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pioneer PHOTO COURTESY OF MONTANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY RESEARCH CENTER PHOTOGRAPH ARCHIVES

woman Ella Knowles, Class of 1884, was a Montana suffragist, trailblazing lawyer, and career boat-rocker whose life was a succession of singular accomplishments by h. jay bu r ns

the courtroom in Helena, Mont., was packed,

everyone eager to witness a curiosity. The state’s first “lawyeress”— aka the “little lady in black” — was about to argue her first legal case. Court observers expected the young lawyer to fail miserably. They “cast pitying glances” her way. But they didn’t know Ella Knowles, Bates Class of 1884. For Knowles, facing skepticism, if not outright ridicule, was old hat, and she’d already racked up a number of successful female firsts dating back to her Bates days. In Montana, the firsts would continue. Born in New Hampshire, Knowles entered college in 1880. Bates had become a college just 16 years earlier, and male students still weren’t ceding much power to women, and few women graduated in the early classes. “The prejudice against admitting female students was still strong at the college,” noted a profile of Knowles that appeared in The New York Times and other U.S papers in 1892. “Many thought it totally inappropriate for a woman to be educated,” said former Bates history professor Elizabeth Tobin, who was interviewed for Ella Knowles: A Dangerous Woman, a 1993 Bates 38

Fall 2018

documentary produced by the late Bates rhetoric professor Robert Branham. Society believed that education would make it difficult for a woman to take on her expected roles as a “satisfied and successful wife and mother.” In her second year at Bates, Knowles became the first woman to win the prestigious Sophomore Championship Debate. In one debate that year, she supported the topic “Resolved: That circumstances make men.” To become Bates’ first female debater and public speaker, Knowles “surely would have had to fight,” said Tobin. “She would have had to prove herself over and over again; she would always have had the sense that if she failed, no woman after her would have been able to do it. There would have been a great deal of pressure.” Knowles majored in English and rhetoric and graduated with honors. Invited to speak at Commencement, attended by Maine Gov. James G. Blaine that year, she discussed “The Genius of Edmund Spenser.” She taught school and studied law in her native New Hampshire, earning a master’s degree from Bates in 1888. That year, she moved to Helena. Some say the

Profile for Bates College

Bates Magazine, Fall 2018  

The issue's cover story looks at Bates alumni and their cool Antarctic doings. The photo, by Billy Collins ’14, shows an equipment operator...

Bates Magazine, Fall 2018  

The issue's cover story looks at Bates alumni and their cool Antarctic doings. The photo, by Billy Collins ’14, shows an equipment operator...