Filed Under Women's History

Blanche Copenhaver

Blanche Copenhaver was involved in the Women's Protective Union in one role or another for 40 years. As a union member and working waitress, she moved up the ranks of the WPU to become one of its key leaders in the 1950s.

Born in Wyoming, Copenhaver and her sister worked in restaurants from Wyoming to Texas during the Depression before arriving in Butte. Underpaid and overworked, Copenhaver welcomed her first exposure to working in a unionized work environment.

Finally, at the age of 37, Copenhaver found a place where women's work was respected. She snagged a waitressing job in one of Meaderville’s, high end Italian restaurants. Relieved of endless overtime, she started attending union meetings.

“I thought everyone should have a union, because I’d been exploited all those years,” Copenhaver said.

By 1944, she was appointed to the union's executive board, the first of many positions she would hold.

As picket captain during the union’s one and only strike in 1949, Copenhaver organized the membership to create a presence on the streets. This included a 24-hour picket in front of Butte's largest hotel, the Finlen.

“The members had to picket,” Copenhaver said. “We had a picket list that had hours, it had charts, the days - they were all assigned. If they didn’t picket, we could fine them. But no one was asked to picket over once a week or over two hours a day. We kept a 24-hour picket line on the Finlen.”

While the effort was serious for everyone, it also lead to one of the more memorable events of Copenhaver’s life. While walking the picket line herself, she saw an idol. “This gentleman and his entourage get out of the car and start across the street, and I heard him say, ‘My god it’s a woman’s picket line! We’re not staying there!’” It was Bing Crosby.

Copenhaver became president of the WPU in 1950 and served in that capacity for 20 years. Membership grew. The union supported other unions on strike and gave money to striking miners.

Copenhaver became involved in the WPU's leadership during its heyday in the 1950s, but then witnessed its decline after the fight was won. Despite this, she became the first female vice president of the Montana AFL-CIO in 1978.

Married for a few years in the early forties and then divorced, Copenhaver never had children of her own. She readily admitted that instead the WPU was a big part of her life. She was as devoted to it as she felt it was to her. In retirement, her reputation as a strong, knowledgeable leader led to several state-appointed positions for the governor’s office. Copenhaver died at the age of 94.

Images

Strike meeting minutes, May 27, 1948 – vote 421 for; 156 against
Strike meeting minutes, May 27, 1948 – vote 421 for; 156 against Source: Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives

Location

Metadata

“Blanche Copenhaver,” Story of Butte, accessed May 18, 2024, https://storyofbutte.org/items/show/3446.