Full name: Ella L. Knowles Haskell
“My First Fee,” by Ella Knowles Haskell
from the Anaconda Standard, February 3, 1907
“Young men and women who find their road to success strewn with many obstacles, which seem to them insurmountable, will find encouragement in the story of the struggle and victory of Ella Knowles Haskell, Montana’s distinguished woman lawyer. Mrs. Haskell not only had to overcome the usual hardships that confront a struggling and ambitious lawyer, but she had to combat the prejudice against the woman lawyer which met her at every turn. In place of encouragement that older members of the bar give to ambitious young attorneys, this young woman encountered all of the silent hostility that is so often manifest toward a woman when she seeks to enter the ranks of labor and the professions to long exclusively dominated by man. She not only overcame the usual obstacles in the path of success, but she conquered all prejudice against her as a woman lawyer, and today there is not a practicing attorney in the courts of Montana who is regarded with greater respect, and for whose knowledge of the law and legal ability other members of the bar have a higher regard.
Told by Mrs. Haskell
When I took up the study of law I received very little encouragement from members of the bar in Montana. They all thought my ambition was a joke, a thing to laugh at, and I was made all manner of fun of. No one believed that I would ever practice. However, I was determined to persevere and to succeed. As I had to earn my livelihood while I was studying law, I looked about for some business. Young lawyers usually start upon their career by doing a bad debt collecting business, and I had decided that I could do that very well while studying. I called on a number of business men and firms in Helena and solicited accounts for collection, but they did not receive me well; they didn’t take kindly to the idea of a woman “doing a man’s work;” I asked them if they didn’t have some especially hard bills — bills that they had no hope of ever realizing on. I said I would like to try to see what I could do with them. They turned me away with the remark that they had no bad bills. I went from one business house to another with the same result, but I did not give up, and finally I approached one man, almost my last hope, and asked him the usual question. Had he any bills to collect? No, he had none. Didn’t he have some very hard accounts? Yes, he had lots of them; hundreds of them. He was impatient with me, I could see that, but I asked him if he would not let me try to collect some of the bad accounts for him.
He said he was too busy then, and told me to come again. He probably did not expect me to return, but I did. I wanted those bills to collect, because I needed the work. Too busy, said he again; did not have time to look up the accounts; told me to come again.
The next time I called at his place of business it was raining, and he was in a fretful mood. I saw instantly that I was not welcome when I entered the store, but I referred to the bills again. Then he showed his impatience.
“If you want to collect anything,” he exclaimed, “go and collect some of my umbrellas. I own three of them; one I loaned to Mrs. So and So, and another was borrowed by Mrs. Blank weeks ago, and none of them have been returned. Here it is raining and I cannot go to lunch because somebody has borrowed my umbrellas and did not return them.”
With that he turned and walked to the rear of the store. I was vexed and chagrined. I hesitated for a moment, and then decided to act on the suggestion he gave me, although he did not expect me to do it. I straightway went to the home of the first woman he named, a well-known Helena lady. I rang the front door bell, and a maid came to the door. I stated my business, and the maid called the woman of the house. To her I explained that I was studying law in a certain lawyer’s office in Helena, and that Mr. Merchant had asked me to collect some umbrellas for him, one of which had been borrowed some time ago by her. She flared up, but produced the umbrella. I accepted it and thanked her, and did not pretend to notice [sic] the cloud that was hanging over her.
I then proceeded to the second home. The same formality was gone through: I was studying law in Mr. —‘s office, and had been employed by Mr. Merchant to get an umbrella which the lady had borrowed and forgotten to return. I got the umbrella, but it was accompanied by a look that haunted me in my sleep that night.
With the two umbrellas under my arm I returned to the store of the man who gave me the job of collecting them. “Here are your umbrellas,” said I, “and my fee is 50 cents.”
He looked shocked and dumbfounded when he realized what I had done, and then became angry and started to storm even worse than the two women had. There were a number of people in the store, and I appealed to them to say if I was not entitled to my fee. When they understood the case, they all agree with me [sic], and then the humorous phase of the matter was recognized by my client, and he joined in the general laugh. He accepted the umbrellas, paid me my fee, consisting of two 25 cent pieces, and told me my work was satisfactory. I learned afterward that he did some very earnest and sincere apologizing to the two borrowers of his umbrellas.
From that time I was given all of the firm’s bad debts to collect, and was very successful with them. After I was admitted to practice, I was retained as the firm’s attorney, and remained so until the firm went out of business some years ago.
When I first began the practice of law, I was taken as a huge joke, and I could have sat in my office to this day and would not have had a case. But I didn’t sit in the office; I went out and got my business to start with, and soon business came to me in abundance. I still have those two 25-cent pieces, my first fee, and they are my mascot.
My first lawsuit also was an experience for me. It was a justice court case in Helena, and the litigation was between a Chinaman and a negro. The Chinaman, my client, had been employed by the negro in a restaurant, and, when he quit the employment, there was due him $5 in wages. The negro refused to pay, and I brought suit for the Chinaman. The colored man employed a well-known Helena attorney, and at the trial my client told his story and made a statement of the account between himself and his employer. The defendant produced a dirty account book showing the entries of credits and debits between himself and the Chinaman, and the figures added (?) up right. I had no evidence to offset the book, and I felt my first case lost, when an inspiration came to me. I procured a magnifying reading glass and examined the colored man’s accounts. The glass won the case for me, for it disclosed that some figures had been erased and other marked over them, and that the erased figures corresponded with the Chinaman’s account. The justice of the peace examined the figures and then gave judgment for my first client.
That $5 case worried me more than many big lawsuits have worried me since, and I had many sleepless nights before the case came to trial.”
August 12, 1892 — Nevada State Journal
“She May Be Attorney General — The People’s Party Nominee in Montana Has Seen a Good Deal of Life
The spectacle of a female attorney general for a big state is among the possibilities in Montana. The People’s party nominee for that office, Miss Ella Knowles, is the only woman lawyer in the state. The constitution does not say that the attorney general, or any other officer for that matter, shall not be a woman. It infers as much by speaking of the attorney general as ‘he’ and referring to ‘his duties.’ But if Miss Knowles should by any chance get the most votes she will take the office unless the highest court in the state or the United States says a personal pronoun is strong enough to keep her out of it.
She says so herself. Lawyers of the other sex say the same thing or more. They say that in the event of such a thing as her election there will be no occasion for a court to pass on the question; in other words, that no one would be bold enough to contest her claims to the office. As one of them puts it, ‘No gentleman would make such a contest against a woman, and it is to be presumed that both the old parties will put gentlemen on their tickets.’
‘The nomination of Miss Knowles was not made without consulting her. The leaders of the People’s party asked her if she would run if nominated. She said she would. They nominated her and she accepted. Now she says she is in the fight to win. ‘I will canvass this whole state,’ she says.
The People’s party candidate for attorney general of Montana was born in Northwood, Rockingham county, N.H., and is the daughter of David and Louisa Knowles. Her father still resides on the old homestead in New Hampshire, in what is known as the Knowles district. Her mother died when Miss Knowles was fourteen years of age. Miss Knowles was graduated from the Northwood seminary at the age of fifteen, and one year later from the New Hampshire State Normal school. Afterward she went to Bates college, Lewiston, Me., from which she was graduated in the class of ’84 with high honors, receiving the degree of A. B.
Four years later Bates college conferred on her the degree of A. B. When she entered Bates college there were only four other girl students there. The prejudice against admitting female students was still strong at the college, but not so strong as it had been some years before, when the only girl there was forced to leave because the boys decided to strike in a body unless she did. So Miss Knowles has gone through all the various degrees of ostracism which attend the efforts of women to make their way in fields which the men had been in the habit of considering peculiarly their own.
Not only did she do this at school, but he had to go through the same ordeal here when she hung out her sign. Still she is not a man hater. It is also to be noted that during her time at Bates college she was the only woman in a party of eight who took part in a political debate, and she carried off the prize.
In 1885 Miss Knowles commenced the study of law in the office of Burham & Brown, in Manchester, N.H. She prosecuted her studies there about a year, when on account of ill health she came west and took the chair of elocution and Latin in an Iowa college. Being advised by physicians to go among the mountains, she came to Helena in the fall of 1887. She taught one year in the Central school here and then resumed the study of law. There was considerable prejudice against allowing her to practice. So she went to work among the members of the last territorial legislature, that of 1888-9, and had a bill introduced and passed to admit women to practice law. She was admitted to the bar Dec. 1, 1890.”
26 July 1893 — Abbeville Press and Banner
“The Woman’s Law League was recently organized in New York city, its object being to bring together women interested in the study of law. There are now two hundred women practicing law in the United States. The new Attorney General [sic] of Montana, Mrs. Ella Knowles, is showing her sisters in the East that women can be as successful in law as in any other profession. . . .”
As the first woman attorney in Montana, Ella Knowles Haskell has received much attention. See, e.g.,
Richard B. Roeder, “Crossing the Gender Line: Ella L. Knowles, Montana’s First Woman Lawyer,” 32 Montana: The Magazine of Western History 64 (1982).
Sherry Scheel Matteucci, “Montana’s 1st Female Attorney Ella Knowles,” 33 Montana Lawyer 5 (2008).
John Morrison & Catherine Wright Morrison, Mavericks: The Lives and Battles of Montana’s Political Legends 43-57 (2003).
T.A. Larson, “Montana Women and the Battle for the Ballot,” 28 Montana: The Magazine of Western History 24 (1973).
Documentary Video: “Ella Knowles: A Dangerous Woman,” produced by Bates College in 1993.