An Idaho gender history

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The most frequent specific reaction to the book Martin Peterson and I just released, Idaho 100: The people who most influenced the Gem State, is this: Only five women out of 100 people? Really?

The same thought occurred to us as we populated the list. Were we, for some reason, just missing a lot of women who really ought to be on the list? We concluded we weren’t, at least not by the criteria we had set for the book. The reasons say something about the actual past and actual present of Idaho.

We weren’t saying women collectively didn’t influence the course of Idaho. Idaho became civilized as the female population increased; in politics, women were the main backers of prohibition, education and temperance, among other things. Many of the men on our list were strongly influenced by women, one way or another, and many women had a lot of specific, individual effect.

But individual leaders among women, especially early in Idaho’s history, are harder to find.

This is the history. Men led the original expeditions into what’s now Idaho. They scouted the trails, started the trading camps, found the precious metals, built the mining camps and boom towns and mapped their locations. In the early agricultural developments, women were more likely to be present, but men (like Charles Rich, Thomas Ricks, William Budge and William McConnell) were the leaders and founders of the early farm communities. Men designated the early roadways, specified boundaries on maps, designed and built the early water and transport systems on which the core of Idaho’s settled civilization was built. Men founded the major businesses – mining, timber, agricultural, communications and transportation – that formed the economic basis of Idaho in its early decades and beyond. The people who did these things account for many of the spots on the 100.

Idaho today has many prominent women in its business community, but that was not always the case, and in the context of two centuries of history, it’s a recent development. You’ll search in vain for the women who founded or controlled major Idaho businesses in the 19th century, or even the early 20th. (This isn’t necessarily true elsewhere, but it was in Idaho.) The first major female entrepreneur in Idaho with major reach and influence was Georgia Davidson, the key founder of Idaho’s television (and to a degree radio) industry, and she is on our list, but her greatest influence didn’t begin until 1940s and 50s.

It’s more stark on the government side. Idaho never has had a female governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general or U.S, senator, and just two representatives in all these years to the U.S. House. Idaho territory elected no women at all (so far as I can tell) to any territory-wide or legislative office. The Idaho state legislature was all-male well into the 20th century; the first female Idaho state senator took office in 1937, and the numbers did not rise substantially for more decades. Idaho did start electing women as superintendent of public instruction in 1898 (with Permeal French, listed in the 100), but decades passed before they reached any other statewide office.

When more recently women have argued that they long have been underrepresented in the state’s support political, economic and social ranks, they have been right – and that has changed, to some degree at least, in recent decades. But what has preceded this last generation or two is much of Idaho’s formative history. We didn’t argue that’s the way it should have been, or should be in the future. But we’d be dishonest to argue it’s not the way it actually was.

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