On International Women’s Day, we reflect on female leadership

March 8, 2017

Categories: Agriculture, Coal, Northern Plains Resource Council, Plains Speaking, Tongue River Railroad, Uncategorized

By: Kate French


Kate French

Chief among the many stubborn, false ideas about the rural West is that men have always been the heroes: the cowboys, the ranchers, the warriors. But, in truth, this has never been the case because women were always there. Women were not only working the land, but also fighting for it. And in Northern Plains’ history, they weren’t simply shoulder to shoulder with the guys; they were often out front first.

Helen Waller said it all with these words when asked if she was ready to testify before a coal commission: “The question isn’t whether we are ready for them, the question is are they ready for us!”

The women of Northern Plains didn’t back down from a fight. It’s part of what created our organization. Founding member Anne Charter later recalled the day a coal company first approached her family’s ranch in the Bull Mountains in 1971: “The coal people came in and gave us this big spiel about the riches on our land. They wanted to strip mine. We were told we had no choice. We said, ‘Baloney.’ ” The iconic hide sign announcing landowner opposition to strip mining was signed by five women; Ellen Cotton and Mrs. Dan Wilson are first in the list.

When I think about my Northern Plains heroes, as many women come to mind as men (maybe more). I think about Anne Charter’s almost mythic tenacity. And I think of Ellen Pfister as a young lawyer in the ’70s, working tirelessly to advance a national strip mine bill, which she did along with other women and men of the coal fields. And, of course, Helen Waller, who fought for family farms, for clean energy, and protections for the land and water, is a legendary heroine who still to this day works on behalf of others at her own sacrifice. And even though they would never take credit, Margie McDonald and Teresa Erickson’s organizing shaped Northern Plains into a force to be reckoned with. All these women took the reins in the early years, and our organization owes a great debt to their strength and efforts.

Helen Waller

Anne Charter

Ellen Pfister

Jeanne Charter


Margie McDonald
Carolyn Walker
Teresa Erickson (L), Jeanie Alderson (R)
Beth Kaeding

We’ve had so many strong women follow in these footsteps. There are literally too many to name – I guess that’s what happens with an organization that’s persisted and grown over almost five decades. But there is one Northern Plains woman whose impact I particularly remember today.

During one of my first board meetings, I got to sit next to Jeanne Charter. She was immediately kind and she shared sly jokes with me during the meeting, which I really appreciated in such an intimidating environment. Then she reported out on a grazing issue she had been tracking and her demeanor changed a bit; in that moment, her resolve, focus, and intelligence electrified the room. I remember leaving that meeting and saying to my carpool, “I want to be just like her.” I’ve probably said that a hundred times since about various other member leaders and staff, but this was the first. It was a signal to me that women weren’t just welcome here, they were a fundamental part of the work. I only got a small glimpse of Jeanne that day, though I learned later on that my immediate regard for Jeanne was a pretty typical reaction.

Another Jeanie comes to mind as well.  Jeanie Alderson from Birney and her mother, Carolyn Walker.  Jeanie is a second-generation princess warrior for the land and water.  Born into the conflict that strip mining caused in their small village of Birney, Jeanie grew up watching her mom make great sacrifices to stand up for rural people and the Tongue River Valley, and picked up the torch herself when she became an adult.  Jeanie is my current-day heroine and I’m truly blessed to work shoulder to shoulder with her.

This blog would also be incomplete without talking about Beth Kaeding, another contemporary warrior princess from Bozeman. Beth was aptly described as the Olympic gold medalist of grassroots leadership when receiving recognition from the Cinnabar Foundation for her tireless and wickedly effective work to protect the Tongue River Valley. The word that comes to my mind about Beth is “respect.”

The world has changed a lot since Northern Plains was founded. I certainly don’t face some of the same social and economic obstacles that women in the 1970s did. But many women my age feel too much doubt, they feel intimidated from speaking out and they discount themselves. The Northern Plains grassroots approach not only trains women to speak out loudly and decisively, it also inspires them to follow those who have gone before; this is an aspect of our work that we don’t talk about much, but it’s very powerful. Our organization’s work necessitates that our members and staff hold true to our values, even when it’s uncomfortable or difficult. We’re lucky though, because we have our own heroes to look to, the women who showed us how it’s done and blazed a path big enough for the rest of us to follow. Sistahs for the land, air, water and communities!

Happy International Women’s Day to all the women working for change in our communities. You are an inspiration.

Kate French of Bozeman is the board chair of Northern Plains Resource Council

220 South 27th Street, Suite A
Billings, Montana 59101
(406) 248-1154