The first women to…go
Part three in Women’s History Month series
This month, a little pop-up under the Google search bar included a link to a video commemorating Women’s History Month. Its caption stated that in the past year the phrase ‘the first woman’ was searched more than ever before. The video went on to highlight some feminine firsts, ranging from coronavirus vaccination research to scaling peaks. This month, the Lookout honors a few of Big Sky’s firsts.
Correction: Last week, in part two of this series, it was stated that Annie Breneman would end up marrying Eugene Crail. This was the wrong ‘E’ Crail. Annie Breneman eventually married Emmett Crail, not Eugene Crail. This has been updated correctly in the web version of the story.
Anne Marie Mistretta, Historic Crail Ranch museum volunteer, curator, collector and history lover, really focused in on Annie Breneman as she started diving into Crail family history. In her opinion, Breneman is the most accomplished woman that came out of Montana in the late 1800s.
“To go through college at that point and get degrees in mathematics and physics, and to travel over a thousand miles to UC Berkeley, an unaccompanied woman, it just blows my mind,” Mistretta said.
Breneman was born in the Montana territory in 1886, at the end of the frontier area as far as Montana was concerned, Mistretta said. We learned a bit about Breneman in the first part of this series, notably how she adopted her niece and nephew after her brother and sister-in-law contracted the Spanish Flu in 1918 and died.
Breneman’s brother, David, connected with Augustus Franklin ‘Frank’ Crail, the Crail family patriarch, while freighting and the two families would end up intertwined. One of Breneman’s classmates at the Irving School in Bozeman was Emmett Crail, Frank’s son.
Emmett and Breneman remained close as they grew up, but did not marry until 1949, when Breneman was 63. After more research, Mistretta started to draw the conclusion that marriage bans may have been behind their delayed matrimony.
Marriage bars prohibited married women from teaching.
As was per usual at the time, Breneman received her Common Diploma after completing the eighth grade. She continued on to the Gallatin County High School and eventually received a Bachelor of Science in mathematics and physics degree from the Montana College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, which would later become Montana State University. In her twenties, when most women would begin their homemaking career, Breneman continued to UC Berkeley and an institution in Missouri for even more study.
With all this extra education, it only seemed proper that Breneman began teaching more advanced levels of students—high school math, for example. Often, women educators with Common Diplomas were only hired for younger grades in rural school districts.
The article that triggered the marriage ban thought for Mistretta was published on Montana Women’s History’s website in 2014. It starts out by describing a couple of women educators that hid their marriages for years in order to keep teaching.
“The idea that married women did not need the income, and that ‘hiring married women would deprive single girls of opportunities’ was the most common rationale for marriage bars,” the article read. The popular view was that a married women’s place was at home and a second income was not necessary for a household—very cult of domesticity.
World War II changed this social construct. Women poured into classrooms as men went off to war and as the war came to an end, advocates for married teachers reminded the public that, ‘If they ‘were good enough…in wartime…they’re good enough in peace time.’”
In 1955, Montana Attorney General Arnold Olsen decided that ‘marriage is not a ground for dismissal’ and the 1964 Civil Rights Act finally ended discrimination against married women educators.
“By outlawing discrimination based on sex, the act forced local school districts to treat married female teachers as they treated their male counterparts,” the Montana Women’s History article read.
Lilian Crail, sister of Eugene Crail who built the first schoolhouse in Big Sky, also married in her sixties and traveled far and wide to receive additional education and training. Mistretta described her as a career woman.
Lilian graduated from Gallatin County High School, same as Breneman, and studied in the applied arts curriculum at the early MSU. She got her teacher certification, taught for a couple years in small Montana towns, and then left for Chicago to train as a nurse. She would eventually marry and settle in California.
Anaconda, where Lilian worked as a nurse at one point, held onto their marriage bans until 1964.
“That’s gotta be why they didn’t get married, because she needed the money, and she would have been cut out of her salary,” Mistretta said about Breneman.
Breneman died nine years after finally marrying Emmett.
For more local history, check out Images of America by Dr. Anne Marie Mistretta and Dr. Jeff Strickler or Montana’s Gallatin Canyon: A Gem in the Treasure State by Dorothy Vick and Janet Cronin. Both are sold at local retailers and available to order online. More Crail Ranch history may be found at https://www.crailranch.org