“Gifted Portia from Wild West — Florence W. Stephens

There is no end (or so it seems) to the stories, covered in newspapers, about Montana’s early women lawyers, a group of spectacularly newsworthy women. The following article was recently unearthed:

Gifted Portia From Wild West Yearns for Great Open Spaces Where Women Wear Trousers, by Fletcher Pratt” — 25 January 1925 — Buffalo Courier

florencewstephens

+++++“‘I always wish I could be out in a free country where I can wear trousers,’ says Mrs. Florence Stephens of No. 103 Anderson place, speaking of Buffalo, ‘but I’ve stayed here longer than I have stayed anywhere else in the last fifteen years, so I guess I must rather like the place.’
+++++Well, she has a right to wear trousers if anybody has. She is a practicing lawyer, a member of the bar in three states, and of the federal bar. She was for some time in charge of recording all the bills that passed the Montana state senate, and was the first woman to read the bills in that state. She is the owner of a 320-acre farm in Montana, which she took as a homesteader, building her own house on it, and doing her own farm work while she was studying law for her bar examination.
+++++‘Oh, homesteading,’ she ways, nonchalantly, ‘that was fun. There was nothing to it.’
Month’s Journey on Horseback
+++++She left her law studies in Chicago and her five-year-old daughter there, who was studying to be a trained nurse, and set out on horseback for Montana and the government homestead lands. All their possessions and all their equipment for the homesteading venture was carried on pack horses. The journey took a month and often they were miles from the nearest town, not seeing anything more civilized than a stray house for days. At night they pitched their tent under the stars. In the morning were off again.
+++++At the end of a month of horseback riding they reached the claim sites at Circle, Montana, a town that then consisted on only one house and a store, which was also the post office. The house had been the ranchhouse of an old ranch, the Circle-Bar, from which the town took its name.
+++++‘We pitched our tent,’ says Mrs. Stephens, ‘and slept on the ground until we got our house built. It was sixty miles to the nearest railroad, and there was only one carpenter in the vicinity, so building the habitable house required by the government regulation was a matter of some difficulty, as the whole country is a flat, treeless plain, and all the wood had to be hauled from the railroad.
Built Her Own House
+++++‘I got the carpenter to help me for one day and finished the house myself. It was all built of six-inch flooring stock, the only kind obtainable, and roofed with a car roof. At night in the winter you could look up and see every nailhead in that roof covered with frost.
+++++‘The first year I raised potatoes. The government regulations on homesteading require that forty acres of the 320 must be placed under cultivation and a habitable house built on the land. I arrived there in September and began work on the land in the spring, and the first year didn’t raise anything much but potatoes — about as big as a dinner plate and nearly as thick.
+++++‘The soil there is wonderful. You can raise anything on it, but it was all new land, and that first year I couldn’t do anything more than plow it up and plant the potatoes under the furrows. They flattened right out and grew to prodigious size, but only about an inch thick.
+++++“Of course, cultivating the land out there meant building a fence, too. It is still the wild west there, with cowpunchers and range cattle, just as they have them in the movies, only the cowpuncher doesn’t dress that way at all. The only part of his uniform that is real are the high-heeled shoes. For the rest he usually wears the oldest and dirtiest overalls he can find anywhere.
+++++‘A fence with three barbed wires in it is a “legal fence” and if the cattle break through it you can sue the owner for damages. But a fence of some kind is a positive necessity, for the cattle tramp down and eat everything that isn’t fenced in.
Serenaded by Cows at Dawn
+++++“There used to be a place right in the lee of my house where the cattle that were roaming around town all the time would collect just before dawn. I think I must have taken a dozen cowbells off cattle there, and the owners would come around innocently the next day and kick about their cows’ lost bells. They would keep you awake all night if you didn’t take them off. when I left there I had a big donation party and gave all their bells back to them, and you should have seen them when I did.
+++++‘Of course things gradually got more comfortable there. I kept getting more stock. I didn’t have anything but some horses when I first went out, and by and by I got a portable pool table and a piano. You can’t imagine what that meant. That piano and the pool table were the first ones in that part of the country, and I can tell you I was the center of attraction there for a long while.
+++++‘It’s still very much the wild west, you see. When they have a dance everyone goes at dusk, and it doesn’t break up till morning. No use of breaking up before, because the roads are a minus quality and, as it’s all open prairie, you couldn’t find your way home before daylight.
Defended Cattle Thieves
+++++‘In 1916 I went back to Chicago and passed my bar examination there. That was where I had started from and where I began my law studies. Then I went back to Montana and was admitted to the bar there and spent most of my time defending horse thieves and cattle thieves. Most of those old-timers would slap a brand on anything that didn’t have one, and steal anything they could get away with.
+++++‘I guess I came naturally by being a lawyer. My mother was a lawyer before me, and I believe she was the first woman lawyer in the state of South Dakota, where we lived at that time. It’s easier being a lawyer in the west, anyway. They don’t have so many darn fool laws, nor so much trouble enforcing those they do have.
+++++‘In 1922 I thought I would come to Buffalo and see what the east looked like, and I have been here ever since. But I’d like to get out once in a while where I could wear trousers and ride a horse again.'”

“Advice on Santa” from Emily Sloan

“To the Editor:
+++++Now is the time, right after Thanksgiving, that the second graders will be informing the first graders that Santa Claus isn’t real, and the mothers of the first graders are wondering how they are going to soothe the disappointment of those little tots. Here’s what I did many long years ago. My 7-year-old son came in quite excited and gave me a little envelop on which was written Santa Claus, and all excited he told me, ‘Our teacher had us write a letter to Santa Claus, but some of the boys said there isn’t any Santa Claus, but I thought I’d take a long shot at it, anyway. She said our mothers would know where to send the letters.’ He looked so happy I didn’t disillusion him but told him of course I’d see that the letter was sent to the right place.
+++++Then in came his 9-year-old sister all excited with, ‘Mama, the kids say there isn’t any Santa Claus. What is all this Santa Claus business , anyway?’ Right then I sent up a silent prayer that I would say the right thing, and I answered in substance if not in these exact words, ‘Santa Claus is that good spirit in all of us that makes us want to give something special to those we love, and not let anybody know about it, so we say Santa Claus,’
+++++‘Oh, something like fairies, make-believe?’ she asked, her eyes dancing.
+++++‘That’s it,’ I told her.
+++++‘Then we can all be Santa Claus,’ she said.
+++++I’ve never seen a happier child.
+++++She had less than a dollar to spend, but she was all mystery and excitement, and not only did she have a merry Christmas but a joyous time preparing for the happy surprises for us all. How was it they had been so long learning about the Santa mystery? That was their first year in town school. They had lived on a bleak homestead and had very little contact with other children, even in summer time, and none in winter.”
–Emily E. Sloan
Tacoma Daily Ledger
29 November 1956

“Dubious Consent”

6 September — The Missoulian — “Dubious Consent”

+++++“In an admirable if somewhat reluctant demonstration of advanced thinking the University of Montana Law School admitted its first woman student in 1912, two years before the adoption of the amendment to the Montana Constitution giving women the vote.
+++++Bernice Selfridge (now Mrs. Bernice Selfridge Forbes) had not completed her pre-legal work and so was not included in the 1912 registration of 21 students, but she was allowed to take two law classes. It is recorded that this concession was made ‘with the dubious consent of the law faculty.’ Miss Selfridge, incidentally, was a member of the Campus Equal Suffrage Club.
+++++By 1915-16 there were four women enrolled, and for 40 years thereafter — until the fall of 1957 — there were only two years in which no women were registered.
+++++The Law School has graduated 28 women, including such pioneers of their sex as Geraldine O’Hara Grant, ’26 (now Mrs. Geraldine O’Hara MacDonald), Hamilton city attorney from 1929-1934, and Opal Louise Replogle, ’46 (now Mrs. Wellington D. Rankin), Fergus County attorney in 1947. Mrs. Rankin is thought to be the first woman to hold the office of county attorney in Montana. [Two women served earlier as county attorneys in Montana — Emily E. Sloan and Frances Elge.]
+++++Six of the 28 women married Law School alumni and three of these are practicing law in partnership with their husbands.
+++++A further letting down of the barristers’ bars came in 1946. That year the Law School Association voted to admit the five women then enrolled to that male sanctum sanctorum, the association’s smoker.
+++++Another woman, Miss Charlotte Russel, figures prominently in the annals of the Law School. Miss Russel, known to generations of law students as ‘the chief,’ served as law librarian from 1926 until her retirement in 1951. After Miss Russel died in 1957, many former students joined her sister in establishing a Charlotte Russel Memorial Fund to help deserving law freshman.”

Grandma Sloan is Lawyer Now

Mineral Independent — 24 July 1919
“Youthful Grandmother Recently Admitted to Bar is a Real Live Wire”

+++++“Montana’s first grandma-lawyer is some rustler.
+++++She breezed into the state capitol the other day to be admitted to practice at the state bar, preliminary to settling in this state, probably at Hardin, in Big Horn county.
+++++She is the first grandmother, ever admitted to the bar in this state, but let none presume that she is sere and yellow, for a hustling, vivacious beauty, is Grandma, who might pass for 32 years old, although she says she is forty — says so proudly and dares you to believe it.
+++++The woman is Mrs. Emily E. Sloan, recently of Belle Fourche, S.D.
+++++She is a grandma at forty because she married when 16 years old. She has four children, two of whom are married daughters with three children.
+++++The elder Sloans are ranchers in the Black Hills. Grandma says they had their battle with adversity, now happily over. The family can take care of itself, she says, and she is setting out to begin all over again in a new career.
+++++Mrs. Sloan was born in the woods in Wisconsin. At the time of her marriage she removed to the Black Hills in South Dakota. Her husband rode the range as a cowboy. He finally earned a ranch and the busy little wife engaged in doing the work about the farmhouse and raising four children.
+++++‘My father was admitted to the bar after he was 50 years old,’ she says proudly.
+++++Two years ago she came to the University of Montana at Missoula to complete her law course. She has just passed the state examination and been admitted to the bar.
+++++Grandma is the livest wire that has passed through Helena in some moons, say the state capitol attaches.”

Emily Sloan was elected Montana’s first female county attorney in 1924, serving Carbon County in 1925 and 1926. She moved from Red Lodge to Billings in 1927 and practiced there until about 1940. Her legal career was filled with adventures and adversity. I remain dedicated to sharing her story.
 

Elsie B. Wilkins –an early woman lawyer in MT?

Doing a routine search on newspapers.com, I found the obituary of a woman identified as “one of the first women lawyers in Montana.” In the more than 25 years I have been researching Montana’s pioneering women lawyers, I have never found a reference to Ms. Wilkins.

Great Falls Tribune, 23 December 1956

“Mrs. Elsie B. Wilkins, 86, wife of Ben J. Wilkins, 1310 6th Ave. N., and one of the first women lawyers in Montana, died Saturday morning at a local hospital where she had been a patient for four days. . . . Mrs. Wilkins was born Nov. 24, 1870, at Peru, Ind., and came to Great Falls in 1914.  Both she and her husband, who were married in 1898, were graduated from Valparaiso University Law School, Valparaiso, Ind.  Although she never practiced law, Mrs. Wilkins passed her bar examinations both in Indiana and Montana. She is believed to be Montana’s first woman lawyer.  An eastern Star at 18, Mrs. Wilkins joined Helen C. Roberts Chapter when she came to this city.  She also was a charter of the White Shrine of Jerusalem. In addition to the widower, survivors are two sons, Billy H. Wilkins and Robert B. Wilkins, both of this city . . .”

I wonder whether Ms. Wilkins passed the Montana bar examination in 1914, but never applied for admission to the bar. I have no more information about her beyond what is provided in her obituation. Her husband, Ben Wilkins, ran for police judge in Great Falls in 1947.

Does anyone have any information about Ms. Wilkins?

Charlotte H. Russel, “The Chief”

She is and always will be ‘Chief.’


The first of the “early women” professionals employed at the University of Montana School of Law was Charlotte Hough Russel, the librarian and registrar; she was at the law school from 1924 through 1950.  Prior to that, Ms. Russel became Montana “Tech’s first female faculty member, when [she] signed on as librarian and registrar” in 1909.


“Miss Russel Recovers From Illness” — Law School News Items, 6 Dec. 1937

+++++“This fall when the students of the Law School came back for another year’s work, the second and third year students were shocked to learn that the “Chief” had undergone an operation for ruptured appendicitis and that general peritonitis had set in.  Realizing that only one out of every ten persons ever recover from such complications the question on the lips of every student for days was, ‘Do you think the “Chief” will pull through?’
+++++Every student missed that cheery ‘Good morning’ and that quiet but firm reminder that certain books were due.  The ‘Mother’ of the Law School was gone; there was no one to whom we could turn for advice and help to solve our problems, whether they be problems of law or of love.
+++++This was the first time in ten years that students returned to find ‘Chief’s’ office silent and her chair vacant. This year was to be the beginning of the eleventh year of her association with the Law School and her absence was felt by the faculty as well as the students.
+++++The ‘Chief’ had just returned from a vacation at Lake Louise and Banff and a few days later was taken to Murray hospital in Butte.  She was confined to her bed on September 7 and returned to the Law School on October 25.
+++++To the new students and the rest of the campus the ‘Chief’ is Miss Charlotte Russel, but to the students of the Law School she is and always will be ‘Chief.’  Welcome back, Chief, and we hope the flood of overdue books will not cause a relapse!'”


8 July 1957 — Spokesman-Review — “Ex-Law School Librarian Dies; Charlotte H. Russel Held MSU Post 26 Years”

+++++“Charlotte Hough Russel, 72, librarian at the Montana State university law school for 26 years until her retirement in 1950, died today at a Missoula hospital.
+++++Miss Russel was born at Butte.  Her father, James Richard Russel, was a pioneer Presbyterian minister in Montana.  Her mother, Fannie Forbis Russel, crossed the plains from Missouri to Montana by ox team in 1864.
+++++For many years Miss Russel held the position of registrar and librarian at the Montana School of Mines in Butte.  In 1924, she moved to Missoula to accept the position as librarian at the MSU law school.
+++++Her years of service earned her the affectionate title of ‘chief’ with the law students.
+++++Miss Russel is survived by a sister, Mrs. Carl Jordan, Missoula. . . .”


Later that year, the law alumni association instituted a student loan fund in memory of Ms. Russel, who was described as “long-time secretary to the dean of the law school, librarian, and students’ unofficial counselor.”


I would love to hear from anyone with information about Charlotte Hough Russel!

Hollis Gay Connors, MT Bar 1952

Hollis Gay Connors, admitted to the Montana Bar in 1952, was the second woman in Montana to run for Associate Justice on the Montana Supreme Court.  Jessie Roscow was the first; she lost in the primary election in 1944.


MTStandard 5/30/1962

MTStandard 5/30/1962

3 April 1962 — Daily Inter Lake — “Helena Woman to File for Supreme Court”

+++++“Hollis Gay Connors, Helena lawyer, announced Monday she would attempt to become the first woman to serve on Montana’s Supreme Court.
+++++Mrs. Connors, 50, said she would file for the position No. 2 on the high court, the bench now held by Associate justice Stanley M. Doyle.
+++++Records indicated Mrs. Connors would be the second woman in Montana history to run for the Supreme Court. The first was Jessie Roscoe [sic], who was eliminated in the 1944 primary election. . . .
+++++Mrs. Connors said she planned to file her nominating papers April 16. She said she would seek the position for two reasons:

  • ‘Women should more actively participate in governmental affairs.’
  • ‘I feel the courts of the State of Montana belong to the people. They are there for the preservation of the personal and property rights of the people, and they must be preserved.’

+++++Mrs. Connors added, ‘If elected to this office, I would bring to the position a deep sense of responsibility, complete honesty and humility for the trust imposed by the people of the State of Montana.’
+++++Mrs. Connors was born in Fairfax county, Minn., and attended grade and high schools in Minnesota. She received her law degree in 1949 from Northwestern College of Law in Portland, Ore. She became a permanent resident of Montana in 1951 and was admitted to the Montana bar in October 1952.
+++++She has been associated in private law practice since 1959 with the Helena firm of Skedd, Harris and Massman. Before that, she was in the insurance business in Helena. She is the wife of Gene Connors of Townsend.
+++++Mrs. Connors said as far as she had been able to determine only three states now have women justices on their Supreme Courts. They are Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii.
+++++‘I don’t even mind telling you how old I am,’ Mrs. Connors told a newsman. ‘I was born in February 1912. I always said I was going to run for this office when I was 50 years old, and I meant it.'”


+++++A news article from the Montana Standard, published on 18 April 1962, reported additionally that:

+++++“The blonde lawyer will be seeking the Supreme Court seat . . . . Doyle has announced he will seek re-election. Gordon Bennett, former assistant attorney general and more recently a lawyer in Washington, D.C., has also announced he will seek the office.”


Ms. Connors lost to Justice Doyle and Mr. Bennett who advanced to the general election.  Justice Stanley M. Doyle, the incumbent, prevailed in the general election.


In 1967, J. R. Wine, Jr., Director of Montana Legal Services, appointed Hollis Gay Connors deputy director of the legal services program.  She worked with the legal services program from 1967 through 1969.


Daily Inter Lake 10/29/1972

Daily Inter Lake 10/29/1972

Hollis Gay Connors ran, as the Republican candidate, for State Treasurer in 1972.

An article in the Billings Gazette, 24 May 1972, reported that Ms. Connors listed her net worth as $27,280, made up of her home in Townsend, $20,000; her automobile, $5,700; a life insurance policy, $7,000; personal property, $2,500; and savings of $3,000. Her liabilities included a home mortgage of $5,800; personal note $3,120, and loans on life insurance of $2,000.

She “won election to the single-term state treasurer’s office over Democratic John J. McLaughlin. She tallied 89,705 votes from 662 precincts compared with McLaughlin’s 78,340.” Havre Daily News, 8 November 1972.


15 April 1973 — Independent Record — “State Treasurer Says She’s Liberated”

+++++“‘I consider myself to be a liberated woman,’ says Hollis Gay Connors, Montana’s treasurer.
+++++With that self-image it’s not surprising to find that the women’s liberation movement doesn’t hold any great attraction for the 61-year-old attorney. But neither is she opposed to what she feels should be its basic aim — to treat an individual as an individual.
+++++Ms. Connors’ views on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) were not solicited during the emotional legislative battle over ratification of the proposed amendment to the United States Constitution although she is one of only two women in major state elective offices.
+++++She views the oversight with more detached amusement than hurt feelings after a lifetime spend working in fields predominantly occupied by males — law, politics and insurance.
+++++‘I don’t think ERA will add much to women’s rights,’ she said, ‘and it may take away some of their favored property rights.’
+++++Still, if asked, she would have urged the legislature to ratify the women’s equal rights provision in the supreme law.
+++++‘The voters of Montana have already put this through in their new constitution,’ Ms. Connors said. ‘So I don’t understand why the legislature didn’t go along with it in the federal constitution if they were aware of the state constitution.’
+++++She was referring to a new section added to the Montana Bill of Rights guaranteeing nondiscrimination on account of sex.
+++++That provision was not enough for the treasurer to support the new state charter.  She voted against ratification as did a big majority of her fellow townspeople in Townsend, 30 miles southeast of Helena. It’s the county seat of Broadwater County, rural, mostly conservative and Republican.
+++++Her feeling is that archaic provisions of the old document could have been amended.  ‘But the new one can be amended too,’ she said.  Ms. Connors said with ratification she ‘has no strong opinions’ one way or the other about the new constitution.
+++++She has lived the past 12 years in Townsend with her husband, a funeral director, and practiced law there and in capital city.  The treasurer has continued practicing law since she began her official state duties Jan. 1.
+++++‘I have found nothing in the law that prevents me from keeping up my law practice,’ she said.  ‘And I haven’t found any conflict of interest.’  The treasurer is paid $15,000 a year.
+++++Ms. Connors is not the first woman treasurer in the state’s history but she well may be the last of either sex.
+++++The new constitution eliminated the treasurer as a constitutional officer, leaving it up to the legislature to determine whether the position shall be continued in law or abolished and its remaining functions transferred to other departments.
+++++The Republican thinks that eliminating the office would be a big mistake.
+++++‘It should be separate and probably elective to preserve the system of checks and balances,’ she said.
+++++Self-interest is not involved. By law the treasurer cannot succeed herself.  A grandfather clause protects all incumbent office holders when the new constitution goes into effect.
+++++The incumbent feels it is common sense to have an independent officer handling the money between those agencies collecting it and those spending it.
+++++In recent years the office has been stripped of many of its functions which were transferred to the state controller, Department of Administration and Board of Investments.
+++++But it remains the custodian of the state’s securities and money.  The daily cash flow is erratic but on the average the office handles $5 million to $6 million daily.
+++++‘This is the hub of government,’ Ms. Connors smiles. ‘This is where the money is.’
+++++The 1972 Legislature passed a resolution asking the Legislative Council to study the office of treasurer and make recommendations so that some action can be taken before the 1976 election.
+++++The lawmakers didn’t bother to ask the incumbent for any advice or benefit of experience.  Ms. Connors said she has a few ideas about the office and toyed with the idea of making some recommendations.
+++++‘But it would be a labor of love,’ she said, ‘because under the circumstances (Democratic control of the legislature), I don’t think they’d give much consideration to it.’
+++++One idea, she said, is to turn the office into a state bank such as has been done in North Dakota.  ‘I’m not sure exactly how they name the director,’ she added.
+++++Ms. Connors pointed out the functions of her office are the same as a bank — to take in money and to pay it out.
+++++The treasurer presides over her department from a modest office in the extreme southwest corner of the Capitol behind locked doors, buzzers and alarm systems.
+++++The physical isolation is matched by political isolation. As one of only three Republican elected state officials, she is not in the mainstream of the Democratic state executive branch.
+++++Ms. Connors’ successful campaign for treasurer was not the first time she has run for state office. In 1962 she finished a respectable third in a six-way nonpartisan primary for associate justice of the state supreme court. She was the only woman candidate.
+++++The treasurer said she was never aware of any prejudice or discrimination in her campaigning because she was a woman. If anything she feels it is an asset.
+++++‘The voters are a little more courteous,’ she explains, ‘although they expect as much from you.’
+++++As an equal opportunity employer, the treasurer’s staff consists of four men and five women. ‘I like men,’ she laughs, ‘I like people.’
+++++‘I realize there is discrimination against women,’ Ms. Connors said. ‘I’m in favor of equal opportunity — equal pay for equal effort.’
+++++But she said she is ‘not gung-ho’ about some extremes of the women’s liberation movement. ‘Like changing he to she and his to hers in the statutes would make no difference,’ the lady lawyer said.
+++++Her personal struggle has been against economics, not discrimination.
+++++Ms. Connors, a native of Minnesota, came to Montana as a child. Her father was a merchant in Bozeman and Moore.  At the age of 18 she ventured into the depression age of 1930 as a cashier-clerk for a major insurance company at $16.50 per week and was glad to have the job.
+++++Work as a life underwriter and legal secretary and stenographer followed until, in 1944-45, she began studying law at the Northwest College of Law, Portland, Ore.
+++++Ms. Connors graduated in 1949 and was admitted to Montana practice in 1952 after passing the bar exam and an equivalency exam for the bachelor’s degree she didn’t have.
+++++If there was any discrimination because of her sex along the way, ‘I wasn’t aware of it.’
+++++But one aspect of the feminine revolution has caught her fancy. She likes the designation, ‘Ms.’
+++++‘It’s a little silly but that’s what they’ve picked,’ she said. ‘It does make one an individual.'”