The 90-foot sentinel of Butte, Montana

What does a statue dedicated to mothers reveal about women’s rights?

She stands in the wind, 8,510 feet atop the jagged Continental Divide. At a place where the Northern Rocky Mountains slice through the dry brown summer landscape like a saw blade, she is always waiting, watching over the people of Butte, Montana. Her broad, blank face is framed by a veil made of steel and her hands emerge from the folds of a long flowing dress, palms forward. In the dark night sky, she shines bright white, lit up by spotlights near her feet. Officially, she is called Our Lady of the Rockies, but most people here simply call her “the Lady.”


At 5,539 feet above sea level — higher than any other major city in the state — Butte is often frigid, and temperatures hover near zero for months. Most of the year, the statue of the Lady is surrounded by deep, impassable snow, so it’s only during the brief window of warm summer weather that visitors can see her up close. Ambitious pilgrims might hike up steep switchbacks to get to her, but most pay a few dollars to take a bus up a winding, rocky dirt road carved into the mountainside.

The statue was constructed in 1985, when the economy of Butte, which relied on jobs at the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and the Atlantic Richfield Company, all but collapsed as the mines largely shut down. A group of local men banded together to build a statue of the Virgin Mary, a project originally conceived by a local worker whose wife was severely ill. Guided, they felt, by a divine hand, they coated steel panels in white paint and welded them together until, eventually, the shape of a woman, 90 feet tall, emerged. Once she finally stood in place, they dedicated her “to women everywhere, especially mothers.”

“The story is so Butte,” Christy Hays Pickett, a local folk musician, said, standing at the foot of the Lady last summer.  From Butte, the Lady looks immaculate, but up close, she looks tired and worn, rumpled in places, the white paint now blotchy and gray, as if the hem of her dress has been dragging around in the dirt of some earthly, non-celestial place.

“All these people came together to make this,” Hays Pickett said. “And they did it because so many people were out of work. It was this true labor of love, and I feel like that story resonates in this community over and over again.”

Butte is a city of stories about hardrock miners, labor unions warring in the streets, legendary rebels and insatiable corporate greed. These tales of work and workers are passed down through generations in high school classrooms, over dinner tables and at local landmarks. In these stories, Butte is defined by all it once had, everything workers endured and everything they lost. 

Hays Pickett turned to follow the statue’s long gaze: To the west, range after range after range of mountains fade out to the horizon in shades of withering blue. Below, next to Butte’s compact grid of streets and homes, three gigantic chasms dwarf the city, each gouged out of the Earth by miners and their machines. 

Hays’ husband was down there, driving a truck across the bottom of one of the craters — an active copper and molybdenum mine. Another is a massive tailings pond, though “pond” undersells its size: It is an enormous and unnatural lake where the active mine’s waste is stored, held back by a 750-foot-high dam that Montana Resources is currently making even taller.

And nestled closest to Butte is the hole that gave it its modern-day reputation: the Berkeley Pit. It’s a former copper mine that closed in 1982, now filled with 50 billion gallons of poisonous blue-green water that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said will require treatment “in perpetuity,” like a wound that will never heal. Since 1983, when the EPA declared the area a Superfund site, it has been one of the largest cleanup projects in the country. 

Around Montana, people raise their eyebrows or turn up their noses at the mere mention of Butte because of this: it is the place with the toxic pit. And, somewhere along the way, Butte seemed to understand it was being ostracized and decided to be the one doing the ostracizing. Locals began calling their city “Butte, America,” forgoing any state affiliation. They described themselves as “Butte Tough” and splashed “Butte vs. Everybody” across T-shirts — delineations that felt less like civic slogans, and more like civic callouses.

Mining employs only about 300 people in Butte now, but it still shapes life here. Old-timers might tell someone to “tap ’er light” — a callback to when dynamite was tapped carefully into underground holes, but today suggests that someone should both have a good day and stay alive as best they can. Visitors pay $2 to gaze into the Berkeley Pit from a viewing stand; the Chamber of Commerce collects the money. Homes sit on wide streets named Copper and Zinc and Quartz and Aluminum.

At first glance, demographic history could explain why a towering statue of the Virgin Mary looks out over this city: Thousands of miners from around the world flooded into Butte in the late 1800s, especially Irish Catholics. By 1900, Butte was 36% Irish. Today, there are four active Catholic churches and an Irish American population that, per capita, exceeded even Boston’s, as of the 2010 census. 

The story most often told about the Lady is the story of the men who made her: their actions, their beliefs and their struggles. Left out of that story are the women of Butte — who they were before the statue was built, and who they have become since.

In June 2022, a majority-Christian bloc of United States Supreme Court justices overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that, for 50 years, affirmed the constitutional right to abortion. The reversal of Roe sparked widespread concern that religious beliefs were seeping into law. Editorial writers debated whether the separation of church from public life was actually a utopian creed rather than an unbreakable code.

Montana voters, in recent years, have turned the state a bright shade of red on electoral maps, ushering a Republican supermajority into the Statehouse. Yet most Montanans still believe that abortion should be legal.

Butte is one of Montana’s Democratic strongholds, and people were angry when Roe fell. A crowd gathered outside the Butte-Silver Bow Courthouse, where Monica Tranel, a Democratic candidate running for the U.S. House of Representatives, yelled from the stone steps. “This is about power and control!” she shouted. “This is about the oligarchs having power over us, the people. And we here in Butte, America? We know how to be the voice of the people.” 

Amanda Curtis, a former state legislator from Butte who now leads the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the state’s largest labor union, interpreted the decision to overturn Roe as a direct attack on women’s ability to work and, as a result, a direct attack on everything at the core of Butte.

“To take away a woman’s right to decide how and when and if she procreates is so fundamentally offensive,” she said. “Our independence from men or from any partner, for that matter, depends on our ability to earn enough money to pay rent and gas and buy groceries and have heat. Having kids puts more expense on you, and at the same time takes away your ability to make money.”

By the time Roe was struck down, the Lady on the mountain had come to represent something bigger, perhaps, than its builders ever imagined: not just Mary, not just mothers, not just women, but rather female power and agency. It represented how Butte sees women, remembers women — and also how it has failed to see and remember them. 


FOR TENS OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS, the Pend d’Oreille and Salish people have lived in what is now called western Montana, harvesting bitterroot in spring, then camas and wild rose in the summer. The valley where Butte sits was a common hunting area, where people fished the clear waters of Sntapqey, now called Silver Bow Creek, with arrows. 

The easternmost edge of Salish and Pend d’Oreille territory extends to where the city of Anaconda is now, 24 miles west of Butte. In 1855, the Hellgate Treaty ceded 12 million acres of Indigenous land to the United States; the people were  forcibly moved to the Flathead Reservation, far to the northwest.

Catholicism had already arrived: In the 1820s, Catholic Iroquois employed by fur-trading companies told the Salish and Pend d’Oreille of the “black robes” — Jesuit priests — and, in 1831, the tribes dispatched representatives to St. Louis, asking missionaries to return West with them. In 1840, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet traveled to the region to preach the Gospel.

But Indigenous stories aren’t widely celebrated in Butte. The stories it tells and re-tells are copper-colored — tales from that postcolonial moment when America became a capitalist paradise and Butte its gilded Garden of Eden.

Butte began as a silver-mining camp in the mid-1860s. But after rich veins of copper were discovered in the early 1880s, a five-square-mile section of the town was heavily mined, producing about a quarter of the world’s copper supply, and roughly half of the United States’, within two decades. By 1882, the mines had produced 9 million pounds of copper; by 1896, they had unearthed 210 million. 

The world rushed to Butte: Men from China and Finland, Ireland and Sweden, Italy and Serbia and Germany scrambled toward Montana, vying for jobs in mines run by the Anaconda company and others. Back then, the city was thick with acrid, arsenic-laden smoke from smelters dotting the landscape. Sometimes it was so thick, street lights were turned on at midday. “The thicker the fumes the greater our financial vitality,” boasted the local newspaper. “Butteites feel best when the fumes are thickest.” Mining waste was dumped in piles around the city. All the trees were cut down to make way for the mines.

Meanwhile, the Copper Kings made Butte their playground. The millionaires exerted political influence and controlled the newspapers. By 1888, William Clark had built a 34-room mansion in Uptown Butte, uphill from the rest of the city, for the equivalent of $8 million today. The buildings of Uptown, now part of one of the nation’s largest National Historic Landmark districts, still show off the gilded side of the city’s past: Streets are dotted with palatial brick Victorians, addresses painted on in flakes of 24-karat gold. The Hotel Finlen still drips with crystal chandeliers. 

But 14 long-shuttered mining headframes tell a darker story. The sharp angles of black steel, once used to lower miners about a mile underground, now loom on the skyline like tombstones to the dead hardrock mining industry. Each bears a sign denoting the mine’s name, depth — and the number of people who went down and never came up again. The Original: 43. The Anselmo: 36. The Con: 172. In early June 1917, 168 miners suffocated at the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine. Between 1870 to 1983, some 2,500 men lost their lives in the mines. This gained Butte a grim nickname: the “City of Widows.” 

The poor working conditions impelled labor unions to rise and become a powerful force in the city. The Butte Workingmen’s Union No. 1 formed in the 1870s, and within two decades it evolved into the first chapter of the Western Federation of Miners. By 1900, some 18,000 local tradesmen had unionized, a third of them miners. 

With unionization came bloodshed, culminating in 1914 in a series of riots, when miners clashed in the streets over whether the WFM was serving their best interests. An acting mayor who called for calm was thrown out of a second-story window. Bullets flew, killing a bystander. The union hall was ransacked, then dynamited. Today, a plaque remembering the explosion hangs over a pile of century-old broken bricks, left where they fell. 

The Anaconda company reacted violently, too. At one point, guards shot at strikers, killing one and injuring 16 others. On the night of Aug. 1, 1917, Frank Little, a famed Industrial Workers of the World leader who’d come to Butte to rally miners, was rousted from sleep by six unknown assailants — widely believed to have been hired by the company — dragged behind a car and lynched from a railroad trestle. 

At Mountain View Cemetery, a graveyard across from a Walmart, Little’s grave lies in a quiet corner while the Lady watches from the ridge above. It’s surrounded by a shin-high cast iron fence threaded with fabric flowers. His headstone reads: “Slain by capitalist interests for organizing and inspiring his fellow men.” 

In winter, offerings left by mourners are covered in a dusting of snow: A handful of coins, a half-drunk bottle of whiskey. A pair of stiff work gloves, the palms upturned and filled with bullets.


In 1890, the Women’s Protective Union set out to create solidarity for female workers. “The ladies of Butte — God bless them! — are not going to be behind their brothers in demanding their rights,” read one article published at the time. Ellen Crain, former director of the Butte-Silver Bow Archives, said that WPU membership was open to anyone who had the potential to have a child.  “Basically, you had to have a uterus.” Cooks, usherettes, bucket girls (who packed thousands of lunches for miners every day) and maids were eligible to join. 

The WPU organized under the Western Federation of Miners. “So if they went on strike, 6,000 men would go on strike with them,” Crain said. “They were smart, because they knew where the force was.”

“It was not in the bylaws that sex workers were not allowed, nor was it in the bylaws that they would be allowed, but we have no evidence they were ever part of the union,” she said. Historians have documented how large-scale sex work operations often emerged side-by-side with mining camps around the West, and Butte was no exception: Butte’s sex workers were operating at least one hurdy-gurdy house by 1878, and soon the city had its own bustling red-light district full of working-class “female boarding houses.” There were cribs — clusters of cubicle-sized rooms where low-paid sex workers serviced their clients — near high-society brothels with names like The Windsor, The Royal and The Dumas. 

“The ladies of Butte — God bless them! — are not going to be behind their brothers in demanding their rights.”

Sex workers were seen as “‘public women,’ belonging to all men, not one man, and therefore not quite women at all,” Mary Murphy, a historian and professor at Montana State University, wrote in 1984.

According to scholars, the sex trade bolstered the mining companies’ power. “Prostitution and other forms of vice, like everything else, ultimately served the company,” Ellen Baumler, an interpretive historian at the Montana Historical Society, wrote in 1998. “A thriving (red-light) district meant that thousands of single miners would spend their time and paychecks on entertainment rather than organizing against their bosses.”

Newspaper archives support the theory: In January 1902, as Butte aldermen debated whether or not the red-light district should be relocated, one official admitted that “we are getting part of our salaries from the price of the shame of these people.” The police chief told the council that he kept 10% of the fines he levied against women in the red-light district each month — “as in preceding administrations.” The aldermen agreed to leave the brothels alone.

Employment opportunities for women were scarce. Even during World War II, union officials at the Anaconda company and other surrounding outfits refused to employ them in the mines. They confronted a “dichotomous ideology that viewed women as either good or bad,” Murphy wrote in her book Mining Cultures: Men, Women and Leisure in Butte, 1914-41. The city codified this polarization in 1914, when the council passed an official vagrancy ordinance that drew a moralistic line between “women” and “lewd and dissolute female persons,” and threatened to arrest women who acted in an “improper, profane or obscene manner within the sight or hearing of women.” 

Between 1895 and 1920, 101 of the 103 Butte women who died violently were working women, the type of women that the Women’s Protective Union ostensibly hoped to shield from workplace abuse. Twenty-five of them were sex workers not in the union. “These assaults seemed to have occurred in direct correlation with women’s attempts to expand their horizons or improve their position,” according to a master’s thesis in history by an MSU student in the mid 1980s.

“Challenging traditional roles,” the thesis read, “resulted in their deaths.”

This intense scrutiny of women was not lost on Mary MacLane, who, in 1902, having just graduated high school, broke into the literary world seemingly overnight with her portrayal of life in Butte in a book she originally titled I Await the Devil’s Coming. According to Murphy, MacLane was “the child of failed fortune,” led to Butte by her step-father, who moved her family into a two-story red house. He hoped to strike it rich but did not succeed.

MacLane’s memoir was a fearless confessional by a young woman desperate to claim her identity — she was bisexual, feminist, radical — but feeling trapped in a city of “dry, warped” people that she felt could not understand her. She wandered Butte at night, concluding that her female body was hampering her ambitions: “Had I been born a man, I would by now have made a deep impression of myself on the world,” she wrote. “But I am a woman.” 

MacLane’s memoir later drew the praise of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, but one of Butte’s newspapers called her a mental freak.

Today, the women of Butte are remembered quietly, if at all. There is no plaque outside MacLane’s house, and most of the red-light district has been demolished.

But there is a plaque on Mercury Street, affixed to the red-brick Dumas brothel, which officially shut down operations in 1982 — 65 years after prostitution was outlawed in Montana. An out-of-towner owns the building, in which there is a small museum that is accessible only by appointment. 

Inside The Dumas, information about its history is printed on paper and glued onto poster boards nailed to the cracked walls. Down a chipped and water-stained staircase, beds are crammed into musty rooms, and empty liquor bottles and piles of loose change are flung onto dressers.

“Most history like this disappears,” Chris Fisk, a retired Butte High history teacher, said. “We’re privileged to have it still standing. It’s as authentic as you can get.”

The Dumas operated at the direction of a woman known as Ruby Garrett. In 1959, after Garrett’s common-law husband beat her while she was pregnant, causing her to miscarry, she strode into a local card room and shot him five times. Then she sat down and had a beer. “I wasn’t going to take it anymore,” she told law enforcement  upon her arrest for murder. 

Garrett’s story often comes up when people are asked about the history of women in Butte: a story of female power gained only by responding to male violence with even greater violence.

“Challenging traditional roles resulted in their deaths.”

After her release from prison, Garrett became the last madam of The Dumas, later telling historians that she purchased the silence of local police for $200-$300 a month. After a robbery in 1981 thrust The Dumas into the headlines, Garrett pled guilty to underpaying federal income taxes for money she made at the brothel,  and she padlocked the building for good. Before she reported to prison, radio spots ran in Butte for a farewell potluck at a local bar: “Gather your friends,” it said, “it’s a going-away party for your friend Ruby Garrett.” A reporter wrote an article about the party, where “one comment was uttered repeatedly: ‘she was providing a public service.’”

In the late 1990s, an organization called the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education struck a deal with the then-owner of The Dumas in an attempt to preserve it as a museum of Western sex work, run in part by former sex workers. “You’re going to have a high potential of being designated the capital of the sex industry for the entire United States,” one speaker said at a meeting of concerned citizens.  Another said the museum would attract pedophiles. “Your children are going to start to disappear,” she said. The plan fizzled.

Across the street from The Dumas stood the Blue Range Cribs, the last of the places where women had once displayed themselves in a line of windows, tapping on the glass with rings to attract potential customers. In 2021, it was torn down.

Buildings like the Blue Range are “beautiful pieces of history that we’re never gonna get back,” Fisk said, pausing at one of The Dumas’ upstairs windows to look out at the dusty vacant lot where the Blue Range stood. Our Lady of the Rockies watched from the snowy ridge, placid and permanent.

Amanda Curtis, who runs the Montana Federation of Public Employees, was blunter: “When Butte demolished that building, they demolished the record of women’s history in Butte.”

Around a nearby parking lot stand black sheet-metal silhouettes. Some represent men, walking toward the nearly invisible red-light district; others are women in petticoats, forever calling out to an elusive customer. 

GARRETT WAS STILL RUNNING The Dumas in 1985, when a group of Butte laborers began building their statue to women and mothers. After the local mining industry transitioned from underground hardrock mining to open-pit mining, and as the price of copper dropped, work dried up. The population of the once-bustling metropolis plummeted. In 1920, it was 41,000; today, it’s almost 20% less.

In the late 1970s, an electrician named Bob O’Bill — a “tough bohunk,” according to his 2016 obituary — was devastated by his wife Joyce’s sudden illness. According to an account by one of the statue’s builders, a friend of O’Bill’s urged him to pray directly to Our Lady of Guadalupe — one of the Virgin Mary’s Catholic titles — as his wife underwent emergency surgery. 

“Please, Holy Mary, help my wife through this operation,” O’Bill prayed. “If you do, I’ll build a statue of you and put it on the mountains overlooking Butte.”

When Joyce recovered, it must have felt like divine intervention. O’Bill told everyone he knew about his plan to build a statue. A group of men decided to keep themselves busy by helping. 

The land had to be rearranged to make space for the Lady: dynamited, flattened, a road carved up the rugged mountainside. Welders used their tools to sculpt. For years, the statue’s massive bodiless head sat off Interstate 90, staring blankly. The project was funded by donations from the community and the laborers themselves. Eventually, they would borrow thousands from the Department of Defense to get the statue up the mountain.

Jim Keane, a former miner and a state legislator of nearly two decades who helped build the Lady, described feeling something like a holy presence, as if a hand was on the builders’ backs, nudging them forward. “There was so many things that happened that you just said, ‘Hey, there’s a bigger power here than us,’” Keane said. “Mary wanted it up there.”

But not everyone liked the Lady. 

“I do not see why one person’s desires for a religious shrine … should need to be in public view,” reads one letter sent to the local newspaper. “This project is, to me, no different than any other huge commercial installation. A 90-foot beer bottle would hardly be more of an eyesore.” People worried religion was seeping into public life.

Even local Catholic leaders bristled: One priest told The Missoulian he thought donations for the statue should be given to unemployed or elderly people in Butte. The bishop of the Diocese of Helena, which includes Butte, wrote letters to the builders, quibbling over whether the statue really represented the Virgin Mary — the builders said it did, but that it was also dedicated to all women, regardless of their religion. The bishop found that contradictory, writing “either the statue is a representation of Mary the Mother of Jesus, or it is not” — even though it seemed obvious to everyone that it was. But at least one person outside of Butte was very enthusiastic about the project: Then-President Ronald Reagan, a staunch Republican, sent a letter to the builders. “Nancy and I,” he wrote, “were indeed interested to learn about the statue of Mary, Mother of Jesus, being constructed atop the Continental Divide.” Reagan called it “the spirit of Americanism at work.”

Finally, starting on Dec. 17, 1985, an Army National Guard crew used a helicopter to fly the Lady, piece by piece, to her perch over four days. From playgrounds and backyards, the people of Butte craned their necks, watching as, high above them, a dress, a pair of hands, a torso, and finally, a head, were set into place on the ridge.

“I think what Our Lady of the Rockies provided was that little string of hope that we can do anything, we can survive anything,” Fisk, the former history teacher, said. “Watch — we’ll put a gigantic statue on the Continental Divide, and we’ll fly it into place with a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter. Who thinks of this shit?”

“I think what Our Lady of the Rockies provided was that little string of hope that we can do anything, we can survive anything.” 

Today, some people in Butte scoff at the statue, seeing it as a flagrant attempt to grab tourists off the interstate. They grin and whisper nicknames, off the record: the Mountain Bitch; “Chernobyl Mary,” for the way she glows all night. Many lifelong residents said they barely even notice her. And yet others pray to her for miracles. 

“It’s not a Catholic statue, even though people want to make it out to be that way,” Keane insisted. During an interview last spring, he referred to the statue only as “Mary.”

“Everybody has respect for their mother, whether you’re a woman or a man,” he explained. “And I would say that’s the representation there. It’s a respect for women.”

Ellen Crain disagreed, calling it “a man’s symbol.” But she thinks it’s also an acknowledgment of the ways women “did hold crap together for everybody.” When miners left to find jobs in other states in the 1980s, many left their families in Butte and sent money home. “Just because of the sheerness of having to be in charge of everything, they just kept growing themselves as women,” Crain said. “And they didn’t look back to a time where their husbands expected them to get dinner.

“That was a real lesson to lots of young women today.”

Inside a combination art gallery, print-making studio and coffee shop in Uptown called the Imagine Butte Resource Center, the walls feature several pieces by a local artist named BT Livermore. Recently, Livermore posed for the front page of the local newspaper, The Montana Standard, with a mural they painted that proclaimed, “It’s Better in Butte.”

For the project, Livermore researched Butte’s marketing history and found that, back in the mid-20th century, the city’s attitude lacked the chip on its shoulder of “Butte vs. Everybody.”

“I found a bumper sticker that says ‘Butte is my town, and I like it,’” they said. “I don’t see stuff like that here now.” 

Livermore understands the bitterness. Butte “is a shining example of what capitalist interests can do to trample over the needs of people in the city,” they said. But in their experience, this place is about more than its hard-nosed history. Livermore moved to Butte after more than a decade in Portland. “I had issues with my own gender that I was working out,” they said, but it was around the time Livermore moved to Butte that they felt ready to come out as nonbinary. “I did feel an acceptance here,” they said. “If I had a really wild nail polish color on, the only comments I’ve ever gotten in Montana are ‘That color looks really good on you.’”

The love that Livermore feels from the people of Butte makes its way into their work: Tote bags read “Abso-Butte-ly!” and postcards say, “Butte Could Really Use Someone Like You.” 

“It’s not about history, it’s not about mining, it’s, ‘We’re here now,’” Livermore said. “People still live here.’” 

At a table inside the IBRC, Livermore and their partner, Karlee Jane, described Our Lady of the Rockies as a light they look for at the end of long road trips. When they can’t see it from their upstairs windows, they know a storm is rolling in. “I like being in Butte, knowing that we’re the city that has the Lady in the mountains,” Jane said. “What other community has that?”

But both agree that they find the builders’ dedication to women and mothers hollow. “It’s not even a part of the conversation that people have around town about it,” Livermore said. 

“We’re supposed to revere all mothers, and it’s just like, do we have to? Really?” said Jane, who is the mother of three. “Because not all mothers are good mothers. I always feel weird being put on a pedestal. 

“It just feels like this false idol,” she said. “Because it’s all words and no actions — or actions that I’m not seeing affect the community.” 

At the base of the statue is a small chapel whose outer walls are lined with thousands of plaques of women’s names, purchased by loved ones. Several times a week the Standard prints well-wishes under an illustration of the Lady. “Stop by our shop in the Butte Plaza Mall for unique gifts and religious items,” promotional language reads. 

Requests for comment sent to the Our Lady of the Rockies foundation for this story went unanswered; when reached by phone, the head of the nonprofit — one of the project’s original workers — declined to comment. 

According to Jane and Livermore, the current conversation around the Lady and its dedication is part of a bigger awakening in Butte. “People are coming around to, ‘No, we need to honor (madams), because they were the movers and shakers,’” Jane said. “And they just don’t get talked about because they weren’t the movers and shakers that people maybe wanted.”

“Or they weren’t the ones that owned the newspapers,” Livermore added. “Or the mines.”

AROUND THE WORLD, copper and the Virgin Mary are often intertwined: Our Lady of Charity stands near copper mines in Cuba. In Chuquicamata, Chile, where the Anaconda company operated mines, revelers celebrating La Virgen de Guadalupe fill the streets each year.

Bridget Kevane, who teaches Latino Studies at Montana State University in Bozeman, said she was initially surprised to see the Lady when she first moved to Montana. “We had statues like that outside my school in Puerto Rico,” she said. To her, the Lady clearly resembled La Virgen, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. “The Mexican Catholic faith really hinges on the Guadalupe. She’s more important than God, definitely, and probably even Jesus.

“Giving birth to a son who’s going to die for the sins of humanity — there’s no greater sacrifice,” Kevane said. “It’s a model that women sometimes want to live up to. They want to be that sacrificing woman like the Virgin.” 

Some scholars see Our Lady of the Rockies less as a statue, and more as a shrine. The statue may have arisen from a promise made by O’Bill, but it came to encompass all suffering in Butte.

Axel Samano, who was raised in Colima, Mexico, moved to Butte in 2011 with her husband, who grew up there. In her hometown, pilgrims scale a hill south of the city to a statue of La Virgen that stands atop a dome. “That’s why I kind of felt like I’m at home now,” she said.

Samano — who runs the IT department for the local library system — told a story similar to Livermore’s: that she lived in other places, but only found acceptance of her true self once she arrived in Butte. Three years ago, Samano decided she was ready to take hormones and begin to live as a woman. “Most people assume I’m a genetic woman, which of course, it’s an honor,” she said. With a few exceptions, she said, people around her in Butte have embraced this change.

At the library, “I used to work there as a guy,” she said. “People there would ask me, ‘OK, what do you want me to call you?’ And my answer has always been the same. I say, ‘You know what? Whatever makes you feel comfortable.’ I feel comfortable when somebody calls me ‘she’ and ‘her,’ because that’s my new identity. But if you don’t believe in that, that’s your prerogative.” 

The statue on the mountain contains that spirit of Butte, something Samano called “an act of love and faith from the people.”

Last spring, on a freezing day before Easter, Father Patrick Beretta sat inside an office at the spired St. Patrick Catholic Church, in Uptown. A radiator ticked heat into the room. 

Beretta, who was born in Paris, moved to Butte a decade ago. Butte’s history still affects his parishioners, he said. “You get in touch with your mortality in a hurry when you’re in the mine,” he explained. “And you get in touch with the people who are around you who can save your life.” 

So much death created a religiosity extremely specific to Butte. “I’ve never experienced it quite like this anywhere else in my life,” he said. Spirituality in Butte “is a byproduct of connectedness,” he added. “Connectedness with people who suffer, because you’ve lost friends at work, and you’ve seen them die, and you’ve been unable to rescue them. … You develop this extraordinary sympathy for those who grieve.”

 “It’s a protective sight for me.”

He is clear that there’s nothing officially Catholic about Our Lady of the Rockies. Even so, Beretta feels the presence of the statue. As a member of the spiritual care team at the nearby hospital, four blocks from St. Patrick, he often gets late-night calls to come to the bedsides of shooting victims, people who have had heart attacks or been in car accidents, babies born without a heartbeat.

When his work is done, on his way back home, he sees the Lady’s light hovering on the ridge. “It’s a protective sight for me,” he said.  

Peggy Falcon, 65, expressed something similar — that the statue feels like a spiritual sentinel. “She watches over us,” she said. Up there at her base are plaques for Falcon’s mother, two of her sisters, and an aunt. “When I look up there, I know my mom’s watching out over me.”

The truth, she said, is that Butte needs the Lady and those female spirits. “There was a lot of men that died underground,” she said. “Their spirits are lying underground, underneath. Butte’s a great town, but there’s a lot of negativity, and I think that comes from underground.” 

Falcon is the president of the Butte Peoples Gathering of Nations Powwow and an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. “I wasn’t born here, but I tell everybody I was bred here,” she said with a laugh. “I’m an old Butte girl.” Her father was a miner, and she was baptized Catholic, but at a certain point she “shied away from being Catholic, being Christian, because of the way they think,” she said. It felt at odds with her Indigenous spirituality. 

“We go into the sweat lodge, and we pray and give ourselves,” she said. “In warrior times, they smoked peyote to see visions, and they still do that. In Christianity, that’s all devil-worshiping. So as soon as they started talking about that, I said, ‘Mmm, see ya.’ We were here a lot earlier than Christians were, and that’s our tradition. I hold to my truth.” 

Falcon said that there’s been a powwow for 46 years in Butte. Two years ago, she finally pushed for a name change — from the North American Indian Alliance Powwow to the Butte Peoples Gathering of Nations. “It was people from Butte that attended,” she said. “We gotta include Butte people. I said, ‘Let’s call it the Butte Peoples.’ They’re the ones that make this powwow.” 

Last year, it took place at the Butte Plaza Mall. The Lady watched from the mountain, and Falcon said she knew her mother and sisters were there, seeing her dance.

“Every time we go out of town and go north, you pass her,” Falcon said. “We take a little tobacco and sprinkle it on the highway as we’re going by. And pray. That’s offering her medicine.” 

MONTANA’S CONSTITUTION is one of a handful of state constitutions that includes a privacy clause, which asserts that the “right of individual privacy is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest.” According to the state Supreme Court, this clause essentially permits someone to have an abortion, and is “one of the most stringent protections of its citizens’ right to privacy in the United States — exceeding even that provided by the federal Constitution.”

And so Montana remains an island of bodily autonomy — at least for now. In Idaho and South Dakota, abortion has been criminalized and is potentially punishable by prison time; if enjoinments are lifted in Wyoming and North Dakota, the vast majority of abortions will become illegal in those states, too.

After Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, state elected officials voiced their support for the rightward, religiously conservative shift of the Supreme Court. Montana’s Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, called the reversal a “historic win for life,” and began a push for the state’s Supreme Court to revisit the ruling that protected aspects of the privacy clause. In 2021, one state lawmaker even called Montana’s Constitution a “socialist rag” that “we need to throw out.” 

In November 2022, Montana voters elected a Republican supermajority to the Legislature. Former Trump administration Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke bested Monica Tranel, who had rallied people after the overturning of Roe from the courthouse steps, winning the race for a new congressional seat in western Montana. Zinke said in debates that “privacy has limits” and that abortion is “barbaric.” 

In advance of the 2023 session, Montana legislators pre-filed 28 bill draft requests dealing with abortion. 

“It’s scary now,” Peggy Boyle, a Catholic woman from Butte, said. “I have two granddaughters. And the thought that they would not have a say in what happens with their body? I have a hard time believing Montana has become such a Republican state.

“Most Catholic women would probably say they are pro-life,” Boyle said. “I am pro-choice. They say, ‘Oh, you can’t be pro-choice and Catholic.’ And, uh, yeah, ya can. I am.”

One afternoon last fall, in a meeting room at the Butte-Silver Bow Archives, Ellen Crain, the retired director, told the story of a Butte chiropractor named Gertrude Pitkanen Van Orden — a prime example of what female agency looked like in Butte for women and mothers before Roe. 

From the late 1920s through the 1950s, Pitkanen performed abortions and sold unwanted babies to hopeful parents. Pitkanen’s work as an abortion provider was an “open secret,” Crain said. Criminal charges were brought against her three times, but never stuck. 

Crain pointed to another room where visitors to the archives can paw through boxes of records, including the death certificates of women who died in Butte from self-induced abortions before Pitkanen began operating.  “People will have abortions whether there is Roe v. Wade or not,” Crain said, her voice lowering. “We know that from hundreds and hundreds of years of documents.”

Today, getting an abortion in Butte begins with a drive of at least 90 minutes to the nearest clinic. The Susan Wicklund Fund — a Montana organization that provides funding for people in need of an abortion — said that clients seeking aid drive an average of 200 miles one-way to reach one of the state’s six abortion clinics; 90% of counties don’t have one. In 2018, the organization received 103 applications for aid; in 2022, it received 321.

Butte-Silver Bow — the official name of the combined city and county government, which consolidated in 1977 — has fewer primary care doctors, a higher incidence of breast cancer and more teen pregnancies per 100,000 people than the rest of the state. Eleven percent of Butte residents lack health insurance.

And the city has only one emergency shelter for women and children experiencing domestic violence. Last year, the shelter, Safe Space — which now has just eight employees — aided 138 clients. “We’re fine as long as no one gets sick, takes vacation or takes a day off,” Tonya Geraghty, the shelter’s interim executive director, said, laughing. 

While connecting women with abortion services is not the shelter’s primary focus, Geraghty said, the topic comes up. “As someone who has been working in domestic violence and sexual assault for years, I know access to abortion … is crucial to be able to live lives the way they choose.”

Women and children land at Safe Space for a number of reasons. There’s a shortage of affordable places to live: Montanans have seen the cost of housing jump statewide, and in Butte, the median home price increased from $159,000 in 2020 to almost $300,000 just three years later. There’s the statewide fentanyl, methamphetamine and opioid epidemic: In October, Gov. Gianforte declared a crisis in Butte-Silver Bow, which, from 2011 to 2020, had a higher per capita rate of opioid-related deaths than Montana’s other populous counties. That crisis can have particularly devastating consequences for women.

“Five years ago, I thought sex trafficking was something that happened to women in other countries,” Geraghty said. “There’s a lot of addiction in Butte, a lot of poverty, a lot of mental health — (I’m) realizing now, ‘Oh wow, OK, someone trading their girlfriend for money for drugs is sex trafficking.’ In our little tiny community, this is happening.”

Safe Space serves trans people, too. Back in the early 1900s, the moralistic attitude creeping out of Butte’s city government extended to gender expression. Throughout the late 1920s, for example, police jailed Jack Moret several times for wearing men’s fashions. “She had better appear in women’s togs,” the police chief growled to newspaper reporters once after Moret was released. “If she is dressed like a man, back here she comes.” To those same reporters, Moret pointed out the irony of the situation: Prostitutes in Butte were generally fined $5 to $10; Moret was initially fined $50. To be an immoral woman was against the law, but to betray one’s gender was five times as bad.

“They probably didn’t want this woman dressing as a man because they did not want women in men’s spaces,” said Shawn Reagor, the director of equality and economic justice who works on LGBTQ rights for the Montana Human Rights Network. “Just like (then),” he said, today “extremists want to turn Montana into a white, straight ethnostate — majority Christian.”

“It’s a slate of hate from extremists that doesn’t represent our Montana values, and we won’t stand by and allow it to become the law of the land.” 

Reagor referenced a slate of anti-LGBTQ bill proposals for the 2023 legislative session: an amendment “defining gender” in the state, a bill to “codify definitions of male and female,” a bill to prohibit minors from attending drag shows. In 2021, Rep. John Fuller successfully sponsored a bill banning transgender girls from competing on women’s sports teams, which Gianforte signed into law. (It was declared unconstitutional by a district court last fall.)

“It’s a slate of hate from extremists that doesn’t represent our Montana values, and we won’t stand by and allow it to become the law of the land,” Reagor said. “When you add them together to really see the harm they are attempting to do and the attack on the LGBTQ community members, it is deeply concerning.” 

“From my experience, the idea of having this ‘live and let live’ value is across the state of Montana,” he said. “But it is really exemplified in Butte. And it’s that value specifically that is under attack.”

UNTIL THE WEATHER got too cold in November, every Thursday afternoon after Roe was overturned, pro-choice demonstrators gathered outside the county courthouse in Butte, organized by Joan Stennick, a 67-year-old artist with long light hair and straight bangs. 

After the Supreme Court’s decision was announced, Stennick was drawn to the courthouse steps for the rally where Tranel spoke. “I looked around at another woman, and our eyes met,” Stennick said. “I said, ‘I wanna keep coming back here every Thursday, on these same courthouse steps, so the women of Butte can have a protest.’” 

The Standard reported some 200 people at early protests. It seemed like Butte’s tradition of organizing in the streets was still alive. But by the fall, enthusiasm had waned. “Now I’m hearing, ‘Well, I’m just going to stay home and write letters,’” Stennick said. 

“I mean, you don’t just sit back and write letters,” she said. “Our rights, our human rights, our civil rights have always been won in the street. The suffragettes, they were chaining themselves to light posts.” 

Stennick said that the difference between Butte’s protests then and now is that those of the past were about men’s labor, while this fight is about women’s rights. “Women’s rights are going to have to come first,” she said. “If you just go with labor (rights) then it’s just more of the same thing. It’s more of a patriarchal system.”

On a clear afternoon in late September, Stennick arrived in front of the courthouse with a pile of handmade signs reading “HONK FOR CHOICE” under one arm. “People really like to honk their horns,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing if all through the Uptown area, for an hour, you just heard horns honking?” 

Waiting at the corner of Montana and Granite Streets, sitting in a faded rust-colored folding chair, was Stennick’s most reliable co-protester: George Waring, an 83-year-old retired professor from nearby Montana Tech. He hadn’t missed a single Thursday demonstration. Stennick handed him a sign that read “Abort the Court” and walked down the street to gather honks a few blocks away. 

“The first public speech I ever gave was right from the courthouse,” Waring said, waving at cars and holding his sign from his chair. It was an anti-Vietnam War protest. He was more upbeat about the current cause: “We’re gonna win this one.” 

Passing drivers responded to his sign with short beeps and long enthusiastic honks. Down the street, Stennick’s sign was proving effective, too, and for a time, Uptown Butte transformed into a chorus: horns bleating and echoing off the brick building sides, hoots and whistles coming from car windows. Only once did a truck rev. “Fuck off!” the driver yelled at Waring. “Go to fucking hell!” 

“He’s the first one today,” Waring chuckled, and kept waving. 

Despite the audible support, it was a lonely protest, and a painful contrast to Butte’s proud history of demanding power for the common worker.  Maybe after so much struggle, the city was just tired. Or maybe rallying in the streets for working people really was the past, and a steel statue on the mountainside would prove to be the most it could muster for working women, for women’s bodies, for women’s choices. 

Over the last century, as Butte has reveled in its gritty past, Montana was changing all around it. It became wealthier, more conservative. Montana’s future is now in the hands of elected officials who intend to make the present, and the future, look more like Butte from the early 1900s: anti-woman, anti-trans, anti-worker. 

Whatever stories Butte will tell about this moment, it seems to face a choice: to continue to define itself by its mythology, or to swing its fists once again — this time fighting for all the people whose voices have never really been heard. 

“We were only cussed out by one driver,” Waring reported to Stennick when she came back to collect his sign at the corner of Montana and Granite. 

Stennick’s face lit up, and she grabbed Waring by the shoulders. “Well, that’s not bad!”

The two agreed to meet up next week at the same time, on the same street corner: a pair of rebel hearts who still believe in all the things Butte says it is.   

Leah Sottile is a correspondent at High Country News. She writes from Portland, Oregon. 

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

This coverage was supported by contributors to High Country News


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