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MHS unveils 1972 Con-Con letters as part of 19th Amendment centennial

MHS unveils 1972 Con-Con letters as part of 19th Amendment centennial

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Hannah Soukup

Hannah Soukup, an oral historian and summer intern at the Montana Historical Society, recently processed correspondence from Dorothy Eck, Louise Cross and Arlyne Reichert. The letters offer insights into the history of women in Montana politics as the country nears its 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. "These letters give us a glimpse into the inner workings of Montana politics, especially from a woman's point of view," she said.  

Marie MacDonald was celebrating the percentages.

In December 1971 the author and city librarian from Glendive sent a letter to Dorothy Eck of Bozeman, a vice president of Montana’s upcoming Constitutional Convention. Eck and 18 other women had been elected to the 100-delegate, history-making Con-Con.

“As a Montana woman, I take pride in your election to the Constitutional Convention,” MacDonald wrote. “We are about 50% of the human race; government affects each of us every bit as much as it does our men. But of the states which have held conventions recently, Montana’s record of 19% feminine representation is by far the best. I’m wondering why we did better than other states.”

The letter is among the correspondences of Eck, Louise Cross of Glendive and Arlyne Reichert of Great Falls at the Montana Historical Society in Helena. They’re among newly accessible records that offer insights as the nation celebrates this month the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.

The amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, when the Tennessee House of Representatives approved it by a vote of 50-46. The state Senate passed it 25-4 five days earlier.

It was the 36th of the 48 states to ratify the act guaranteeing “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Hannah Soukup of Missoula, an oral historian and summer intern at the Montana Historical Society, recently processed the collections of Cross, Eck and Reichert from 1971 and '72.

“These collections are a treasure trove of information, and the I think the most interesting thing about them is the correspondence,” Soukup said in a Montana Historical Society release. “These letters give us a glimpse into the inner workings of Montana politics, especially from a woman’s point of view.”

Helen Piotopowaka Clarke was the first woman and first Native American elected as county superintendent of schools in Helena in 1882. It was perhaps the earliest role of women in Montana politics.

In 1916, four years before women gained the national right to vote but two years after Montana passed its own suffrage act, Jeannette Rankin of Missoula was elected as one of two of Montana’s U.S. Representatives. She was the first U.S. congresswoman, the first woman in Congress to vote for national suffrage in 1918, and still the only woman Montanans have sent to Washington from the polls.

Rankin, who was reelected to the House in 1940, is known for voting against U.S. entrance in both world wars.

But her legacy extends beyond peace activism, the Montana Historical Society release said. She inspired other women, including those who served at the 1972 Con-Con.

At age 91 Rankin returned to her home state from her adopted one in Georgia to address the convention that March. A month earlier she had received the Susan B. Anthony Award in New York and was honored at the fourth annual meeting of the Jeannette Rankin Rank and File Brigade that marched 10,000 women strong on Washington in 1968 to protest the Vietnam War.

She joked with a colleague in Helena that she “might be interested in another try for the House,” and in her speech said she was pleased that Montana’s Constitutional Convention had elected a greater percentage of women than any state.

“Women have the psychological quality so they can work for the future,” Rankin said.

What about men? Miles Romney, a newspaper editor from Hamilton, asked.

“I think the men have progressed as much as they could without the help of women,” Rankin shot back.

Eck served as vice president for the First Congressional District at the Con-Con and also on the Bill of Rights Committee. She lobbied for the inclusion of Indian Education for All. A longtime state senator, Eck was described by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle upon her death in 2017 as “a pioneer for women in Montana politics, a force behind the 1972 Montana Constitution and a champion of open government and human rights.”

Cross’ focus was on the environmental impact of strip mining. She chaired the Natural Resources and Agricultural Committee, the only woman to chair an Article Committee.

“Your concern is my concern on strip mining,” she wrote a constituent in March 1972. “I tried very hard to get a strong statement about it in the Constitution. While there is still much to be desired, progress was made. I think it extremely important to pursue this with the legislature, in view of what is happening relative to mining leases.”

Cross, who died in 2014, continued to fiercely defend Montana lands, including advocating for the protection of Makoshika State Park from oil development in 1997.

Reichert, like Eck, was active with the League of Women Voters and a skilled debater. Her focus was on creating a unicameral Legislature, although Montanans voted against it when the Constitution was ratified. She served one term as a Montana state legislator in 1979 and remains active in local politics and historic preservation efforts, including preservation of the Great Falls 10th Street Bridge.

“Dear Arlyne,” Cross wrote during the Con-Con. “Sometimes a person’s path crosses someone else’s who proves to be intelligent, lovely, and charming. I have appreciated such a person (you) in this convention. Thank you for your support & encouragement.”

The Montana Historical Society contributed to this article. 

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