Stridently male: That’s how journalist Joseph Kinsey Howard characterized Butte, once the world’s greatest producer of copper. Not only was hardrock mining physically demanding, it was the most dangerous industrial occupation in America. Small wonder that Butte developed a reputation for being a man’s town or that its official history has always been told from a male perspective.
Now comes a corrective titled Motherlode: Legacies of Women’s Lives and Labors in Butte, Montana. Editors Janet Finn, a professor of social work at the University of Montana, and Ellen Crain, director of the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, have assembled oral histories, diary excerpts, sketches and essays, to make visible the Mining City’s most valuable "hidden resource." These are tales of women largely absent from the dominant narratives of Western settlement, which tend to focus on pioneer wives, prostitutes and teachers.
Instead, Motherlode describes the likes of Bridget Shea, the fiery leader of the Women’s Protective Union, the country’s first all-female labor organization, and Dr. Caroline McGill, who, in 1910, became staff pathologist at Murray Hospital and was the only physician in town who supplied birth control information. Motherlode also showcases nuns, artists, civil servants and community activists, as well as the working-class women who held the community together despite the routine loss of fathers and husbands. By the time this chorus of voices falls silent, it’s clear that "crafting the everyday" — Finn’s term for the unrecognized labor of women — was as necessary to the vitality of the Mining City as were drilling and blasting.
Motherlode is a tribute to those labors and heartening evidence that the work of fashioning community identity continues.
Motherlode: Legacies of Women’s Lives and Labors in Butte, Montana
Edited by Janet Finn and Ellen Crain
342 pages, hardcover: $32.
Clark City Press, 200.