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1908 Billings High School graduate helped get right to vote for women

Hunkins plaque 2b.jpg
Posted at 10:30 PM, Apr 01, 2023

BILLINGS - This past week marked the end of Women's History Month and a Billings woman is being celebrated for her dedication to fighting for changes that would empower women all across this country.

Last month, the School District 2 board approved placing a plaque outside the Lincoln Center, honoring Hazel Hunkins.

The plan is to unveil the plaque on May 18, according to Judy Senteney of the League Of Women Voters.

She is not sure of the exact location, but says it may be somewhere near the southwest part of the building.

There was a home at 218 North 33rd Street where Hazel Hankins grew up at a time before the car became prominent in America and now it's a parking lot.

She was friends with the Moss girls who lived a couple of blocks to the west.

National Women's Party leaders sat on the porch to recruit her and now the Pomeroy Foundation is honoring her for her leadership and helping women get the right to vote.

Senteney has the plaque in her garage and says it has the suffragette colors of yellow, white and purple.

Hazel Hankins was a pioneer who helped lead the charge in Montana and nationwide.

The plaque celebrates Hazel's commitment and perseverance as a suffrage leader in the National Women's Party.

"On the grounds of the Lincoln Center, which was the high school in the early 1900s," Senteney said.

Hazel Hankins was born in Colorado in 1890, graduated from Billings High School in 1908 and went on to Vassar College and the University of Missouri.

Then she was told she would not be hired as a chemist because she was a woman.

That motivated her to take up the suffragist cause.

"Her family supported her, but not too openly because of the criticism in the community," said Senteney.

"She was writing her mom after she was arrested and getting such horrible press in places like Montana," said Kevin Kooistra, Western Heritage Center executive director. "She would be like, 'I'm so sorry, that I'm an embarrassment to you.'"

Kooistra says Hazel eventually became comfortable with quietly protesting and trying to get her message to President Wilson and Congress.

"They were egged, they had their banners taken from them, they were arrested many times," Kooistra said. "And they were even sometimes attacked by other suffragists."

Hazel's commitment to these efforts was even further exemplified when she flew in an airplane with the expertise of a stunt pilot.

"He took me over San Francisco and I scattered suffrage leaflets on the crowds below," she wrote in the caption for a picture of her next to the airplane.

"Planes were very new," Seteney said. "She really was taking her life in her own hands."

Congress eventually passed what would become the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920 by the states.

It gave women the right to vote, but Hazel wasn't done fighting for women.

"She moved to England for 50 years, was the only American-born president of what was called the Six Point Group, one of the leading feminist organizations in London," Kooistra said.

Her children and grandchildren live in England.

Hazel Hankins Hallinan and her husband Charles are laid to rest at Mount View Cemetery in Billings.

Now thanks to the plaque, more in Billings and Montana will know her story.