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So Many Women, So Little Time: Mary Jane Bradbury Brings History to Life
Montana Senior News Aug./Sept. 2016
Aside from qualifying as three of the best-known women from Montana’s past, Nancy Russell, Evelyn Cameron, and Jeanette Rankin have something else in common. Each of their stories has been brought to life by Mary Jane Bradbury, who provides some of the most entertaining history lessons any audience could ever hope to receive.
Part actress, storyteller, researcher, and educator, Mary Jane has created fascinating living-history portrayals of these Montana legends. Dressed in period costumes that she sews herself, she paints a verbal portrait of each woman’s background and achievements including challenges faced from without and within.
As Mary Jane says: “The warts are where connections are made. It won’t do the audience or character justice if you just tell the good stuff. What makes us better human beings are the lessons we’ve learned and the growth we’ve gotten in the process.”
Whether performing at schools or museums, in boardrooms or libraries, Mary Jane relies on each woman’s words and views to tell her story complete with proper English or soft Kentucky accents. And she stays in character even when she opens the floor for questions from audiences of all ages. The result is an intimate learning experience based on a factually correct glimpse into each woman’s life.
“What’s important about the person is what gets said. I don’t tell everything,” says Mary Jane, whose prior work involved acting in commercial and industrial films. “You have to be honest with the story you’re telling and with the person you’re representing. It’s not about being popular, it’s about telling the story. These women were willing to power through the objections in service to what they loved.”
Mary Jane started her living-history business in 2002. After leaving commercial acting behind, she happily delved into exploring the 1800s and early 1900s when there were a lot of firsts for women. “I wanted to turn my performance skills towards more educational things. I thought it was more fulfilling than selling peanut butter and cars. Aside from that,” adds the Helena resident, “I’ve always loved history.”
Contrary to what some might assume, these presentations are not just dressing up and giving a lecture in a costume. While each portrayal does stem from Mary Jane’s perspective as an artist, the information she draws on is authentic and documented including the racial and gender prejudices of the times.
“I use as much of the original language of the woman as possible, researching primary sources—quotes from letters, biographies, books. I look for what their contemporaries spoke of them,” explains Mary Jane. “After gathering my background material, I go for the next layer and infuse it with a personality. It’s truly finding the voice of that individual based on what she accomplished and the times in which she lived. Context is so important. You can’t give her sensibilities she wouldn’t have had.”
It takes nine to twelve months to develop each portrayal. But the process does not end there since Mary Jane is constantly gaining new insights into these individuals. She only depicts women with whom she feels a connection, which clarifies why she selected these three subjects.
As the wife and business manager of artist Charles M. Russell, Nancy Russell was the acknowledged brains behind his business. Although coming from humble beginnings and without an education, she handled everything from travel logistics, framing, copyrights, shipping, and sales, to the details of domestic life.
“Nancy was smart, ambitions, and self-taught. She’s an essential part of his story. Charlie said, ‘Without her, I would never have attempted to soar. I’d have ended up in a gutter.’ She was a woman ahead of her time, with an undeserved negative reputation because she was assertive,” remarks Mary Jane. “She protected Charlie. Nancy said, ‘I had to stand between Charlie and the world that would worry or upset him.’ Without her there wouldn’t have been an art legacy. She made him keep his commitments. I think a woman who did what she did deserves to have her story told.”
In conjunction with the Montana Historical Society, Mary Jane has developed a video of Nancy walking students through MHS’s Mackay Gallery of Russell Art. Additionally, she conducts in-person school tours of that collection. 
“These have been fantastic additions to our educational offerings. Mary Jane’s first-person interpretation engages audiences and draws them into the subject. This is true for adults as well as kids, but it’s especially fun to watch the way she interacts with school groups and holds the students’ attention,” says Kirby Lambert, MHS’s Outreach and Interpretation Program Manager. “The video allows school groups that can’t make it to Helena to share in the experience. It’s also an effective pre-visit tool for teachers who are planning a visit.”
Mary Jane’s interest in Jeanette Rankin dates back to her first tour of the capitol building in Helena. As soon as she saw Jeanette’s statue on the landing and read the plaque, she rushed to the gift shop to buy her biography. The first woman elected to the United States Congress, Jeanette voted ‘no’ for U.S. entry into both world wars.
“Pacifism became her raison d’etre because she believed that war was a poor strategy for solving conflict. Her courage appealed to me. She truly was a pioneer at being a woman in politics. She was a humanitarian and tireless advocate for social reform,” notes Mary Jane. “She kept her integrity, held to her beliefs, and didn’t knuckle under to expectations–an example to all for standing up for what we believe.”
Perhaps the least known of the trio, photographer Evelyn Cameron was an Englishwoman of privilege who immigrated to Terry. She spent 35 years visually and verbally chronicling everyday life on the prairie. With her large-format camera, Evelyn captured the isolation and backbreaking work endured by homesteaders as well their sense of community. She left a rich legacy. Her prints, glass-plate negatives, and diaries intimately reflect the good and bad times of existence on the high plains.
“Evelyn was the complete opposite of Nancy Russell. She had servants–she didn’t even have to brush her own hair. She felt stifled and could not wait to get away. In America, she chopped wood and carried water, this woman who never had to lift a finger. Evelyn took off her hat and gloves and got sunburned. Work made her feel valuable,” recounts Mary Jane. “In the midst of all this, she was an artist, too, faithfully recording the frontier life.”
For Mary Jane, her vocation has brought rewards beyond a paycheck. It has enabled her to correct misperceptions and to influence young lives. “I have been surprised how much of a two-way street these presentations can be with the audience. You break the fourth wall, the space that separates a performer from an audience, and talk with one another. You transcend the information,” says Mary Jane. “Audiences become part of the story telling and it becomes a powerful experience for them and you.”
For more information, visit: To watch the MHS video, go to: