By Olive Tardiff
Ella Knowles, the first woman to practice law in Montana and the first ever to plead a case before the U.S. Circuit Court, was born in Northwood, New Hampshire. Ella graduated from Northwood Academy (now Coe-Brown) at the age of fifteen, after making an impression there as a public speaker. After a year at Plymouth Normal School and a few years of teaching in country schools to earn money for tuition, she entered Bates College. There she became the first of her sex to serve on the debating team and the first woman editor of the school paper.
Ella received her bachelor's degree at Bates in 1884. A few months later she was granted an honorary master's degree because of her outstanding record while in college.
Go West Young Lady
Ella had always wanted to be a lawyer, so, from Bates she went directly into a law office in Manchester. When her health began to fail, she was advised to head for the West. First, she moved to Iowa where she taught in the state normal school for a year. Her next move was to Helena, Montana, where she served as school principal.
Even though she had a good position, Ella had not forgotten her primary goal. Against the advice of her friends, she resigned and moved to Butte where she resumed her study of law. At that time, women were not permitted to practice in the courts of Montana, so Ella set to work to get a bill through the Legislature. The law passed in l889, and in January, 1890, Ella Knowles was admitted to the Montana bar.
Breaking into the legal profession was not easy for Montana's first woman lawyer. Ella begged a friend to let her handle some bill-collecting cases for him. "About all you're capable of, "he told her, "is to collect three umbrellas from folks that never returned them to me."
When Ella came back a few hours later with the long-lost umbrellas, she demanded and got fifty cents in payment and the amused respect of her friend who then hired her for more important legal business. Ella was launched on what became a most successful career.
By 1892, Ella was so well-known for her activity in the Populist Party that she was asked to run for the office of .State Attorney General. In spite of her eloquent speeches and rugged campaign which covered 3,000 miles, she lost by a few votes to her Republican opponent, Henri Haskell who was from Maine. The following year, Haskell made Ella his assistant, and in 1895 the couple was married.
The Haskell marriage evidently broke up within a few years, and Ella resumed her maiden name. Haskell moved to Glendive, Montana, and Ella spent a few months in San Diego, California, recuperating.
Ella invested in mining property and successfully conducted several important mining deals. One fee of $10,000 was said to be the largest ever paid to a woman lawyer.
Always active in the advancement of women, she once said, "Women should have the rights of electors as they are required to pay taxes. If it was unjust for our fathers to be taxed by Great Britain without representation, it is unjust to tax women today without representation." Sometimes called the "Portia of the People's Party," Ella was the first woman to be elected as delegate to a national convention from Montana.
Ella lived alone in a hotel apartment near her office in Butte; and it was there that she died of complications that followed a throat infection. Her obituary in the Butte Evening News mentioned that various women's organizations had helped to make funeral arrangements, since she "had not one relative in the state."
According to the same newspaper, she had recently returned from a trip around the world and had given a travel lecture that was one of the best of its kind ever heard in Butte." There was praise for her quiet dignity, splendid talents, convincing eloquence and womanly attributes.
It was important, apparently, for male journalists to stress Ella's feminity. The obituary in the Boston Transcript of February 11, 1911 concludes "In her social life she was a charming example of the eternal feminine, enjoying to the full pretty gowns, cards, and the talk and laughter of social occasions." She is better remembered in New Hampshire as the pioneer woman attorney of the Northwest, one of the foremost of her time.
From: "They Paved The Way - A History Of NH Women", Women for Women Weekly Press, 1980
Illustrations by Richard Donovan.
Reprinted by permission of the author
© 1997 SeacoastNH.com
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