Belle Winestine is best remembered as Jeannette Rankin’s legislative assistant, though she served in this capacity for only one year (1916–1917). Nonetheless, her work with Rankin served as an important apprenticeship that created a lasting friendship, profoundly influenced her understanding of the legislative process, and solidified what became her lifelong commitment to reform. For over seventy years, she devoted time, money, and energy to support and enforce legislation pertaining to women’s rights and children’s issues.
Initially, her reform interests directly challenged the gendered conventions that governed her family’s life. Her parents, Herman and Minnie Fligelman, were Jewish immigrants who moved to Helena, Montana, from Romania in 1889. Minnie died two weeks after giving birth to Belle. Herman became a successful businessman and married Getty Vogelman in 1895. Together, they raised Belle and her older sister, Frieda, in the Jewish faith and planned for them to attend finishing school, marry, and have children.
Belle Winestine’s aspirations were not limited to religious or domestic proscriptions for women. She studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, a center of new ideas about government legislation and labor reform. She used her journalistic talents as the editor of the women’s page of the student newspaper to express her interests in labor laws, health insurance, the exploitation of workers in industry, and women’s rights. Her peers recognized her outspoken, energetic, and affable personality by electing her president of the Women’s Student Government Association, voting her the most prominent coed in the university, and selecting her as the first woman commencement speaker. Her popularity extended beyond campus life. Members of the State Headquarters for Woman Suffrage in Wisconsin selected her as the student representative to address a joint session of the state legislature, thus marking her entrance into the suffrage movement.
In 1914, one year after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, she helped to launch the woman suffrage movement in Montana. To capture the public’s attention, the suffragists drove up and down Main Street waving banners and handing out literature. These demonstrations culminated in street speeches that electrified the community and put women’s political demands at the forefront of public debate. While making significant contributions to the suffrage movement, Winestine also worked as the first woman reporter for the Helena Independent. That summer, the paper’s editor assigned her to report on Jeannette Rankin’s speech at a meeting of the local Federation of Women’s Clubs in Lewistown, Montana. Winestine immediately became Rankin’s most devoted follower, traveling with her and other suffragists throughout the state. Rankin’s leadership and Winestine’s capable assistance enabled Montana suffragists to achieve their quest—woman suffrage.
Winestine also played a key role when Rankin ran for Congress in 1916, writing publicity pieces for newspapers, lobbying potential supporters, and helping to organize her campaign strategies. She moved to Washington, D.C., after Rankin won the election to work as her legislative secretary and ghostwriter. As Rankin’s most active staff member, Winestine supported legislation that included civil service reform, pay equity, and infancy and maternity laws.
Though Belle Winestine eagerly pursued professional aspirations, she also enjoyed a sixty-seven-year marriage to Norman Winestine. They raised three children, Mina (b. 1918), Judy (b. 1919), and Henry (1924–1989). She served as the state president of the League of Women Voters in the 1920s, leading the campaign that gave women the right to serve on juries. She also lobbied for the Child Labor Amendment and the Equal Rights Amendment and for the creation of a state Children’s Bureau. In 1932, she unsuccessfully ran for the Montana Senate under the slogan “Smaller and Better Senators.”
As a member of the women’s movement, Belle Winestine believed that she contributed to the historical process that encouraged women to seek public employment and to pursue professional lives. She identified herself as a professional journalist and writer of short stories, plays, and children’s books. She did not see herself as a politician but rather as an individual with the responsibility to help ameliorate the problems of her community. As a politically active woman, she advocated legislation that regulated working conditions in industry, ensured pay equity between men and women, and challenged discriminatory attitudes that strictly relegated women to the domestic sphere. Winestine successfully balanced the responsibilities of family life with the rigors of her reform activism and journalism career. Her family and friends remember her for her generosity, tenacity, sense of humor, and ability to live life to its fullest extent.
Belle Winestine died in a nursing home in Helena, Montana, on April 21, 1985, following complications from a stroke in 1984.
Berson, Robin Kadison. Marching to a Different Drummer: Unrecognized Heroes of American History (1985); Hewes, Minna. Interview with author, 1996; Rochlin, Fred, and Harriet Rochlin. Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West (1984); Schaffer, Ronald. “The Montana Woman Suffrage Campaign, 1911–1914.” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 55 (January 1964): 9–15; Winestine, Belle. Belle (Fligelman) and Norman Winestine Collection, 1882–1985. Manuscript Collection, Montana Historical Society Archives, and Interviews with George Cole (1976) and Bill Lang (November 2, 1979). Montana Historical Society, Special Collections, and “Mother Was Shocked.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History (Summer 1974): 70–79, and Papers. M-136, Reel B 38, AW767. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, and “A Time for Women,” April 5, 1973, Montana Historical Society Archives, Special Collections; Winestine, Zachary. Interview with author, 1996; Wolf, Judy. Interview with author, 1996; WWIAJ (1938).
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Butler, Amy. "Belle Winestine." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 2, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/winestine-belle>.