August 2, 2019

Montana and the Nineteenth Amendment

by Martha Kohl, MHS Outreach and Interpretation Historian

When Governor Samuel Stuart summoned legislators back to Helena on July 29, 1919, for an extraordinary legislative session, providing aid to Montana’s drought stricken farmers was his primary concern. Ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution—the women’s suffrage amendment—was almost an afterthought.
Hazel Hunkins, Billings Suffragist, as a young student [from]
Montana women had won the right to vote in 1914 and Montana had elected Jeannette Rankinthe first woman U.S. Representative—to Congress in 1916.  As Governor Stuart explained in his call for a special session, “Montana already has woman suffrage; her women vote upon every important issue presented to our people.” The amendment’s ratification would not change Montana women’s lives or rights at all; “nevertheless our women feel that the women of other states should have their aid and support in this important matter.”

Both parties supported the ratification, which passed the very first day of the special session. Governor Stuart certified the ratification on August 2, 1919, making Montana the thirteenth state to ratify (tying with Nebraska). The biggest controversy was over which party would get the credit. The Republican majority insisted that  Emma Ingalls, Republican representative from the Flathead, introduce HJR #1, much to the dismay of Representative Maggie Smith Hathaway, a longtime suffrage advocate and Democrat from Ravalli County.

Emma Ingalls [from]
The vote, though inevitable, came about only after years of struggle, within Montana and nationally. Jeannette Rankin is, of course, the most famous Montanan involved in the fight for women’s suffrage, but my favorite suffrage activist is Hazel Hunkins from Billings, who moved to Washington, D.C. at age twenty-six to work as the National Woman’s Party’s organizing secretary. She also engaged in direct action, spending many hours on the picket line in front of the White House as a “Silent Sentinel,” and was arrested three times. Her intimate letters home to her mother reveal that she hated picketing, persevering only because she believed it was “a wonderful piece of publicity. …. It would be like base desertion to quit at a time when they need me worse than they ever have before. But oh how I hate it.”
Women Voters Day on the Picket Line, February 14, 1917
The lead woman carrying the American flag and wearing a sash that reads “Voter” is Hazel Hunkins.
Hunkins’ letters and telegrams—preserved at the Schlessinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts—bring the suffrage story to life. Reading them, I can imagine her mother, worried in Billings—especially after receiving a telegram declaring, “TWENTY SIX OF AMERICAS FINEST WOMEN ARE ACCOMPANYING ME TO JAIL ITS SPLENDID DONT WORRY.”

In 2014, as part of the Montana suffrage centennial, the Montana Historical Society Outreach and Education Program worked with Billings school librarian Ruth Ferris to publish Hazel Hunkins, Billings Suffragist. The primary source investigation makes the fight over the Nineteenth Amendment real and personal, reminding students that the unfolding of history is not preordained and that women gained the right to vote only after seventy-two years of struggle. Hazel Hunkins’ letters are also just fun reading. Feel free to download the curriculum from the MHS website as you remember August 2, 1919, when Montana formally ratified the Nineteenth Amendment.