Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Frieda Academe Fligelman, 1890-1978

By Marias Blundell, student-researcher, University of Montana

Clubwoman, suffragist, sociologist, poet

Frieda Academe Fligelman was born in Helena, Montana on January 2, 1890. Her father, Herman Fligelman, immigrated from Berlad, Romania to Boston in 1881. Mr. Fligelman was a devout Jew, as was the rest of the family. Herman married Minnie Weinzweig in 1888; they had two children, Frieda and Belle, before Minnie's death soon after Belle's birth. Following the death of his first wife, Herman Fligelman married Getty Vogelbaum in 1895, who then became the step-mother to the two girls. Frieda later recalled that Getty would often comment that she forgot “she was our step-mother.” Frieda and Belle's upbringing emphasized culture and education; they attended shows at the Ming Opera House in Helena as well as taking dancing and swimming lessons. Frieda and her sister grew up in a house that encouraged intellectual thought and debate; in her later recollections, Frieda described her father reading to her and her sister from Tom Paine's Rights of Man on Sundays. Frieda had decided before she even entered high school that she would continue her education by going to college.

Frieda Fligelman was an activist from a young age. She was very involved with the YWCA despite her Jewish faith, serving as the Helena branch's first secretary in 1911. The Helena branch of the YWCA was not affiliated with the National group and allowed non-Christians into the organization. She also was a social feminist, believing suffrage to be the tool to promote social change. At a suffrage rally in Great Falls in March 1913, she gave a speech about the importance of female suffrage, stating that it should not be the end goal of the feminist movement, but rather the starting point.

Freida and Belle Fligelman convinced their father and step-mother that a college education would be entirely appropriate for the two girls. After studying for a year at the University of Minnesota, Frieda Fligelman joined her sister at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1910. While living in Madison, Frieda intensified her activist commitments, protesting the inadequate factory safety laws that had resulted in the deaths of 123 young women in the fateful 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. She later joined forces with the National Consumers' League, encouraging shoppers to boycott products that were not endorsed by the League. While in college, Fligelman also attended a speech by Emma Goldman, an anarchist known for her fiery speeches. Fligelman was not impressed. She reflected: “Oh, well, it was dullest thing you could imagine. Everyone was bored because it was a lot of esoteric, theoretical ideas, and it wasn't dealing with particular cases that we could understand.” Frieda's strong individual personality was reflected in her academic and personal endeavors, and she continued to crave education and personal fulfillment.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Frieda was conflicted about her experience there. She later mused: “I had no one to talk to. I knew loads of people to say hello to, but I never knew anyone to discuss anything with.” Although she contemplated returning to Helena, she instead moved to New York City, where she enrolled at Columbia University. Unlike the University of Wisconsin, which granted women full coeducation status in 1875, and the University of Minnesota, which had its first women graduates in 1893, Columbia was the last of the Ivy League Schools to admit women. Columbia had established Barnard College for female college students; however, schools within the University had been admitting women for quite some time. Constitutional Law, a class Frieda wanted to take, was initially closed to women. However, she successfully petitioned to open the class to women by declaring: “It seems indeed unnecessary that an American citizen should have to give reasons for studying the Constitution and law of her country.” Fligelman also became the first woman admitted into the doctoral program in Political Science at Columbia. She later switched to the Sociology Department, passing her examinations in 1917.

Fligelman then worked in New York for about six months, conducting research for the Dean of the Columbia Law School on the history of reform in criminal legislation from the colonial times. After spending time in Berkeley, California, she became interested in the field of anthropology and returned to New York to work with Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology. Fligelman worked extensively in West Africa, striving to disprove theories by Levi-Strauss that certain cultures were less complex and intelligent based on race. Fligelman's field work and research culminated in a treatise titled the Moral Vocabulary of an Unwritten Language (Fulani). Instead of accepting her research as her dissertation, the Sociology Department rejected it, regarding the new field of socio-linguistics as “too far outside the field of sociology.” Although her work was not recognized by the faculty of Columbia, Frieda continued to write and publish other works, including: A Proposed Set of Categories for Analyzing Beliefs Regarding Public Policies: Linguistic Sociology; Sociological Problems: Outlines for Research Seminars; and The Richness of African Negro Languages. Fligelman, who suffered from depression, also was an accomplished poet. A book of her poetry, Notes for a Novel, was published posthumously.

Fligelman moved back to Berkeley in the 1930s, before eventually returning to Helena in 1948 to help care for her step-mother. Back in Helena, she remained active in the YWCA, established a one-woman think tank - the Institute for Social Logic - and she could often be seen taking lunch at the exclusive Montana Club in Helena. In her “purple coat and green hat with a jaunty feather,” Fligelman was a recognizable sight around Helena, where she lived until her death in January 1978.

Photo Credit: Frieda Fligelman in Paris, Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana, published in Marga Lincoln, “Celebrating Montana's 100th Anniversary of Women's Rights to Vote,” Independent Record (Helena), November 2, 2014,



Photo Credit: Frieda Fligelman posing on a camel during one of her research trips. Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana. Published in “The Lifelong Quest of Frieda Fligelman and Belle Fligelman Winestine,” October 30, 2014, Women's History Matters,


"Columbia University." Wikipedia. March 23, 2019. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Death Certificate, 1978; Helena, Lewis and Clark; Roll: 25-15; Image 744; FHL microfilm.

"Empowering Women: The Helena YWCA." Women's History Matters. April 22, 2014. Accessed January 5, 2019.

Fligelman, Frieda, "Frieda Fligelman Interview, November 11, 1976." Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library, University of Montana.

Frieda Fligelman Papers, 1927-1984. Mss 184. Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library, University of Montana, Missoula.

"Herman Fligelman: Early Jewish Department Store Owner of Helena, Montana." Jewish Museum of the American West. Accessed February 25, 2019.

"Historical Timeline." University of Wisconsin–Madison. Accessed March 12, 2019.

"History." University of Minnesota Law School. May 01, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Leaphart, Susan. "Frieda and Belle Fligelman: A Frontier-City Girlhood in the 1890s.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 32, no. 3 (Summer 1982), 85-92.

Lincoln, Marga. “Celebrating Montana's 100th Anniversary of Women's Rights to Vote,” Independent Record (Helena), November 2, 2014,

“The Lifelong Quest of Frieda Fligelman and Belle Fligelman Winestine,” October 30, 2014, Women's History Matters,

"Long Buried." Signature Montana Magazine. October 13, 2016. Accessed March 10, 2019.

Peavy, Linda, and Ursula Smith. Frontier Children. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Smith, Norma. Jeannette Rankin: America's Conscience. Helena: Montana Historical Society, 2002.

Ward, Doris Buck. "The Winning of Woman Suffrage in Montana." (M.A. Thesis, Montana State University, 1974).


Fligelman, Frieda. A Proposed Set of Categories for Analyzing Beliefs Regarding Public Policies: Linguistic Sociology. Helena, Mont.: F. Fligelman, 1962.

Fligelman, Frieda. Moral Vocabulary of an Unwritten Language (Fulani.). Wien: Anthropos, 1932.

Fligelman, Frieda. Notes for a Novel: The Selected Poems of Frieda Fligelman. Rick Newby and Alexandra Swaney, eds. Helena, Mont.: Drumlummon Institute, 2008.

Fligelman, Frieda. Sociological Problems: Outlines for Research Seminars (preliminary Printing). Helena, Mont., 1934.

Fligelman, Frieda. The Richness of African Negro Languages. Paris: J. Peyronnet & Cie., 1932.

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