Carol Williams and Whitney Williams

When Americans think of Montana, they picture snow-capped peaks, rolling prairies, and rainbow trout darting through the crystal-clear rivers that run through it. Or they simply think of America's first national park, Yellowstone – or its popular TV namesake.

There are also some truths about Montanans: We're independent-minded, and community-centric. In snowy weather, you’ll never see one car off the road; you’ll always see two, because we stop to help to dig one another out of a ditch.
And, in Montana, freedom runs generations deep.

But these days, we’re losing our luster for all the wrong reasons. With the 2023 Montana Legislature ending, America is seeing a different version of the “Last Best Place.” Extremist Republican legislators banned TikTok, attempted to limit electoral choices by keeping third-parties off the ballot, tried to further restrict access to abortion despite the state’s strong constitutional right to privacy, and, in the ultimate affront to free speech, barred State Representative Zooey Zephyr, a bright, brave and talented trans legislator, from representing her 11,000 constituents back in our hometown of Missoula.

The Legislature’s Republican supermajority continues to strip away Montanans’ freedoms. On April 26, Zephyr was formally banned from the floor for allegedly breaking the House rules of decorum for previous heart-felt comments about a proposed ban on gender-affirming medical care. Just days before her floor privileges were taken away, Montanans turned up in the House gallery, chanting, “Let her speak.” Armed guards were called in, the gallery was cleared, and seven peaceful protesters were arrested.

This is not who we are.

We’ve run for office and served our communities. Between us we have 10 decades of experience in making change. And although we’ve seen this kind of anti-democratic, authoritarian behavior before, this isn’t Montana. Banning a lawmaker – the first transgender legislator in Montana history – is a step too far and puts cruelty and malice on full display. Some lawmakers even deliberately misgendered Zephyr in calling for a ”commitment to civil discourse.” This extremist supermajority is intent on taking away freedoms enshrined in Montana’s Constitution, and is attempting to prevent us from fighting back.

It’s an embarrassing spectacle for a state that elected the very first woman to hold federal office – Jeannette Rankin, first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916.

As Montana women who have worked in the public, private and nonprofit sectors and the rough-and-tumble world of politics, we expect our egos to get bruised and to occasionally lose skirmishes. But we’ll not stand by in silence in the face of bigotry, sexism and undemocratic practices.

As proud Montanans, who value family, community, freedom, and engaging with our neighbors, we don’t expect to witness the sheer spitefulness from a supermajority that has lost its vision for Montana and refuses to show compassion and respect to communities who are too often targeted, bullied and belittled.

We expect more. So do most Montanans.

The same afternoon that Zephyr was barred from the House, a young woman walked nonchalantly down a Missoula street. She was noticeable for a reason – not for what she said, but for what she did. She took out a Sharpie, wrote something down, and left a note behind: "Zooey Zephyr is my friend. Let her speak.”

Zooey Zephyr’s our friend, too. And, if she can’t speak, we will: Don’t let extremists strip away your freedoms, rights, and dignity. We’re never going to stop fighting for our freedoms – that’s what real Montanans do.

It’s time to take action. Please get engaged, and support and follow Rep. Zephyr and other women in leadership. Your support and your voice matter.

Let’s commit to being more tolerant, kind and helpful neighbors, and get back to pulling one another out of the ditch.

Carol Williams is Montana’s first state Senate female minority and majority leader, and a leading advocate for children, education and families in Montana and America. She served in the Montana House of Representatives and Montana Senate, representing Missoula. She also was a general election candidate for lieutenant governor in 2000. Her husband, Pat Williams, is a former member of Congress from Montana.

Whitney Williams is a sixth-generation Montanan, Missoula-based businesswoman and candidate for governor in 2020. She is founder of the Snowbird Fund, helping Indigenous communities search for missing loved ones, and cofounder, alongside Ben Affleck, of Eastern Congo Initiative, a multi-million-dollar grantmaking and advocacy initiative. She is the daughter of former Congressman Pat Williams and former Montana Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams.