Sometimes out here on the prairies we tend to think of ourselves as a “backwater” in the great scheme of things. I was attracted to presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar’s slogan for her campaign in 2020: “This isn’t fly-over country. This is home.” She is from Minnesota and spoke often to the notion that too many people think Midwestern people don’t have a voice to be heard in the national discussion.
March is Women’s History Month, so it has been interesting that while working with folks from the Frontier Gateway Museum a number of items dealing with Dawson County women have surfaced. Catherine McCarty and Grace Marron Gilmore were well-known in early Glendive, Dawson County and Montana. Many people have read Catherine McCarty’s autobiography From Blue Grass to Big Sky. McCarty came here from Kentucky and homesteaded 320 acres in Garfield County before finding her way to marriage and Glendive. She lived to be 107 years of age. Of her many accomplishments one is the giving of land to Makoshika State Park which included McCarty’s cabin, well-known to anyone who roamed the Park in the 1950s and 1960s. It still stands and is being re-vitalized by the Park.
In the 18th Legislative session of the Montana Legislature, Catherine was one of two of the first women elected to the legislature (1923-1925). In 1919, she began working for the Dawson County Red Cross as Home Services chairman. In that capacity she assisted veterans of the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War in obtaining benefits, finding work, seeking medical care, etc. She also worked for the Red Cross in drought relief during the 1920s and 1930s. She also served on the Dawson County Veterans Advisory Board, and worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the National Youth Administration (NYA). Catherine had also applied to be a yeoman in the Navy during World War I.
But even before Catherine McCarty there was Grace Bendon Marron Gilmore. She came to Glendive in 1881 when her father Ira Bendon was hired to build houses for the people following the Northern Pacific Railroad. Her obituary said at fifteen she married a rancher from the Red Water area, living there until his death when she returned to Glendive. Gilmore's community involvement translated into political activism. During Montana's successful statewide suffrage campaign in 1914, Gilmore represented Glendive at the suffrage parade at the state fair. After the achievement of woman suffrage at the state level, Gilmore continued her political engagement. She went to Paris, France in 1919 with the National Catholic War Council during World War I as a hostess with the Catholic Welfare, after doing war work in Washington, D.C. In 1924 The Flathead Courier noted that Gilmore was a part of the executive committee to help the Democrats organize events to elect members of the Democratic Party to various positions in government. She is remembered as an author, historian, and pioneer.
In more recent days Louise Cross was active in the Glendive community and the State of Montana. She was the chair of the committee on the environment when the new Montana Constitution was written in 1972 (the only woman to chair a committee) and she remained active in environmental affairs for many years. She was a member of the Ducks Unlimited, Audubon Society, National Wildlife Foundation, Northern Plains Resource Council, and Dawson County Resource Council. In 1997 she advocated for the Glendive City Council’s approval of Resolution #2534 to protect Makoshika State Park from oil development. Louise was elected as a delegate to the 1972 Montana State Constitutional Convention where she continued to defend the environment. Because of her unfaltering leadership and the unfailing support of her fellow delegates, Montana’s Bill of Rights contains a constitutionally protected right to a “clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” Among other things, the article provides for land reclamation and water rights. This article was challenged in 1991 and upheld by the Montana Supreme Court. (Thanks to the family for an obituary that preserved much of what Louise believed in.)
With the help of others, Louise was instrumental in organizing the Frontier Gateway Museum. She loved Western history. Her hard work and careful use of limited resources helped the museum to grow and be recognized today for the important institution it is. Her work in the State and the community was well recognized.
There is more to be learned about these women who worked for women’s rights. It is 100 years since women earned the right to vote. Some one said ”women were given the right to vote”, but a suffragette said, “we fought for the right to vote.” And until the Equal Rights Amendment is passed the job is not done.
Catherine McCarty, Grace Gilmore and Louise Cross and other pioneer women were women of courage and great personal strength. We need to learn more of their history and legacy and we need to continue their work to make better this place in which we live between the banks of the Yellowstone River and the soaring badlands.
Remember when you were a kid and someone said, “Tell the truth! Straight in the eye!” The premise being that no one could lie looking his or her accuser directly in the face. The idea has some merit. Although we also have the term, “bald-faced liar” meaning they can look you in the eye and still lie.
As Holy Week approaches, I have been reading some devotionals on the Passion of Christ. One author I read was talking about Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Pilate is trying to find out just who Jesus really is and if Jesus deserves to die. In the course of cross-examining Jesus, Pilate asks the question — “What is truth?” Pilate’s question was coming from his experience with Imperial Rome — a place of corruption, bribery, lying, assassinations. Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” We really don’t know much about Pontus Pilate after he appears in history at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus, but one source says he killed himself at the order of the Emperor Caligula sometime after 36 BCE. His search for truth ended.
All of history is a search for truth. Every nation has to struggle with the truth of its own history. While the U.S. has accomplished much in science, literature and the arts, living standards and international relations, we are at a moment when we have to stop and have the discussion among ourselves —“What is our truth?”
That question is on my mind after seeing the movie “The United States versus Billie Holiday”, a drama about the life of the Jazz singer. She came from a time and place in our history where to be black and poor and a woman meant you were never going to have an opportunity to stand straight and tall and discover your own truth. As a famous jazz singer, one of her signature songs was “Strange fruit.” Written by Lewis Allen (Abel Meeropot) in 1937, the song is about the lynchings in the South during the days of “Jim Crow”. “Jim Crow” was an attempt by white supremacists to return to the pre-Civil War South and slavery. Because she would sing this song, the U.S. Government tried to keep her quiet saying the song “stirred people up”. She was harassed to the end of her life. The one hundred years after the Civil War was a time when people of color were harrassed for speaking and voting. This fight continues. Today (March 8) we are remembering the 56th anniversary of the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and the violence which followed. Legislatures around the country, now in session, are attempting to make voting more difficult for people of color and minority groups. Native American reservations are facing restrictions from state legislatures. We in Montana are not exempt from voter suppression and blocking the rights of people we don’t agree with. In many other regions, roadblocks of various kinds mean people of color and sexual orientation are being legislated out of the right to make decisions that affect them and this country.
What is truth? How are we going to teach our nation’s history to the next generation? We are proud of the men and women who shaped this nation, defining words like freedom and liberty. We recognize those who step forward and are active in working to make things better for everyone today. We can be proud of men and women of every religion, color, creed and gender orientation who stand up to be counted. We have much to share with the world about living together in community. That is why it is so important to answer this question: How are we telling our truth? How we answer this question will shape our story for generations to come.