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move was for her health following a bout with tuberculosis; others noted that ambitious women tended to have greater opportunities for a career out West. There, she taught school, but the law called, and she studied for the bar. “They all thought my ambition was a joke,” she told the Anaconda Standard in 1907. “I was made all manner of fun of. No one believed that I would ever practice.” But that was just more rocket fuel. Neither bowed nor broken, Knowles pushed ahead. She successfully lobbied the territorial legislature to allow women to take the bar exam (by doing so, she became the first woman ever to address a state or territory legislature). On Christmas Eve in 1889, she passed the bar with flying colors. Her examiner said he was “surprised to find her so well-read. She beat all that I have ever examined.” Though she still couldn’t vote in Montana, Knowles was now one of only about 50 female lawyers in the U.S. When Knowles joined the Montana bar, Helena was a booming city. Between 1880 and 1890 its population had exploded, from 3,600 to more than 13,000. Gold had been discovered in 1864, and later silver, which had created 50 millionaires in the city, more per capita than any other place in the world. Outside of town, railroad magnate Charles Arthur Broadwater had just opened a huge resort with one of the world’s first indoor swimming pools. Helena was hopping, but Knowles couldn’t find a job. Like other aspiring lawyers of the day, she tried to support herself as a bill collector. No one would hire her. Finally, the owner of an upscale women’s store said that she could try to collect three umbrellas that had been loaned out and not returned. The offer was a mocking one, but Knowles took him on “although he did not expect me to do it.”

Off she went into Helena’s rich neighborhoods, successfully retrieving two of the pirated parasols. Knowles recalled that one woman’s withering look gave her nightmares; the other woman “flared up” during the exchange. When Knowles returned to the store and billed her 50-cent fee, the merchant tried to stiff her. Using her Bates debate skills, she turned the store into a impromptu court, appealing to the customers for their support. The owner paid up (and joined in the ensuing laughter). “From that time I was given all of the firm’s bad debts to collect, and was very successful with them,” she said. She kept the two quarters for inspiration: “They are my mascot.” A lawyer in name, Knowles was ridiculed in reality. “I was taken as a huge joke.” But as always, she forged ahead. “I didn’t sit in the office; I went out and got my business to start with, and soon business came to me in abundance.” Lawyering, she said, was about being able to “concentrate the entire mind force on the work in hand,” and it’s what a packed Helena courtroom witnessed when Knowles argued her first case in 1891. As they would a century later for Marcia Clark during the O.J. Simpson trial, the newspapers took great note of her appearance and manner in the courtroom: black dress, blue eyes, and a “shrewd and vivacious temperament.” Knowles was representing a man who said he was owed $5 in back wages after quitting his restaurant job. The restaurant owner had refused to pay, showing a clean ledger. “I had no evidence to offset the book,” said Knowles. “I felt my first case lost.” With Knowles’ mind force on the task, inspiration came. With a magnifying glass, she examined the ledger. Aha! “Some figures had been erased, and

COLLECTION OF KENNON BAIRD

The city of Helena, Mont., was hopping when Ella Knowles arrived to begin her remarkable career as a lawyer, suffragist, and leading citizen.

Fall 2018

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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...