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.