “Just around the corner, there’s a rainbow in the sky. So let’s have another cup of coffee, and let’s have another piece of pie.” This was the era of the sweet, sentimental big bans, and people danced to the rhythms of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. But with war already in Europe and approaching in America, the mood of the country was beginning to change.
Jeannette Rankin had spent two decades after World War I working for peace and the prevention of war. Running as a pacifist, she was elected to Congress in 1940. On the day after Pearl Harbor, she cast the single vote against American entry into the Second World War. This ended her political career, but she spent the rest of her life working for world peace.
World War II created a great feeling of patriotism among Missoula’s women and the nation’s. Some entered the military services as WACS, WAVES, or SPARS. There was a rash of marriages. Many war brides left to follow their husbands to military bases, while others left to earn better wages in shipyards and factories.
There was an all-out effort to encourage women to take jobs, and public attitudes changed when the urban housewife became the principle source of the labor supply.
Women operated their own businesses. One Missoula woman had begun her own insurance agency. Women beauty shop owners dominated the field. Other women filled jobs formerly occupied by men. They worked for the railroad handling the mail, repairing hot boxes, and scrubbing the cars. The first lady working in a lookout tower was hired at this time. A few even worked in a lumber mill. Others worked as cooks, waitresses, and restaurant managers. Some worked as department store clerks.
There was a shortage of office help, teachers, and nurses. The YWCA carried out a “Registration for Women in Emergency War Work.” Many women entered professions. Missoula’s lady journalists were well received and in this respect were ahead of the nation. Married teachers and nurses were accepted into the marketplace.
Volunteer work absorbed the energies of those not working full-time. Women’s club members rolled bandages for the Red Cross. They met the trains and served cookies to weary travelers. Girl Reserves received national recognition for collecting over 1,000 cans of waste fat for the Defense Program. They also sold over $11,000 worth of War Bonds and Stamps.
In 19476, Juliet Gregory, an experienced teacher and former YWCA official, became Missoula’s first female mayor.
At the close of the war there was a conflict of women’s roles. Married and middle-aged women were the majority of female workers. But there was a fear of not having enough jobs for the returning veterans. Most Americans believed the primary responsibility of women and mothers was to rear children and care for the household. Women’s magazines said, “Women ought to be delighted to give up any job and return to their proper sphere- the kitchen.” Some college graduates objected that their higher education did not prepare them for their roles as wives and mothers.
But the desire to buy homes and new appliances and the effects of inflation caused many women to wan to keep their jobs. Two incomes in a family were often believed necessary. In addition, women found that they liked working outside the home and that I gave them much personal satisfaction as well as financial rewards. The married woman was seeking to give her children a better life and a healthier environment. There were some who worked to achieve their own identity. And, having entered the job market, most of those women whose families no longer required full-time supervision decided to remain.
More and more Missoula women went to work in the Fifties. Some competed successfully with returning veterans for post office jobs. Assigned the same physical work as the men handling heavy sacks in entry-level jobs, they often met with opposition from their make colleagues until they could prove their stamina. In the mid-Fifties, inside the post office, there was only one female mail clerk among 150 men.
In the legal, medical and college teaching profession, women were in the minority. Married public school teachers often had to step aside if their husbands took jobs in the same school system. Nurses since the earlier years had, besides patient care, other duties such as room cleaning and equipment sterilization. But in the Forties and Fifties improvements were made in restructuring their duties and improving their wages and working hours. Sister Marion Larrowe exemplifies the Sisters of Charity of Providence who continued their important work no only in St. Patrick Hospital and the parochial schools of Missoula, but throughout the Northwest, dispensing their love, service, and devotion to God and man wherever they were assigned.
The first female forestry students graduated from the university in this period.
Women who stayed home volunteered for library work, the PTA, and chauffeured their children to music lessons and scout meetings. And women’s clubs continued their civic projects, establishing parks and playgrounds, and raising money for worthy causes.
Bess Reid in 1925 had begun nearly 60 years of continuous volunteer service for Missoula when she led four groups of Girl Reserves for the YWCA. After intensive involvement in the PTA, Girls’ State, Community Chest, and local, state, and national programs to improve children’s health, she was elected to the state Legislature in 1951 and served four terms.
The Sixties and Seventies
The Sixties and Seventies saw the rebirth of the women’s movement. Feminists urged women to reject the feminine mystique of seeking happiness in total involvement as wives and mothers, and to create for themselves lifetime commitments to jobs and professions. Little progress had been made in areas such as professional opportunities, community services, and fair pay. The Equal Rights Amendment was proposed for the country and ultimately failed to be ratified.
Women nevertheless were enjoying more freedom than ever before. Mrs. Florence Bakke Riel who epitomizes the role of wife, mother, business woman and volunteer for over 55 years saw the advent of the pants suit as acceptable and convenient working attire in her job as business manager! And don’t forget the mini-dress, which made its appearance at this time!
Consciousness-raising groups discussed job discrimination, unequal pay, and 24-hour day-care centers. Women were promoted as individuals.
Office workers, typists, and secretaries tipped the female employment list. One office supervisor refused a promotion because she would have been directing about 20 men and she feared they would resent her. Mrs. Carolyn Fojen, a distinguished Missoula schoolteacher, became Missoula County school superintendent and later served on the Montana State Board of Education. She was one of some 50 female county school superintendents in Montana. Traditionally these deserving women made financial sacrifices when they filled these important jobs.
Many housewives who formerly stayed home sought jobs, went back to school, and engaged in volunteer work. During this time, Mrs. Hazel Karkanen received recognition for helping found the Milltown Branch Library in 1917 and working there as its sole librarian for 55 years. Teen-age girls still wanted to marry and have families, but they believed fulfillment could come only if they worked in gainful occupation.
The women’s movement appealed to the principle that every human being is unique and sacred and has the right to determine his or her own destiny.
During the Eighties, women have become strong in the work force and appear to be there to stay. The struggle continues for equal pay and equal job opportunities. Volunteerism continues to be a major factor in the effort to correct the country’s social problems. Camp Fire, Girl Scouts, the PTA, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Salvation Army are some of the many groups addressing such problems as “latch-key” children, drug, and alcohol, and child abuse. There are many peace groups. There is concern about day-care centers. There are counseling services for women, and job-entry training provided by the YWCA, and they operate the Battered Women’s Shelter.
There is a strong network of business and professional women’s organizations. Women have made great strides in the real estate business, in banking, and in the business world. They have made an impact in politics and run for and hold important positions in Montana on the city, county, and state levels. There have been significant increases in the number of female lawyers and physicians. Many more women are choosing sciences as professions. Some are becoming engineers. In education, women continue to play an important role and are achieving advanced degrees, which offer them a wide choice of job opportunities. In sports, all varieties of activates are open to them, and they’ve come a long way from those long, black bloomers!
Today women have many more choices than their mothers or grandmother. Some still choose the traditional role and also serve the community through volunteerism. Both single and married women have careers and also perform important volunteer services.
Since 1911 the YWCA in Missoula has continued to change to meet community needs. It serves a vital community full of outlets for women who have learned to be independent and vocal. The YWCA and Missoula owe a debt of gratitude to the numerous women’s clubs and volunteers who have given their time and money to support the “Y’s” programs.
As we reflect on the parts women have played, whether in the traditional model of staying home, raising children, and volunteering their services for the betterment of our community and our nation, or by working in the job force, or by combining all the roles, let us recognize their accomplishments and achievements and salute them as PARTNERS IN PROGRESS!