The Women’s Protective Union was, in many ways, ahead of the women’s rights movement, and was incredibly successful at protecting its members. They were able to ensure women were paid a fair wage, protected from harassment, given sick leave, overtime pay, and even paid vacations. Although, the Women’s Protective Union had a much wider agenda than improving working conditions.
They held job skill classes for its members, as well as classes in personal hygiene and childcare, among others. Throughout its history, the WPU was well known for its progressive political and economic causes. They endorsed national health insurance, unemployment insurance, and a national retirement system. The women would also raise money for local improvements and would support their fellow trade union members in the event of a strike.
The first women's union, the Tailoresses Society of New York City, organized in New York in 1825. They held their first strike in the same year. Later, in 1834, the Lowell Factory Girls would become an organized union. At the time, Montana was not even a territory of the United States.
Butte was not yet a city, and Silver Bow was not yet a county, though there was a map made of the area at this time. The original territory, which covered around 74 blocks, went from current day Copper Street to Gold Street, and from Arizona Street to Jackson Street. That same year Butte had a mining boom, and with all the new miners coming in the area’s first saloons and dance halls opened. In only three years Butte Silver Bow would be incorporated into the United States proper. In 1881, Butte became the seat of Silver Bow County, having been taken from a bit of Deer Lodge County.
Delia Moore was born in New York on May 25th, 1861, and moved to Butte in her twenties. For a time, she worked as a domestic servant, and in the year 1890 she became the founding president of the Women’s Protective Union, often being called the matron. In 1892 she worked as a seamstress, and rallied the WPU to vote for a law that forbade anyone under the age of fifteen to work in any trade. By 1895 Delia, along with some others, founded the Women’s Industrial Institute, which provided women and their children with clean and affordable housing for only $50 a month, as well as provided them with jobs. In 1897, she married a man who went by E.W. Peets, and though they didn’t have any children, they would be together until her death. Delia lived to be 68 years old, passing away on November 4th, 1929, in Butte.
In 1890, Butte had the population of just under 11,000 inhabitants, with 45% of them being foreign born. On June 5th of the same year, the Butte Daily Miner reported that the Women’s Protective Union (WPU) would have its first meeting in Butte, making this article the first mention of said union in Butte papers. Not all reports were quite so supportive, though, as the Anaconda Standard described the idea of a union made up of only women and girls as being “so unique and comical” and claimed it was the subject of countless jokes. The original group of WPU members was first comprised of thirty three women who were waitresses, seamstresses, hat makers, and saleswomen.
The WPU held its first grand ball at the Miner’s Union Hall, in 1890. It was considered to be more than a simple social gathering and was done to help garner its first supporters. Its first big supporter was an organization by the name of The Knights of Labor, whose members believed in the unity of workers, regardless of their gender, nationality, or skill level, a philosophy that made for a great ally for the newly formed WPU.
In 1890, members of the WPU, having been rallied by their matron, would vote for schools to have appropriate classrooms for the children, so they could attend public school throughout the day, no matter the season. Delia Moore, along with others, even demanded the free coinage of silver. The WPU also incited its community to develop affordable and clean homes for its working women.
Sarah Ann Johnson was born in Illinois, in 1865. She came west to Corine, Utah, which was the end of the railroad at the time, in her twenties. Sarah later traveled to Glendale by horse and wagon, and eventually settled in Butte, which became her home for more than 60 years. She was a core member of the WPU, serving as the recording secretary and vice-president for several years. Sarah was also the grandmother of six, and a great-grandmother of five. She passed away after her husband, following a weeks long battle with an illness on November 3rd, 1949, at around the age of 84.
Delegates from throughout the west met in Butte, founding the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). The WFM was a quintessential union, in the sense that it wanted to develop political peace between the mine owners and their workers. The WFM was, however, ineffective in securing safer work conditions and fair compensation, due to its poor leadership and internal strife. At the time, the WPU would be associated with the WFM but departed from the organization in 1909.
By 1900, the population of Butte was 30,470 with about 13,000 of those people being women. Only 22% of these women were working for a wage, with nearly half of those being widows-which was all too common in the dangerous industry of underground mining. Approximately 175 of Butte's employed women, were prostitutes, with 34% being foreign born, as opposed to the national average of 32%. Later, in 1908, the Butte City Council said, in regard to vagrancy, “lewd and dissolute female persons” could be arrested for acting in an “obscene manner”.
In 1903, Butte's working women managed to limit work days to 10 hours (as opposed to 11, or more), a rule that would later be taken in by Chicago, Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco. The WPU represented hundreds of women and girls at this point, as well as advocated for health insurance, unemployment insurance, and even retirement funds. This was nearly three decades before Social Security would be implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Bridget Shea, born Bridget Murphy, was born in Ireland around the year 1883. She was the youngest of John and Mary Murphy’s eight children and grew up in a mining area near Cork. It was unusual for an Irish girl to get an education, but she was sent to school and learned how to read and write both Irish and English. She grew up during a time of oppression, with Ireland being under English rule. This hostility between them ran deep, so Bridget was acutely aware of injustice. When Bridget was 19, she and her siblings left Ireland for the United States, moving to Butte. In 1905, at the age of 22, Bridget married an Irish miner, James Shea. In 1917, James was a member of a local Irish militia, and while in a saloon an Englishman insulted him and Ireland. During an altercation with him, James ended up killing the man, and was convicted of manslaughter. After a year in prison, he succumbed to influenza. His death was so hard for her, she only wore “widow’s black” for the rest of her days. Bridget was said to be a no-nonsense type of person after she joined the WPU in 1917. She was even known to chase unfair bosses around with a broom until they agreed with the WPU’s demands. Bridget was a beloved member until she retired. She passed on March 22nd, 1955, around the age of 70.
The WPU moved away from the American Labor Union, further removing itself from craft unionism and moving closer to its ideal, class-based unionism, when they joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW was an appealing choice for the WPU as it had the shared vision of a single, universal union which embraced all workers. Unfortunately, no records of the WPU’s association with the IWW have survived to this day.
In 1907, the WPU accepted its first three African American members. Despite accepting them, which they prided themselves on, the WPU still drew a “color line” at Asian American women, especially the Chinese. Asian American women would not be accepted until 1944, when the WPU sought to organize Butte's Chinese noodle parlors. Many unions, including the WPU, would boycott restaurants that employed Asian American people, and the workers were, quite simply, not allowed into a union of any kind. That same year, the WPU withdrew from the IWW.
Lena Mattausch, the daughter of Italian immigrants, joined the WPU after she divorced her first husband. Later, she and another member, Bridget Shea, an Irish immigrant who joined after the death of her husband in 1917, would become good friends as well as key members, serving the union in a variety of positions. The duo, who were known to always wear black, were described as just, stern, and even intimidating by employers and members alike. The beloved pair worked closely together for over three decades.
Lena Mattausch was born Lena Antonioli in Butte around the year 1888, to Italian immigrants Peter and Theresa, near Ramsay. When Lena was 11 years old her mother passed away during childbirth, and not long after her older sisters petitioned to have Peter removed as their guardian. The young women managed to sway the court and a neighbor was appointed guardian to the younger siblings. This was a powerful lesson for Lena, as they managed to successfully navigate the justice system of the time, a near impossible task for any woman. In 1903, Lena married an Italian American man named Giuseppe Cereghino, when she was 15 and he was 33. He was, unfortunately, an abusive man, so they divorced. By the year 1909, Lena joined the WPU, and in 1918, she married a man named Frank Mattausch. Lena never had any children of her own, though she did adopt one of her sister’s children after her death. She was a powerful, albeit beloved, member of the Women’s Protective Union. At one point she was even the president of the union. She and her partner, Bridget Shea, were said to be a force to be reckoned with. Lena outlived the WPU by several years, passing away on April 5th, 1979, at about the age of 90.
World War I had broken out, and due to this, copper prices soared. This was also a time of bitter rivalry between unions, which led to severe union strife and the destruction of Miner's Union Hall. This attack caused days of terror in Butte, so much so that the governor had to send in the militia. Along with the building numerous documents, including those of the early members of WPU, and how it came to be were destroyed. Only one of the original 33 women are remembered by their full name, being founding president Delia Moore. The other core members were known by their first initial and surname only, the rest were unfortunately forgotten to time. The same year, Montana women gained their right to vote, and within three years three women were elected into Butte’s public office.
Jeanette Rankin, a Republican born near Missoula, was the first woman to be elected to US Congress. Rankin was a lifelong pacifist and would vote against participating in not just one, but both World Wars, having been the only one to do so the second time. She would later introduce legislation for women to have unrestricted voting access, which had become the 19th Amendment.
In 1917, the Granite Mountain Disaster, the worst hard-rock mining disaster to date, occurred, killing 168 men. The disaster served as a catalyst for miner's to strike and demand better wages and safer working conditions, which led to the organization of the Metal Mine Workers union. The workers idled with the company refused to give into their demands. Frank Little, an organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World, arrived in Butte to organize the miners. On August 1, 1917, six masked men broke into Little's room. He was beaten and brought to the edge of town, where was found the next morning hanging from the railroad trestle. A note which read, "First and last warning," was pinned to his chest, along with the initials of other union leaders and the numbers 3-7-77, a vigilante code famously used by Virginia City, Montana's vigilance committee.
Blanche Copenhaver was born Blanche Averett in Utah on November 27th, 1890. In the year 1937, she worked as a cashier for hotels and restaurants. Two years later, in 1939, she married her husband, Jesse Copenhaver. She joined the WPU upon starting work in Butte and would serve it as a union officer for 44 years, and as president for 22. After the WPU ceased to exist she became the first woman to serve the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations as vice president in Montana. She enjoyed being an active member of her community, in various capacities. Blanche Copenhaver died in 1995 in Livingston, Montana at the age of 94.
By 1920, the WPU had around 400 members, and held its first largescale strike, in response to the rejection of their demands for increased wages and six-hour work day. The strike comprised of thousands of people, including WPU members, as well as men and women outside of the union. After a month of striking, the pay increase was finally accepted.
In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected as president, and shortly after, the New Deal was enacted. The New Deal would see to it that $710 per person was spent, and $264 per person was loaned. At the time as much as one fourth of the population would be on some sort of federal relief. That same year, copper prices reached a low point of four cents-per-pound, when the average cost for production just two years earlier was 13 cents-per-pound. The WPU managed to claim 100% organization of Butte waitresses by this time.
By 1945, the WPU managed to win eight-hour work days, six days a week. They had overtime pay, sick leave, and even paid vacations, while few other workers in the United States had such benefits. Along with these occupational benefits, the WPU helped women outside of work with housing, legal services, job skill and childcare classes, as well as English and citizenship classes for its members who were immigrants.
Born Margaret Mulligan on September 5th, 1906, was the child of Mary and John Mulligan, and was one of five children. Her father was a miner in Boulder, but when things did not go well for him there, the family moved to Butte. Margaret married her first husband, James Kilgallan in 1926, and had a daughter on August 10th, 1927, also named Margaret. However, the couple divorced only four years after they married. In 1940, she married a man named John Harrington. While they had no children together, they were married until John’s death in 1955. Margaret served the Women’s Protective Union in various capacities, having been president, vice-president, chaplain, and secretary. She prided herself on her work, whether she was a waitress or a WPU member, and it showed. Margaret was the proud grandmother of six, many of whom followed in her steps and worked in the culinary industry. She passed away in June of 1986, at the age of 79.
After over two decades without striking, one had been organized by the WPU, after a proposal for a pay raise, benefits, and improved working conditions was rejected. In a vote consisting of 527 ballots, 421 women and girls voted to strike. A possible reason that there had not been a strike in so long was because it was a big risk to take. No work meant no pay, and no pay meant the women’s families would struggle, and it was also never guaranteed that the bosses would relent and let the unions win. Despite the risks, strikes were crucial to them, and other union would join in as well, strengthening the WPU’s efforts.
On June 9, 1949, a strike began and members walked out of their jobs, with some even discouraging people from staying in the Finlen Hotel. None of the WPU members had picket signs, instead they wore pins, with the reason being that many of these women were mothers who needed to care for their young children while they were striking. After seven weeks their demands were met, but not without its costs, as the solidarity among the WPU members faltered, having created divides between some of the women and girls. Though it is unknown as to why, Lena Mattausch and Bridget Shea were two such members who developed a rift that had not healed, despite being once so close. They continued to work for the WPU, but things were never the same.
In 1952, Butte School District No. 1 ruled that janitors/janitresses over the age of 70 would not be rehired for the school year and that they must retire from their job. Only one person on the school board voted against it, however, the WPU also opposed such a rule. Lena Mattausch and Margaret K. Harrington represented the WPU in this matter, and said that if a janitress were made to retire she may very well lose the bulk of her income. They managed to sway the school board in their favor.
Born Valentine Kenney in Butte on February 14th, 1913, Val Webster was the second oldest of her siblings. At the age of six years old, her father, Patrick, had passed away, and her mother, Winifred, remarried two years later. Her stepfather, who she would describe as “the only dad she ever knew”, was a miner as well. Val was quite young when she got her first job as a dishwasher at the Silver Bow Café. She did not join the Women’s Protective Union until she was 16. Val humorously remembered her work as a “bucket girl”, a job that entailed packing the miner’s lunch buckets before their shifts. When she retired from her restaurant job, she became a staff member of the WPU. Val was a member of the union until the very end, and later became a member of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE). So vivid were her memories of the WPU that the Butte Archives named its labor history collection after her. She had served the WPU by holding elective office and serving the board of directors, as well as representing Butte in local, state, and national HERE councils. Val Webster passed away on October 8th, 1993, at the age of 80.
Though the phrase “area redevelopment” was unknown to Butte in the past, as of 1962 the Federal Area Redevelopment Act would be enacted, which was meant to help Butte free itself from its near total dependence on the mining industry. State, county, and municipal officials, as well as business and labor union leaders would often get together to find a way to help the city, which had been stricken with financial misfortune. This economic decline would continue well into the 1980’s.
The WPU had strict rules as to how the members came to be, as well as conducted themselves within the union. One section of their by-laws at the time stated potential members must be working women of “good moral character”, and if they fail to attend initiation within 30 days their membership would be rejected. The same by-laws stated that executive members, such as the vice-president or secretary, must go to at least one meeting per month, and if they didn’t their seat as executive member must be forfeited. Despite its sternness, the by-laws also showed a generous side, as the members were given sickness and burial benefits in the event of a member’s death.
Clela Sullivan was born Clela Buell on July 1st, 1921, in Butte, to Chandler and Melissa Buell. She was married to Michael Sullivan in 1938, at just 17 years old. She joined the Women's Protective Union in 1948 and was also a member of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) and secretary for the Culinary and Miscellaneous Employees after the WPU. One of her sons, named Frank Sullivan, was also a business agent for the HERE. Aside from helping the working women in Butte, she was also a part of a gardening club and an office manager for an anti-domestic violence program. She even volunteered as a foster grandmother at West Elementary School in the 1980's. Clela passed away in October in 1997 at 76 years old, surrounded by her family. She had five children, 11 grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren.
The Women’s Protective Union met its end in 1973 after 83 years of organizing, ironically due to gender equality laws meant to help working women. Along with having to accept men and change its name, it merged with the Cooks’ and Waiters’ Union, becoming the Culinary and Miscellaneous Workers Union. The WPU had included women who worked as restaurant workers, boarding house workers, chambermaids, nursemaids, vaudeville theater usherettes, midwives, a chimney sweep, and even a fortune teller. At its peak, the Butte WPU had 1,149 members. The union gave these women and girls, no matter how “lowly” her job, a sense of dignity and pride, as well as a voice of her own.
Below are snippets of some oral histories, all taken from interviews conducted by Whitney Williams, in 1995. She had interviewed those associated with the Women’s Protective Union, in an effort to preserve their experiences. Williams interviewed former WPU members Eleanor Peltomaa, Mildred Laitinen, and Rose Marie Johnson, as well as Bob Juliana, who worked closely with the union towards the end.
Eleanor Peltomaa – The Strictness of the WPU
Mildred Laitinen – Union Dues and Bridget Shea
Rose Marie Johnson – Picketing
Bob Juliana – Blanche Copenhaver’s Reaction to the Name Change
Core Women’s Protective Union Members
- 1892 – President: Delia Moore Secretary: Kate Mathews
- 1893 – President: Delia Moore Secretary: Kate Mathews
- 1894 – Secretary: Jennie Condon
- 1895 – Secretary: Jennie Condon
- 1901- President: Maggie Keegan Vice President: Mamie White Secretary: Lizzie Boyle
- 1903 – President: Bridget McMahan Secretary: Frances Calvin
- 1904 – President: Anna Riddle Secretary: Frances Calvin
- 1905 – President: Mary Strume Secretary: Katie McLeod
- 1906 – Business Agent: Frances Calvin
- 1907 – Business Agent: Frances Calvin
- 1908 – Business Agent: Maggie Bray
- 1909 – President: Kate Bartels Secretary: Julia Mahoney
- 1912 – President: Annie Valentine Secretary: Mary Herth
- 1914 – President: Kate Shea Secretary: Florence Hall Business Agent: Ida Braman
- 1915 – President: Kate Shea Secretary: Mabel Cameron Business Agent: Beatrice Gregory
- 1916 – President: Winifred Baxter Secretary: Mabel Cameron Business Agent: Lena Mattausch
- 1917 – President: Ethel Warren Secretary: Margaret Mahoney
- 1918 – Secretary: Lena Mattausch
- 1923 – President: Christina Stanley Secretary: Lena Mattausch Business Agent: Sarah Nichols
- 1926 – Secretary: Mary Guihan
- 1927 – President: Lena Mattausch
- 1928 – President: Lena Mattausch Vice President: Bridget Shea
- 1935 – Secretary: Sarah Johnson
- 1936 – Secretary: Sarah Johnson
- 1937- President: Teresa Theobold
- 1942 – President: Teresa Theobold
- 1943 – President: Bridget Walsh Secretary: Frances Calvin Business Agent: Kate Mohard
- 1944 – President: Teresa Theobold Vice-President: Lena Mattausch Business Agent: Bridget Shea
- 1945 – President: Teresa Theobold
- 1946 – President: Margaret Harrington Vice President: Sarah Johnson Secretary: Phoebe Larsen
- 1948 – President: Margaret Harrington Secretary: Lena Mattausch
- 1949 – President: Bridget Shea Vice President: Blanche Copenhaver Secretary: Lena Mattausch
- 1950 – President: Bridget Shea Vice President: Lena Mattausch Secretary: Margaret Harrington
- 1951 – President: Bridget Shea Vice President: Blanche Copenhaver Secretary: Margaret Harrington
- 1952 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Secretary: Margaret Harrington Business Agent: Lena Mattausch
- 1953 – President: Blanche Copenhaver
- 1954 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Trustee: Gustava Holohan
- 1955 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Secretary: Lena Mattausch
- 1956 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Secretary: Margaret Harrington
- 1958 – President: Blanche Copenhaver
- 1959 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Vice President: Sarah Johnson Secretary: Lena Mattausch
- 1960 – President: Blanche Copenhaver
- 1961 – President: Bridget Walsh Secretary: Frances Calvin Business Agent: Kate Mohard
- 1962 – President: Blanche Copenhaver
- 1963 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Secretary: Margaret Harrington
- 1964 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Business Agent: Val Webster
- 1965 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Business Agent: Val Webster
- 1966 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Secretary: Margaret Harrington Business Agent: Val Webster
- 1967 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Secretary: Margaret Harrington Business Agent: Val Webster
- 1968 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Secretary: Margaret Harrington Business Agent: Bal Webster
- 1969 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Delegate: Clela Sullivan Business Agent: Val Webster
- 1970 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Business Agent: Clela Sullivan Secretary: Val Webster
- 1971 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Business Agent: Clela Sullivan Secretary Val Webster
- 1972 – President: Blanche Copenhaver Business Agent: Clela Sullivan Secretary: Val Webster
- Cobble, Dorothy. Dishing it Out. Chicago, Illinois, University of Illinois Press. 1991.
- Crain, Ellen & Finn, Janet. Motherlode. Livingston, Montana, Clark City Press. 2005.
- Judy, Beth. Bold Women in Montana History. Missoula, Montana, Mountain Press Publishing Company. 2017.
- Murphy, Mary. Mining Cultures. Chicago, Illinois, University of Illinois Press. 1997.
This project was generously funded by the Montana Community Foundation and the Harbaugh Foundation.