Idaho History: Idaho women have taken big strides since 19th century

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANFebruary 23, 2014 

On July 4, 1889, Idaho Territory’s constitutional convention assembled in Boise to prepare for Idaho’s admission as the 43rd state in the union that came on July 3, 1890.

Of Idaho’s present 44 counties 28 had yet to be created. Caldwell, Nampa, Hunter (later called Meridian), Emmett and Payette were all part of Ada County, and the people of those places had to come to Boise to do business in the 1883 courthouse that stood east of the Territorial capitol. Canyon County came into being in 1892, which set off widespread jubilation in Caldwell and Nampa, where they sang “Good-bye, old Ada, good-bye!” Gem County, in 1915, and Payette County, in 1917, followed, reflecting Idahoans’ deep-seated preference for local control of government.

Boise, with an estimated population of 4,000, was the largest city in the state, followed by Pocatello with 2,800; and Bellevue, Hailey and Malad with 2,000 each. The 1890 census would not be taken for several months, so these figures were only approximate, and in some cases inflated by local pride and ambition.

Idaho women did not have the right to vote in 1889, even though as early as 1871 they had come within one vote in the lower house of the Legislature of getting it. Idaho did give women the vote in 1896 and was only the fourth state in the union to do so. Not until 1920 was the U.S. Constitution amended to give all American women that right.

Many Idaho women ran businesses of their own in 1889. Not surprisingly, many of them were in fields that catered to other women. There were 22 milliners and 18 dressmakers, and four who sold dry goods. Twenty-five women taught school, four of them music teachers, and one who was superintendent of schools.

Male teachers received substantially higher pay than their female counterparts, a situation not remedied until teachers formed unions many years later.

There were 17 women hotel-keepers, 10 who ran boarding houses, eight who owned restaurants, seven who owned grocery stores and five who operated laundries.

Among more unusual occupations for women were saloon-keeper, druggist, stock raiser, baker and flour mill operator. We can deduce that many of these women were widows, since they are listed in Polk’s Business Directory as “Mrs.,” but no “Mr.” of the name is listed. Unmarried women are always listed as “Miss.”

Miss Helen Nelson was manager of the Western Union Telegraph office, and Mrs. B.P. Purdom managed the Rocky Mountain Bell Telephone office, both in Boise.

Twelve Idaho women were postmasters of their towns in 1889. (There is no such thing as a “postmistress.”) As late as 1866, postal regulations state, “No person can be appointed postmaster who cannot legally execute an official bond, or take the required oath. Minors and married women are, by law, incapable of holding the office of postmaster.”

By 1900, women held nearly 10 percent of postmaster positions in the United States.

Saloons outnumbered all other businesses in Idaho by far in 1889. There were 232 of them, of which Boise had eight, roughly one for every 500 people. Bellevue, in a young mining region, had a brewery and six saloons, or one for every 300 people. Albion, with 500 people, had three saloons, or roughly one for every 166 people, and Bayhorse, with 250 people, had eight saloons, or one for every 31 people. With that kind of competition, it is a wonder anyone stayed in business long.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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