Continental Divides

Under the Big Top

If only the trailblazing Kalispell legislator and journalist Emma Ingalls could see how far women have climbed in Helena

By John McCaslin

These are unprecedented times, politically speaking. 

On a positive note, Montana’s 2023 Legislative Session convened without the Republican bedlam that thrust the U.S. House of Representatives into uncharted chaos, thanks in part to eastern Montana Congressman Matt Rosendale fancying a GOP speaker “who will challenge the status quo.”

Western Montana Rep. Ryan “Bulldog” Zinke, on the other hand, had witnessed enough of the far-right revolt, accusing Rosendale and his small but persistent band of mutineers of “going against Trump” and Republican majority.

Theatrics aside, Rosendale deserves credit for standing his ground. Ever since House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s revolutionary (read personal) power grab in the 1990s, leaders of both parties have usurped unfettered control of the 435-member body and its committees, eschewing the protests and positions of all but their top lieutenants. Rank-and-file lawmakers like Rosendale – Republicans and Democrats alike – might just as well have been telecommuting to Capitol Hill. 

Fortunately, no such drama unfolded during opening day festivities at the Montana State Capitol, despite an underlying dispute among Republicans over how far the party’s new “supermajority” could propel them legislatively. House Speaker Matt Regier of Kalispell gaveled the 2023 session to peaceful order, flanked by the chamber’s three additional leaders, all women: Majority Leader Sue Vinton of Billings, Minority Leader Kim Abbott of Helena and Speaker Pro Tempore Rhonda Knudsen of Culbertson.

If only the trailblazing Kalispell legislator and journalist Emma Ingalls, who with her husband “C.O.” Ingalls founded the Inter Lake newspaper in 1889, could see how far women have climbed in Helena. One of the state’s first female legislators, the feisty Emma (she served alongside my great-grandfather, I’m proud to say) sponsored both a 1918 bill creating a Montana vocational school for girls and 1920 legislation ratifying the Woman Suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Fast forward to the 2023 session and we find 48 elected women (an impressive 32% of the House and Senate) representing constituents in Helena, the same record-setting number as 2021. Consider that only two women (1.3% of the body) served during Montana’s 1971 session.

Meanwhile, the Montana State Library this month partnered with the legislative branch and State Law Library of Montana to digitize hundreds of historic volumes of Montana law. And take my word for it, every single faded page is engrossing.

Whereas the first “state” Legislature convened in November 1889 (15 days after Montana joined the Union), Montana’s first “territorial” assembly took place in the now ghost town of Bannack in 1864 (given the ongoing Civil War, lawmakers were required to take an oath of allegiance to the United States). The second session was moved to Virginia City in 1866.

From these earliest of legislative proceedings I’ve culled just a few of the intriguing “Laws, Memorials, and Resolutions of the Territory of Montana,” each enacted interestingly enough when the lawmakers weren’t busy dissolving marriages:

• “An Act to prohibit marriage and co-habitation of whites      with Indians, Chinese and persons of African descent.”

• “An Act to dissolve the bonds of matrimony existing between Thomas Kent and Jennie Kent.”

• “An Act for the better observance of the Lord’s Day.”

• “An Act divorcing John F. Godfrey and Mary E. Godfrey.”

• “In obedience to the call of Governor Edgerton for an armed and equipped military force to relieve the emigrants and inhabitants in the vicinity of Fort Benton from the threatened hostility of the Indians.”

• “An Act to divorce Martha A. and Allen Williams.”

• “An Act to provide for a census to be taken in the year 1868.”

• “An Act to prevent the sale of intoxicating liquors to Indians in Montana Territory.”

• “An Act divorcing Robert F. Findlay and Elizabeth Findlay.”

• “Resolved, that the members of the Legislative Assembly tender to the Governor, Green Clay Smith, their thanks for his kindness in having distributed to the several members of the Assembly a quantity of garden seeds.”

• “An Act for the establishment of a territorial hospital.”

• “An Act to provide for a system of common schools of Montana Territory.”

• “A fence shall be considered lawful when constructed of four or more strong poles or rails, the lower pole or rail to be not more than two feet from the ground.”

• “Be it enacted … it shall be unlawful for any person or persons, within the Territory of Montana to conduct or establish … any dancing saloon or hurdy gurdy house.”

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.