Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Ella Knowles Haskell, 1860-1911
By Bari Burke, Professor, University of Montana School of Law
Lawyer, suffragist, Populist, clubwoman
Once described in the Atlanta Constitution as “the most successful female lawyer in the United States,” Ella Knowles is best known as Montana's first woman lawyer. She was also a leading suffragist so influential that her contemporaries attributed Jeannette Rankin's election to U.S. Congress to Haskell's earlier suffrage efforts.
Born in New Hampshire in 1860, an early female graduate of Bates College in Maine in 1884, Knowles began studying law in a New Hampshire law office. Shortly after, poor health caused her doctors to recommend she go west, and four years later, Knowles arrived in Montana where she taught school for one year before resuming her law studies. To become a lawyer in Montana, Knowles needed not only to pass the state's bar exam; she also needed to convince Montana legislators to revise the territorial law which allowed only men to practice law. She did. In December of 1889, she became a lawyer and in short time, she had a flourishing legal practice.
In 1892, only two years after her admission to the bar, and in a state in which women could not yet vote, Knowles became the nominee of the Populist Party for attorney general of Montana. She was the first woman to run for statewide office in Montana and the second woman in the nation to run for that office. She campaigned energetically, making over sixty speeches throughout Montana. According to the Atlanta Constitution, she came “marvelously near being elected”; the results were so close that many newspapers prematurely declared her the winner. Three weeks later, however, Henri Haskell was declared the winner. Shortly after, he appointed Knowles his assistant attorney general and, in 1895, they married. (They divorced amicably in 1897.) Knowles was Montana's Assistant Attorney General for four years.
Knowles remained engaged in politics while practicing law. She remained loyal to the Populist Party, serving in 1896 as a delegate to the county, state, and national conventions. While at the national convention, delegates elected her to the national committee of the Party, and she served in that office for four years.
Like many women lawyers, at the turn of the twentieth century, Knowles actively participated in suffrage struggles, becoming the president of the state suffrage association in 1896. The suffrage cause and the women lawyer cause shared a claim: women were equal citizens with men and were entitled to enter and work in the public arena. Her commitment strong, Knowles willingly shifted time from her law practice to the state and national suffrage campaigns.
Knowles had a leadership role in lobbying the 1897 Montana legislature to adopt a constitutional amendment ensuring equal voting rights. Although the legislature was not convinced to act, Knowles did not withdraw from her suffrage advocacy, moving to become a part of the national suffragist movement when the state movement seemed to stall. In 1896, Knowles was one of three hundred delegates to the National Suffrage Convention; other audience members included Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Rev. Anna Howard Shaw, and Carrie Chapman Catt. At the 30th annual convention and 50th anniversary celebration of the National Woman's Suffrage Association in Washington, D. C., she addressed the audience. In 1902, Montana women held a grand rally in Butte. Carrie Chapman Catt of the National American Woman Suffrage Association was the principal speaker; she shared the platform with representative Butte women, including Ella Knowles Haskell. In late 1902, the “ladies of the Equal Suffrage club” held a meeting in Knowles's office and decided to give a “big whist party” to raise money for the suffrage cause.
Knowles expressed her reason for supporting woman suffrage:
As to suffrage and the woman question, I am of the opinion that women should have the right of electors as they are required to pay taxes. We cannot evade the tax collector or the revenue agent and, if we support the government in times of war and peace with our money, we should have a voice in expending our contributions to the public funds. I believe in justice in all things, and if it was unjust for our fathers to be taxed by Great Britain without representation, it is unjust to tax the women of today without representation. I cannot see it in any other light.
As dedicated as Knowles was to the Populist Party and the suffrage movement, she never lost her primary focus on her law practice. In 1906, she was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. She became a specialist in real estate and mining law, not typical areas for women lawyers of the time.
Knowles had an active civic life. She belonged to the Silver Bow County Bar Association, the Theosophical Society, the Woman's Relief Corps, the Order of Eastern Star, the Woman's club, Daughters of Rebekah, Women of Woodcraft, and Daughters of the American Revolution.
Knowles died in Butte, Montana on January 28, 1911, at the age of 51. She was a remarkably successful lawyer, a pioneering suffragist, and a political activist.
Larson, T. C., “Montana Women & the Battle for the Ballot,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 28 (1973), 24-41
Matteucci, Sherry Scheel, “Montana's 1st Female Attorney Ella Knowles,” Montana Lawyer 33 (March 2008) 5-
Progressive Men of the State of Montana (Chicago: A. W. Bowen & Co. 1902)
Roeder, Richard B., “Crossing the Gender Line: Ella L. Knowles, Montana's First Woman Lawyer,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 32 (1982), 64-75
"What Women Can Do: Mrs. Haskell Tells of the Work of Women in Professions" Atlanta Constitution, Dec. 11, 1895