Past is Prologue: Montana’s Historic Women’s Movement Re-emerges in the Progressive 1970s -- Dorothy Bradley, Marilyn Wessel & Jane Jelinski “In the Crucible of Change”

Dorothy Bradley
Marilyn Wessel
Jane Jelinksi
Evan Barrett, Executive Producer

This interview/discussion is a segment of the series “In the Crucible of Change” - Montana’s Dramatic Period of Progressive Change [1965-1980] - From a Corporate Colony to a Citizens’ State and the Challenge of Keeping It That Way - An Evan Barrett Telefilm Series; Produced by: Highlands College/Montana Tech & Orphan Girl Productions (Evan Barrett); Executive Producers: Evan Barrett & John Garic; Host/Moderator: Evan Barrett; Produced in the studios of Helena Civic Television (HCTV) – Production unit: Kirsten Faubion, Stephen Maly, Dave Clarke, Kelsea Kimerly, Lauren Fredrickson, Jeanie McLean-Warden; Opening Voice Recording - Ian Hadley; Photos: Montana Historical Society Photo Archives - Tom Cook; Personal Photo Archives of Evan Barrett; Music: “Living Room Jam” & “Island Breeze” - Richard H. Kuschel - The Recording Center - Missoula, Montana; “Orphan Girl” used by permission of Headframe Spirits – John & Courtney McKee; Partially funded by Grants from Humanities Montana (an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities), Montana History Foundation, and The Greater Montana Foundation (encouraging communication on issues, trends and values of importance to Montanans).


One-hundred years ago, in 1914, male voters in Montana (MT) extended suffrage (voting rights) to women six years before the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified and provided that right to women in all states. The long struggle for women’s suffrage was energized in the progressive era and Jeanette Rankin of Missoula emerged as a leader of the campaign; in 1912 both major MT political party platforms supported women suffrage. In the 1914 election, 41,000 male voters supported woman suffrage while nearly 38,000 opposed it.

MT was not only ahead of the curve on women suffrage, but just two years later in 1916 elected Jeanette Rankin as the first woman ever elected to the United States Congress. Rankin became a national leader for women's equality. In her commitment to equality, she opposed US entry into World War I, partially because she said she could not support men being made to go to war if women were not allowed to serve alongside them. During MT’s initial progressive era, women in MT not only pursued equality for themselves (the MT Legislature passed an equal pay act in 1919), but pursued other social improvements, such as temperance/prohibition. Well-known national women leaders such as Carrie Nation and others found a welcome in MT during the period. Women's role in the trade union movement was evidenced in MT by the creation of the Women's Protective Union in Butte, the first union in America dedicated solely to women workers.

But Rankin’s defeat following her vote against World War I was used as a way for opponents to advocate a conservative, traditionalist perspective on women's rights in MT. Just as we then entered a period in MT where the “copper collar” was tightened around MT economically and politically by the Anaconda Company and its allies, we also found a different kind of conservative, traditionalist collar tightened around the necks of MT women. The recognition of women's role during World War II, represented by “Rosie the Riveter,” made it more difficult for that conservative, traditionalist approach to be forever maintained. In addition, women's role in MT agriculture – family farms and ranches -- spoke strongly to the concept of equality, as farm wives were clearly active partners in the agricultural enterprises. But rural MT was, by and large, the bastion of conservative values relative to the position of women in society.

As the period of “In the Crucible of Change” began, the 1965 MT Legislature included only three women. In 1967 and 1969 only one woman legislator served. In 1971 the number went up to two, including one of our guests, Dorothy Bradley. It was only after the Constitutional Convention, which featured 19 women delegates, that the barrier was broken. The 1973 Legislature saw 9 women elected. The 1975 and 1977 sessions had 14 women legislators; 15 were elected for the 1979 session. At that time progressive women and men in the Legislature helped implement the equality provisions of the new MT Constitution, ratified the federal Equal Rights Amendment in 1974, and held back national and local conservatives forces which sought in later Legislatures to repeal that ratification. As with the national movement at the time, MT women sought and often succeeded in adopting legal mechanisms that protected women’s equality, while full equality in the external world remained (and remains) a treasured objective.

The story of the re-emergence of Montana’s women’s movement in the 1970s is discussed in this chapter by three very successful and prominent women who were directly involved in the effort: Dorothy Bradley, Marilyn Wessel, and Jane Jelinski. Their recollections of the political, sociological and cultural path Montana women pursued in the 1970s and the challenges and opposition they faced provide an insider’s perspective of the battle for equality for women under the Big Sky “In the Crucible of Change.”

Dorothy Bradley grew up in Bozeman, Montana; received her Bachelor of Arts Phi Beta Kappa from Colorado College, Colorado Springs, in 1969 with a Distinction in Anthropology; and her Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, D.C., in 1983. In 1970, at the age of 22, following the first Earth Day and running on an environmental platform, Ms. Bradley won a seat in the 1971 Montana House of Representatives where she served as the youngest member and only woman. Bradley established a record of achievement on environmental & progressive legislation for four terms, before giving up the seat to run a strong second to Pat Williams for the Democratic nomination for an open seat in Montana’s Western Congressional District. After becoming an attorney and an expert on water law, she returned to the Legislature for 4 more terms in the mid-to-late 1980s. Serving a total of eight terms, Dorothy was known for her leadership on natural resources, tax reform, economic development, and other difficult issues during which time she gained recognition for her consensus-building approach. Campaigning by riding her horse across the state, Dorothy was the Democratic nominee for Governor in 1992, losing the race by less than a percentage point. In 1993 she briefly taught at a small rural school next to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. She was then hired as the Director of the Montana University System Water Center, an education and research arm of Montana State University. From 2000 - 2008 she served as the first Gallatin County Court Administrator with the task of collaboratively redesigning the criminal justice system. She currently serves on One Montana’s Board, is a National Advisor for the American Prairie Foundation, and is on NorthWestern Energy’s Board of Directors. Dorothy was recognized with an Honorary Doctorate from her alma mater, Colorado College, was named Business Woman of the Year by the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce and MSU Alumni Association, and was Montana Business and Professional Women’s Montana Woman of Achievement.

Marilyn Wessel was born in Iowa, lived and worked in Los Angeles, California, and Washington, D.C. before moving to Bozeman in 1972. She has an undergraduate degree in journalism from Iowa State University, graduate degree in public administration from Montana State University, certification from the Harvard University Institute for Education Management, and served a senior internship with the U.S. Congress, Montana delegation. In Montana Marilyn has served in a number of professional positions, including part-time editor for the Montana Cooperative Extension Service, News Director for KBMN Radio, Special Assistant to the President and Director of Communications at Montana State University, Director of University Relations at Montana State University and Dean and Director of the Museum of the Rockies at MSU. Marilyn retired from MSU as Dean Emeritus in 2003. Her past Board Service includes Montana State Merit System Council, Montana Ambassadors, Vigilante Theater Company, Montana State Commission on Practice, Museum of the Rockies, Helena Branch of the Ninth District Federal Reserve Bank, Burton K. Wheeler Center for Public Policy, Bozeman Chamber of Commerce, and Friends of KUSM Public Television.

Marilyn’s past publications and productions include several articles on communications and public administration issues as well as research, script preparation and presentation of several radio documentaries and several public television programs. She is co-author of one book, 4-H An American Idea: A History of 4-H. Marilyn’s other past volunteer activities and organizations include Business and Professional Women, Women's Political Caucus, League of Women Voters, and numerous political campaigns. She is currently engaged professionally in museum-related consulting and part-time teaching at Montana State University as well as serving on the Editorial Board of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and a member of Pilgrim Congregational Church and Family Promise. Marilyn and her husband Tom, a retired MSU professor, live in Bozeman. She enjoys time with her children and grandchildren, hiking, golf, Italian studies, cooking, gardening and travel.

Jane Jelinski is a Wisconsin native, with a BA from Fontbonne College in St. Louis, MO who taught fifth and seventh grades prior to moving to Bozeman in 1973. A stay-at-home mom with a five year old daughter and an infant son, she was promptly recruited by the Gallatin Women’s Political Caucus to conduct a study of Sex-Role Stereotyping in K Through 6 Reading Text Books in the Bozeman School District. Sociologist Dr. Louise Hale designed the study and did the statistical analysis and Jane read all the texts, entered the data and wrote the report. It was widely disseminated across Montana and received attention of the press. Her next venture into community activism was to lead the successful effort to downzone her neighborhood which was under threat of encroaching business development. Today the neighborhood enjoys the protections of a Historic Preservation District. During this time she earned her MPA from Montana State University. Subsequently Jane founded the Gallatin Advocacy Program for Developmentally Disabled Adults in 1978 and served as its Executive Director until her appointment to the Gallatin County Commission in 1984, a controversial appointment which she chronicled in the Fall issue of the Gallatin History Museum Quarterly. Copies of the issue can be ordered through: Jane was re-elected three times as County Commissioner, serving fourteen years. She was active in the Montana Association of Counties (MACO) and was elected its President in 1994. She was also active in the National Association of Counties, serving on numerous policy committees. In 1998 Jane resigned from the County Commission 6 months before the end of her final term to accept the position of Assistant Director of MACO, from where she lobbied for counties, provided training and research for county officials, and published a monthly newsletter. In 2001 she became Director of the MSU Local Government Center where she continued to provide training and research for county and municipal officials across MT. There she initiated the Montana Mayors Academy in partnership with MMIA. She taught State and Local Government, Montana Politics and Public Administration in the MSU Political Science Department before retiring in 2008. Jane has been married to Jack for 46 years, has two grown children and three grandchildren.