Jim Harmon

(Missoula Current) Florence Matthews was something else, a strong-willed teenager.

In 1908, she had been home for days, battling a severe illness, but (against her doctor’s orders) still participated with the Missoula High School debate team for state honors.

The debate issue: a legal system of compulsory arbitration and conciliation, as existed in New Zealand.

The opposition team from Columbus High School “put up a splendid argument against the proposition,” according to a report in the Missoulian newspaper.

The team’s only problem, according to the newspaper reporter, was not directly addressing the question as presented. Had they addressed the specifics, the reporter felt they would have “captured the honors.”

Missoula’s team was made up of George P. Stone (Captain), Edward Barker, and Florence Matthews.

1908 debate champs - Missoulian May 12, 1908
1908 debate champs - Missoulian May 12, 1908

Our heroine, Florence May Matthews, was up first for the “affirmative” side of the argument.

“We will prove,” she said, “First: that there is need of government intervention. Second: that compulsory arbitration is the best way in which the government may intervene. Third: that so far as it is possible to judge it will be successful.”

“In the time alloted to me, I will endeavor to prove that the public peace and welfare of this country demand intervention of law in settling the disturbance between labor and capital.”

It was a strong start, but after speaking for only a few minutes “she became faint and had to leave the stage,” according to the following day’s story in the Missoulian.

“The Columbus team was “magnanimous and offered no objection to the suggestion that the debate be delayed until Miss Matthews should be able to continue.” That turned out to be pivotal.

Purple & Gold debate champs - Missoulian newspaper May 12, 1908
Purple & Gold debate champs - Missoulian newspaper May 12, 1908

Once recovered from her fainting spell, “the debate went on and Miss Matthews” stepped forward.

She “took up in detail the phase of the question which dealt with the necessity existing for the sort of government intervention proposed (and) finished her argument brilliantly.”

“Protect the non-union men in their inherent right to work,” she argued, “and the strike of necessity becomes extinct. That is precisely what the law we advocate will accomplish.”

Her summation impressed the judges, and “she was awarded the individual championship.”

The local newspaper concluded, “The award was popular and the young lady was roundly cheered for her pluck as well as for her work.”

Florence went on to attend the University of Montana, where she was involved in the Dramatic Club, served as Literary Editor of the student newspaper, and was class secretary. She graduated in two years with a B.A. in Literature.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at fuzzyfossil187@gmail.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.