Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Emma Ingalls, 1860-1940

By Ellen Baumler, Ph.D., interpretive historian, Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana

Newspaper publisher, clubwoman, legislator, farmer

Trailblazing journalist, suffragist, and one of the first two women to serve in the Montana House of Representatives, Emma Ingalls championed women's rights and spoke up for the disenfranchised. Born in 1860 at Racine, Wisconsin, to English immigrants William and Mary Backus, she moved with her family to Iowa, where Emma married printer Clayton O. Ingalls in 1879. The couple settled at Demersville, Montana, in 1889, where they established the area's first newspaper, the Inter Lake.

In addition to newspaper work, Emma and Clayton Ingalls farmed a homestead claim and raised two young daughters, Bernice and Adele. Clayton's health began to fail and Emma shouldered most of the publishing work. In 1891, the town of Demersville moved to the new townsite of Kalispell, a division point on the Great Northern Railway. They soon sold the newspaper and moved to the ranch, where Clayton died in 1898.

Ingalls was a lifelong feminist and took on the role of head of household. She studied irrigation and agriculture and became the first in the Flathead Valley to irrigate her fields and grow alfalfa. She bought interest in the Inter Lake and used its pages to editorialize for civic reform, although she never wrote under a by-line. A rival editor said she was a clever and interesting writer who "occasionally wielded a caustic pen."

Always active in civic affairs and local politics, Ingalls was instrumental in forming the Flathead County Federation of Women's Clubs and was president of Kalispell's Equality Club. After the death of her youngest daughter, Adele, in 1910, Emma sold the ranch and moved to town. When Montana women won suffrage in 1914, at the urging of Republican Party leaders, Emma entered the legislative race in 1916 and won. As she took her seat, she remarked, "The things that men can do better than I, will be left to them. I expect to inform myself and cast my vote ... on the right side."

During her first term in 1917, Ingalls introduced the national suffrage amendment when it came before the Montana House for ratification. During her second term, Ingalls sponsored a bill establishing the Mountain View Vocational School for Girls. Before that time, courts sent both boys and girls to the state reform school at Miles City. Separation of boys and girls was an important step in the care of delinquent juveniles.

Conscious of her role as a female reformer, Emma always championed child welfare and women's rights. After serving a second term, she became the first woman to work with the Bureau of Child and Animal Protection, chairing the northwest district under Gov. Joseph Dixon. She was the senate's printing clerk for the legislative sessions of 1929 and 1931, and later served as president of the League of Women Voters and the Flathead County Republican Women's Club.

Emma died at age eighty in 1940. The Inter Lake she and her husband founded is still the daily Kalispell newspaper. Despite her accomplishments, Emma believed her life was unremarkable. "God put me on his anvil and hammered me into shape," she once said. "The things that seemed so hard to bear at the time have proven to be the stepping stones to a larger, richer life."


Ellen Baumler, "After Suffrage: Women Politicians at the Montana Capitol." Women's History Matters at accessed 3/27/18.

Candace Chase, "Emma Ingalls: Trailblazing Journalist, Legislator," The Daily Inter Lake, April 12, 2009.

Emma A. Ingalls Papers 1919-1938, Small Collection 1940, Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena, MT

Cora M. Marsh, "Emma Ingalls Made a record." Montana News Association Inserts, August 1, 1932.

"The New Member from Flathead," Big Timber Pioneer, December 7, 1916, p. 12.

"Scrapbook Tells History of the Region," The Inter Lake, February 28, 1954.

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