MARGA LINCOLN For the Independent Record
Yes, more than one woman has contributed to Montana’s rich history.
Yet, most people think of Jeannette Rankin and then their minds go blank.
Well, several enterprising, history-loving women set out to change that.
The result is a 40-minute documentary film, “The Story of Us: The Women Who Shaped Montana,” that makes its world premiere at 7 pm Wednesday, at The Myrna Loy.
The film is slated to be broadcast on Montana PBS in the future, according to filmmaker Kimberly Hogberg.
North By Northwest and the Extreme History Project collaborated on it, said the Helena native, who is a producer and editor with NXNW.
The film focuses on the stories and contributions of four fascinating women who overcame some seemingly insurmountable odds to be successful: Sarah Bickford, Rose Hum Lee, Maggie Smith Hathaway and Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail.
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“I love that each of them is very unique and different and had struggles…. but they did amazing things,” during times it was difficult for women to do much of anything outside their homes, said Hogberg.
“The first woman in the film is Sarah Bickford, who probably faced the most adversity,” said Hogberg, although none of the women had an easy life.
She was born a slave and would go on to become the first female owner of a water utility in Montana – and likely the first Black woman water utility owner in the country.
She arrived in Virginia City working as a nanny for an associate justice of the Montana Territorial Supreme Court.
She married a miner, John Brown, who physically abused her. They had three children – all of whom died from childhood diseases.
She was granted a divorce and left Montana. But she decided to return to Virginia City, said Hogberg, because she thought it would be more promising for her future.
She would later marry Stephen Bickford, a white miner and farmer, and they had four children, all of whom grew into successful adults.
She and her husband owned the Virginia City Water Co., which Sarah helped run.
At Stephen’s death in 1902, she inherited the water utility and successfully ran it on her own, and was recognized by the community as a prominent and respected business owner.
The film also tells the story of Rose Hum Lee, who was born in August 1904 in Butte, the daughter of successful shop owners. This proved to be a very difficult time to be Chinese in America because of virulent racism aimed at the Chinese.
The second of seven children, Rose grew up in a family that greatly prized an American education and she became fluent in English and Chinese.
Her father, Hum Wah Long, was a successful merchant and was well respected in the community. Her mother, Lin Fong, was illiterate, which resulted in her living a very socially isolated life.
In 1921, Rose married a Chinese engineering student and moved to China with him, losing her American citizenship in the process. But the marriage was unhappy and she got a divorce and was able to move back to the United States and regain her citizenship.
“She was very smart,” said Hogberg, adding that Lee earned a master’s and Ph.D. in social work and had a successful career at Roosevelt University, where she chaired the sociology department.
She was the first woman and the first Chinese American to head a sociology department at an American university.
Maggie Smith Hathaway from the Bitterroot was one of the first two women elected to the Montana Legislature.
An ardent suffragist, Hathaway traveled thousands of miles in Montana advocating for women’s suffrage.
Like the other women in the film, she too suffered a personal tragedy, becoming a widow six months after her marriage.
She would go on to accomplish great things, particularly championing women’s and children’s rights. After three terms in the Legislature, she headed up Montana’s largest state agency – what is now the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The film also focuses on Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail, who became the first Crow to earn a registered nursing degree and would be a champion for Native American health care.
An orphan, who was sent away to boarding school, she would return to the Crow Reservation as a young nurse. There, she married Thomas Yellowtail, a traditional medicine man and healer.
Susie was open to standard Western medical practices, but also incorporating traditional native healing.
She also spoke out against the forced sterilizations of Native women and recounted that she herself had been sterilized.
Susie would go on to earn the President’s Award for Outstanding Nursing Health Care and was installed in the American Nurses’ Association Hall of Fame.
Her granddaughter, Jackie Yellowtail, said at the closing of the film, “A lot of our stories don’t get told. I want my grandmother’s story to be known for generations to come.”
That, too, is Hogberg’s intent.
That these stories of Montana women will be known by many Montanans and that this film will be used in Montana schools to help teach history.
Hogberg, who has a degree in history and broadcast journalism, decided she wanted to make the film after she kept stumbling upon Montana history stories, such as the internment camp for Japanese Americans at Fort Missoula during World War II.
“I grew up in Montana, I love history and I had no idea,” she said. “It was nothing they teach in school. It was things like that made me want to make history more accessible.”
This film has been about four years in the making, from when Hogberg first got the idea.
In the process, she is connected with and collaborated with Crystal Alegria of the Extreme History Project in Bozeman and Charlene Porsild of the Montana History Foundation.
They reached out to historians Dr. Laura Arata, Dr. Mary Murphy, Mark Johnson and Diane Sands, who are all interviewed in the film. Helenans may recognize three local residents who appear as historic figures in the documentary. Linda Piccolo portrays Maggie Smith Hathaway, Katie Thennis is Sarah Bickford and Zoe Gomes is the young Rose Hum Lee.
The 7 pm film screening Wednesday at The Myrna Loy, 15 N. Ewing St., is free.
Funding was made possible by a Big Sky Film Grant, The Greater Montana Foundation, The Montana History Foundation and Humanities Montana.