For 50 years, she's fought for women
By ROGER CLAWSON
Of The Gazette Staff
Monday, Nov. 3, 1980 - The Billings Gazette
When the beautiful young daughter of a Swedish immigrant entered the rough and tumble of Capital City politics, the opposition screamed "Rape!”
Frances C. Elge's political career has spanned a half century — from her own campaign wars in Lewis and Clark County, her service as secretary-treasurer for the first congresswoman, to her on-going fight for the Equal Rights Amendment.
"Born a feminist," she will be back in Helena if the 1981 Legislature attempts to rescind its ratification of the ERA.
And she will be right at home.
It was in Helena in 1932 when she entered politics.
With the ink still fresh on her license to practice law, she ran for public administrator. Then, as now, it was a minor office, but "Fran" Elge made national headlines when her probate of an old man's estate uncovered a hoard of moldy bills in a tarpaper shack.
"An old man died in the county hospital and $750 in war bonds were found under his mattress," she recalled.
" I went to his home, a tarpaper shack, and a neighbor warned me not to go inside. She said I would find the place crawling with vermin."
Public Administrator Elge padlocked the door, waited for a killing frost and then entered to find $5,000 in an old bread wrapper.
The story made the national news wires and Fran was flooded with letters from heirs and pretenders from across the nation.
She also shared the national limelight as a defense counsel in the famous Baldwin Radio Mail Fraud case. The case involved a stock promotion, the inventor of the Baldwin headset, and a number of salesmen.
Also on the defense team was Sam Ford, a former state Supreme Court Justice and a future Montana governor.
The young lawyer was in good company when she lost after the case went all way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nor was it a disgrace to lose to the man acting as prosecutor: Wellington Duncan Rankin, the state's most noted lawyer, largest individual landowner and perhaps Montana's richest man.
”W.D.” as he was known was young Elge's friend and mentor. His sister, former Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin would become an Elge inspiration and cause.
It was on "W.D's" urging that Fran ran for the county attorney's post in Lewis and Clark County.
That's when the opposition screamed, ”Rape!”
It was clearly a sexist campaign tactic. In those days women were not allowed to sit on Montana juries. "Women were not supposed to be exposed to the lurid testimony of the courtroom," Fran explained.
Her opponent was Undersheriff Walter Nylan, who had been admitted to the bar but had let his license lapse 10 years earlier.
Nylan backers asked, "Do you want to put a woman in the position of prosecuting rapists?"
Before the election, the number of statutory rape cases on the docket began to accumulate, reaching an even dozen before the election.
Fran countered with a newspaper ad which included the endorsement of a number of the state's most respected lawyers.
"It was plain, I was better qualified," she said. The voters in 1934 agreed.
She clearly was the best looking prosecutor in Montana.
In two years, she only lost one case.
You guessed it. The defense attorney was the man who lent her lawbooks to begin her career - W.D. Rankin.
"It was a murder case," she recalled. "There had been a highway accident and a woman shot the man who caused it."
At the coronor's inquest, the sheriff reported she had said:
"I shot him and I hope I killed him."
It appeared to be a solid case, but between arrest and trial a few things happened.
First, the sheriff became smitten by his prisoner. The prisoner hired W.D. Rankin and Rankin evolved a couple of new angles.
The sheriff - now a prisoner of love - testified, "She might have said, 'I shot him and I hope I didn't kill him."
In the closing arguments, W.D. told the jury his client was pregnant. "You wouldn't want the baby to be born in prison," he said.
The woman was acquitted.
She never had a baby.
And the sheriff insisted he wasn't the fatter.
But prosecutor Elge had a few angles of her own.
When Kid Jackson, a former boxing champion, sauntered into the "Bucket of Blood" and shot owner Johnny Philips, Fran scrambled to find witnesses.
She found Alice Shahaha, a Yakima Indian, who enterprized as a roller of sheepherders and "lady of easy access," in the mental hospital at Warm Springs.
Alice had been sent there by Billings Police on a trumped-up-charge of drug use, Fran recalled.
The prosecutor knew Alice was straight because months earlier Ms. Shahaha and one of her "sisters of the night" had come to Fran's office to ask for a jail term to kick their narcotics habits. Fran obliged with 30 days for vagrancy and watched the pair gain weight as their earnings began to go for food instead of into their pusher's pocket.
Alice was given the full treatment at a beauty salon before taking the stand. She made an excellent witness.
A second prostitute took the stand wearing fine white gloves. She, too, gave credible testimony. Fran was grateful - grateful that the gloves she had given the witness hid the needle tracks on her hands.
Justice prevailed and Kid Jackson was convicted.
Justice took various forms during her tenure as prosecutor.
When a 70-year-old woman was brought in on a shoplifting charge, the Sheriff asked, "What are you going to do with her?"
Fran replied, "I'm going to give her a talking-to and turn her loose."
The sheriff, who profited from feeding prisoners, left muttering, "She ought to be taught a lesson."
Fran said, "If she hasn't learned by now, she isn't going to."
Juveniles were lectured on Saturdays and their parents made to pay for their vandalism. "I never sent a kid to reform school," she recalled.
In 1939, Fran was lobbying the state Legislature for the passage of the Women's Jury Service Act.
As county attorney, she had faced only all-male juries. ("Of course," she said, "that inurred to my benefit.")
In the course of the battle, she enlisted the aid of FDR's Butte campaign manager, a woman with political savvy and clout who lined up a labor-farmers union coalition in support of the bill.
After the bill had passed and women became peers sitting in judgment, Fran was in the presence of two judges when one turned to the other and said, "Say, Judge Downey at Butte has ladies on his jury.
"And do you know, they are showing 'remarkable judgment."
Fran Elge, considered a lawyer, not a woman, by her collegues, never batted an eye.
In 1940, she became Jeanette Rankin's campaign secretary-treasurer.
Rep. Rankin was the first women to be elected in 1916 to the U.S. House of Representatives. She lost her bid for reelection when she was one of only a few to vote against America's entry into World War I.
The war machines were loose again in Europe when Miss Rankin took the the campaign trail in 1940.
Fran served as ghost writer for pro-Rankin articles that appeared in the Montana Catholic Register. Rankin's opponent was Catholic but in trouble with his constituents over a bad debt at Carroll College.
"We carried the Catholic vote," Fran recalled, "although Jeanette was probably not Catholic."
Congresswoman Rankin returned to Washington. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and she stood alone opposing the U.S.'s entry into World War II. That vote cost her a career.
Fran left Montana for Washington as Jeanette's administrative assistant and later held "a number of very good jobs," including a post on the Admiralty Claims and Litigation staff of the Maritime Administration.
In the nation's capital she met the same sexual discrimination she had first encountered in her race for county attorney.
She used "political connections" to fight discrimination and resented having to do so. "Being better qualified than the men I served with should have been enough."
In 1954, she returned to Montana and served as an administrative law judge for the Department of the Interior in Billings until her retirement in 1970.
She was back in Helena in 1971, lobbying for feminist legislation.
On the list was the repeal of a law that made it illegal for women to work more than 8 hours a day - a law that gave employers a handy excuse not to hire women.
A second law which banned discrimination on the basis of race, color or creed was amended to bar discrimination on the basis of sex as well.
But a third piece of legislation in the package, Fran avoided.
Feminists were being smeared as "a league of baby killers" and Fran refused to dilute her influence by taking a stand on an abortion bill.
A charter member of the Montana Council for the Equal Rights Amendment Ratification, she has testified at every legislative hearing considering adoption or rescission of the ERA.
"And I will continue to testify at every hearing," she vowed.
Anyone attempting to debate the ERA with Fran will find her dipping into her purse for a card that carries the full text of the amendment in three paragraphs.
"That's what it says. And that's all it says," she will tell them.