Billings library piecing together the lives of 'nameless women' in its archives
It was customary for much of the 1900s to refer to married women by their husbands’ names: Mrs. F.H. Hathhorn, Mrs. Hugo Eck, Mrs. J.F. Badgley.
A woman’s maiden name was obscured, and if she happened to remarry, her identity became that much more murky.
“A lot of these women for us were lost to history because you don’t quite know who’s behind the name,” said Carla Nordland, an archivist in the Billings Public Library’s Montana Room.
Now, the library is on a mission to piece together information about the many anonymous or under-identified women in its archives. The project started when Nordlund’s predecessor in the Montana Room began informally tracking names she found in the library’s old books and newspapers.
“She started, just personally, all internally, had an Excel file of when she ran across someone, she would make a note of the name that we had and then where she found it,” Nordlund said, “with kind of the intent of maybe someday we could go back and do some research and find these women.”
That personal project is now the Remember Her Name initiative: Every Monday, the library posts a “nameless woman” discovered in the archives and, with help from the community and the Yellowstone Genealogy Forum, uncovers more about the woman’s life than just who she was married to.
“And that was the idea, is that if we can put out that puzzle piece, lots of other people have other pieces to add,” Nordlund said.
“Bringing it to light, their full name, kind of also brings in their full life story.”
So far, the library is three for three: Mrs. J.F. Badgley was Dellaphine Marie Haines, a renowned wool rug maker who at one point also ran a 400-acre ranch alone after her first husband died.
“Which seems incredible,” Nordlund said. “That’s incredible fortitude.”
Mrs. Hugo Eck was Dorothy Fritz Eck, a “very, very well known influential figure in Montana politics” who also worked on the Montana Constitution,” Nordlund explained.
The library had come across her name in a pamphlet from the Montana League of Women Voters, but didn’t make the connection until the public chimed in.
“We got a couple responses like, ‘She’s really famous, she’s really important,’” Nordlund said. “So that was really neat to be able to connect the dots.”
Even a former member of the library’s board of trustees was almost lost to history: Lillian Reynolds Hatthorn was involved with the library in the 1920s, almost at its inception.
“It was kind of surprising that even with our own history we kind of have these lost names,” Nordlund said.
The Remember Her Name project is on display in the library’s Montana Room and online.