Montana State University

The cattle came first: Students gather oral histories of Montana women

April 25, 2005 -- by Annette Trinity-Stevens

Diane Cattrell (left) interviewed Eva France of Bozeman for an MSU oral history project focusing on the memories of Montana women. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Chrisman)    High-Res Available

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When Jill Eliel first met the man who would become her husband, she thought he was a snob. He thought she was fat.

Doris Sandquist recalled that Billings during World War II was boring. "All the boys were gone." She and her sister took war-related jobs on the West Coast. "I don't know of anything I enjoyed more."

One of Eva France's most vivid childhood memories was sleeping in a tepee in the summer with her auntie who dipped their drinking water from a nearby creek.

These recollections--and many others ranging from thoughts on birth control to memories of best-loved farm animals--mark the beginning of a new oral history collection created by a group of Montana State University undergraduates.

Nineteen MSU students chose female neighbors, relatives, church friends or other acquaintances to interview for a research seminar in women's studies. Most of the women were from Montana, and each had to be at least a generation older than the MSU student interviewing them. The oldest woman interviewed was 90.

"There's so little about women's history that we know," one of the students said during a "Reader's Theatre" presentation of the oral histories this week. "It's ridiculous."

Lacey Raymond, 22, of Wisdom said that when she first approached Jill Eliel, now in her 70s, for an interview, Eliel's response was that her life wasn't that interesting.

But once Eliel began talking about Bang, the goat, and other memories, Raymond said she enjoyed what she heard.

"This research experience, I think, is very enriching to the students," Raymond said.

For some it was hard drawing the women out, especially a taciturn eastern Montana resident who gave single-word answers. Others struggled with sticking to the list of questions versus going with the flow of what the women wanted to share. One woman just wanted to talk about World War II.

The students asked for first impressions of husbands, the most vivid memories from childhood, memories of their mothers and chores they did as children. When asked to share a story about her youthful self, one woman recalled winning a contest for the best legs while in high school and not telling her parents.

"I thought it meant something, you know," she said. "And I look back on it now and it meant that I had pretty legs and that's all it meant."

When asked about the meaning of place and its effect on her family, one woman quoted her father. "He said that men out here think that the cattle come first and the horses come second and then [the] women."

Another woman said Yellowstone National Park was a wonderful place to raise her two children, whose first words were "elk."

MSU history professor Mary Murphy said a recent Oral History Association meeting inspired her to create the class project. The research seminar is part of the university's new Core 2.0 program, which offers hands-on learning experiences to every undergraduate.

"I think in the end it was very valuable," said Murphy, the author of "Hope in Hard Times," an award-winning book on photographs of the Depression in Montana. "As a teacher, I'm just wowed by what they've done."

The collection will be housed in the MSU Renne Library, where others can add to it, Murphy said.

Contact: Mary Murphy, (406) 994-5206 or