I’ve finished preparing my remarks for a talk celebrating “Montana Day” at Bozeman Senior Center at noon this Friday. I’ve titled my talk “Women Suffrage in Gallatin County.” That’s a timely topic because November 3 was the hundredth anniversary of the vote for woman suffrage in Montana.
I’ll begin my talk by noting that women had limited voting rights in Montana Territory. They could vote for school trustees; if they were property owners, they could vote on financial matters like bond issues. In fact, it was common for women to be elected county superintendents of schools in territorial Montana.
I’ll tell the story of how Adda Hamilton defeated the incumbent Gallatin County School Superintendent in 1884. Miss Hamilton’s opponent was none other than William Wallace Wylie, prominent citizen who had been recruited to run Bozeman schools in 1878.
According to General George W. Wingate, who wrote about the incident in 1885, Wylie forgot himself in a campaign speech “so much as to sneer at Miss Hamilton as ‘a school marm who came to the territory a few years ago without a dollar in her pocket.”
As Wylie went on in this manner, Wingate said, “An Irishman in the audience stood up and interrupted him with a stentorian shout—’Boys, lets give three cheers for Miss Hamilton.’ Whereupon every man in the place stood up in in place, waved his hat and cheered for Miss Hamilton at the top of his lungs.”
On election day, Miss Hamilton, who ran as an independent, beat her nearest opponent soundly in a three-way race. She got 1,485 votes; Wallace, 1,051, and the Democrat, 487.
After some description of efforts to win voting rights for women in the Montana territorial era, I’ll tell the story of Clara McAdow who some say almost succeeded in making Montana the first state to grant woman suffrage. Mrs. McAdow, the story goes, stood outside the courthouse where the first state constitutional convention was held in 1889 and buttonholed delegates as they came and went. To avoid making suffrage a partisan issue, Mrs. McAdow alternated her efforts between Democrats and Republicans.
The 1889 Constitutional Convention devoted a whole day to debating women suffrage and took three votes on the topic. On the first vote, they rejected suffrage 26 to 32. Then by a tie vote, they rejected a provision to grant suffrage without a constitutional amendment. Finally, they rejected a proposal to submit the question to the voters.
I’ll end my talk with a description of stump speeches in Bozeman by supporters and opponents of suffrage and a description of the election results. In April, Miss Minnie Bronson of the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage, spoke to a large crowd in Bozeman. She said opposition was growing rapidly and denied that her group was funded by the liquor lobby.
Montana temperance and suffrage leader Maggie Smith Hathaway told a group of Bozeman women in October that both men and women are necessary for the smooth operation of government. Financial and commercial positions were more suited to men, Hathaway said, but women are better at “health, sanitary and moral issues.”
Montana’s most prominent suffragist, Jeannette Rankin, spoke in Bozeman in May and stressed the need for continued organization in Gallatin County. After helping to win voting rights for women, Rankin went on to become the first women elected to the U.S. Congress.
The election was close and early returns were in doubt. In fact, some newspapers announced that suffrage had lost in Montana. But when officials completed their final tally, the measure passed with 52 percent supporting it and 48 against.
In Gallatin County, party officials at both Republican and Democratic headquarters though suffrage had carried there. But when the official results came in they showed 47 percent in favor and 53 percent against.
It wasn’t until August 1920 that the Tennessee legislature passed the Nineteen Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and outlawed sex-based restrictions on voting.
— Detail from a Library of Congress photo.