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ella knowles was once called “the most successful woman lawyer in the u.s.”

To achieve what she did at Bates, Ella Knowles “surely would have had to fight,” said former Bates faculty member Liz Tobin. PHOTO COURTESY OF MUSKIE ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS LIBRARY

knowles’ number ones Ella Knowles’ career was a succession of firsts. In Montana, she was the first woman to: Address a state or territory legislature Sources for this story include the website Montana’s Become a lawyer Early Woman Lawyers, mtwomenlawyers.org. Be nominated by a major political party for statewide office Become an assistant state attorney general Argue a case before the state Supreme Court Represent a U.S. state before a federal agency in Washington, D.C.

A courtroom in the Battin Federal Courthouse in Billings, Mont., honors the accomplishments of Ella Knowles. JULIE COLLINS

The papers couldn’t get over it. Sure, the West is full of poker players who know how to bluff, said the Los Angeles Herald, but this time it was a woman’s bluff, and it “made them lay down their cards without going beyond the first ante. Who dares now to say that woman’s sphere is not extending?” In 1902, the publication Progressive Men of Montana (irony noted) published a three-page feature on her. National suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt called her “the most successful woman lawyer in the U.S.” She served as president of the Montana Equal Suffrage Association, once arguing that “if it was unjust for our fathers to be taxed without representation by Great Britain, it is unjust to tax the women of today without representation.” In 1910, she attended a suffrage march in London, part of an around-the-world trip intended to improve her health. Yet it “failed of its purpose to give her new strength.” In 1911, overcome by a throat infection and despite the care of “four of Butte’s wellknown physicians,” Knowles died — three years before women gained the right to vote in the state. She was just 50 years old. Today, a courtroom in the Battin Federal Courthouse in Billings, Mont., is named in her memory. It’s hardly surprising that much of the newspaper coverage of Knowles’s career is gendered. And, in keeping with the times, the newspapers chose words that kept her within expectations of gender and sexual orientation, such that they were. “She is not a man hater,” noted the Nevada State Journal. Yes, she was a good lawyer, but “not of the aggressive, assertive type” that you would “expect to find in the successful feminine lawyer,” said another paper. She is “mild, gentle, womanly.” Said another: “If you should chance to meet her on a street, you would be likely to mistake her for a happy little housewife, so essentially feminine is she in dress and manner.” Knowles was once asked why she was successful when other smart and energetic women were not. Was she different? “I do not think so.” Sure, it helps to have a good education and a “logical and reasoning mind,” she said, not to mention a “good share of sound common sense.” Perhaps mindful of all that she had endured, Knowles cautioned that success was not a guarantee for man or woman. “When we think of the great number of men who never attain success, we must not be surprised if women, bright and clever though they may be, should also fail.” n

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...