Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Maria Dean, 1858-1919
By Claire Rudolf Murphy, Independent Historian
Doctor, Suffragist, Community Leader, Humanitarian, active in both NWP and NAWSA
"I believe in women's suffrage because woman is a factor in the body social." Dr. Maria Dean
Dr. Maria M. Dean lived a life devoted to women's suffrage and the welfare of women and children. Born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1858, Maria Morrison Dean was the oldest of three sisters. She graduated in 1880 from the University of Wisconsin, followed by three years at the Boston University School of Medicine. She continued her studies in Berlin, Germany, for several years and then moved to Helena, Montana to join her younger sister Annie and family.
In 1889 Maria became the first woman licensed to practice medicine in the new state of Montana. She thrived, even though at the time there were only two thousand woman doctors in the United States and many men still could not tolerate the idea of a female physician, believing that medicine was too intimate for true womanhood. Dean soon became noted for her compassionate care, especially in diseases of women and children, and those with mental illness.
In spite of her busy medical practice, Dean served on Helena's Board of Education for many years, the state Board of Health, and the Helena YWCA. In 1917, Dr. Maria Dean, along with the Montana State Federation of Women's Clubs and the Good Government Club (later known as the Montana League of Women Voters) tirelessly lobbied the Montana legislature to establish a separate reform school for girls and finally succeeded in 1919.
Somehow Maria also found time to serve as president of Montana's first suffrage group, the Business Women's Suffrage Club of Helena, presiding over meetings that began in June 1896. After passage of Washington State's suffrage amendment in November 1910, Dean, Jeannette Rankin and Harriet Sanders founded the Equal Franchise Society. In the summer of 1912 these women, along with suffrage leaders Ida Auerbach and Frieda Fligelman, set the goal of supporting the campaign of candidates to the state legislature who were favorable to suffrage. They obtained the endorsement of all four political parties, Republican, Democratic, Progressive and Socialist, and a majority of suffrage supporters were elected that fall. During the 1913 legislative session a bill to place a women's suffrage amendment to the state constitution on the ballot, passed in overwhelming fashion. The amendment passed narrowly in the November 1914 general election.
Interest soon followed for a woman to run for Montana's solo seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Dr. Dean's nephew Huntley Child once told an interviewer that his aunt was asked to run at this time. Dr. Dean, busy with her medical practice, supported fellow suffragist Jeannette Rankin instead. In November 1916 Rankin became the first woman ever elected to Congress.
In 1917 Dean began serving as Montana's representative on the National Advisory Council of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Through this work she became friendly with President Wilson, after he finally embraced women's suffrage. When she became ill on a 1919 trip to Washington, D.C., Wilson offered a private train car for her return trip to Montana. Maria passed away soon afterwards at her sister's home in Helena. The obituary in the local newspaper detailed her many gifts: "The high ideas, the social services, the spotless life of this fine woman were of tremendous value to this community."
Dean well understood that women's suffrage was only the first step in addressing the needs of women. She died before the ratification of the 19th amendment in August 1920, but her life's work supporting women's issues reverberated long after her death. The Maria Dean building named in her honor at St. Peter's Hospital in Helena stands as a testament to her powerful advocacy for women.
Dr. Maria M. Dean Dies From Illness," Helena Independent, May 24, 1919.
Larson, T.A. "Montana Women and the Battle for the Ballot," Montana, the Magazine of Western History, Winter 1973.
Shirley, Gayle Corbett, More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Montana Women
Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot, 2010.
Smith, Norma. Jeanette Rankin: America's Conscience (n.p.: Montana Historical Press, 2002).
"Helena As She Was," at www.helenahistory.org/Hawthorne_School.htm.
The Suffrage Daily News, 25 September, 1914, p. 1, at chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85053121/1914-09-25/ed-1/seq-1.pdf
"Women's History Matters: Montana Suffrage 100, 1914-2014," at montanawomenshistory.org/empowering-women-the-helena-ywca/