Please warmly welcome our newest contributor, Jennifer Colton-Jones.
On a December morning in 1916, the polls opened in the small town of Umatilla, Oregon, for a municipal election. As the day stretched on, the town’s men drifted in and out, casting a ballot here or there. By midday, the men started to wonder what had happened to the women. For months, the women had talked of their newly gained right to vote—women in Oregon won the right to vote in 1912, eight years before the 19th Amendment—but election morning came and went without a peep from Umatilla’s fairer residents.
Perhaps the women had decided they couldn’t spare the time to vote. Perhaps they assumed the incumbents would keep their seats with no serious opposition on the ticket. Perhaps it simply slipped their minds. It would fit: The town’s city councilmen often failed—or simply forgot—to attend council meetings themselves.
The men scratched their heads and looked around. Chickens ran in the unpaved streets, and the sidewalks were broken and cracked under dark and useless streetlights, turned off when the city didn’t pay its electric bill. For years, the women had begged, scolded, and commanded the men to clean up the town, to no avail. Yet when they had the opportunity to speak with their votes, the women’s voices were silent…or were they?
In the early afternoon, the women began to arrive at the polling stations, almost all at once, and almost without exception. By the time the polls closed that evening, the women of Umatilla had pulled off a strange sort of conspiracy unlike anything the country had ever seen.
According to one of the women, the idea started during a card party. Florence Brownell told The Tacoma Times:
“There had been a lot of talk about reform and improvement. Mrs. Merrick’s husband, I think it was, suddenly suggested a woman’s ticket at the approaching election. Everybody laughed. They thought it was a huge joke. Well, it was—only we women laughed last.”
One woman, Laura Jane Stockton Starcher, took the lead. A five-foot-two homemaker, Starcher moved to Umatilla in 1912, the same year Oregon gave women the right to vote. Her husband, E. E. “Speck” Starcher, was a railroad wire chief who just happened to be the mayor of Umatilla. At the time, Umatilla did not require prospective officials to publicly declare their candidacy, and all ballots were counted with write-in votes. Given the men’s record in handling town issues, the women decided their best chances were to take care of the campaign—and the election—themselves.
The women started campaigning in the fall, spreading their message during quilting bees and library meetings. They kept their campaign secret from their husbands—especially those in elected positions—and brushed off any rumors as part of a great joke. The women also banked on most of Umatilla’s residents avoiding the polls. Voters tended to assume the incumbents would be re-elected without any major competition, so Umatilla’s voter turnout had always been embarrassingly low.
On 05 December 1916, the polls opened at 8:00am, but the town’s women behaved as if it were any other day. Instead of rushing to the polls, the town’s female residents tidied their homes, ran their businesses, supervised their children. With the morning’s chores taken care of, the women hit the polls around 2:00pm—and it was obvious they had a plan.
At first, the men humored the women, enjoying the joke that a woman could take elected office or—even more absurd—that women would control the way the election fell. When they read the results posted in front of City Hall, however, the men discovered the joke was on them. Most surprised of all was Mayor “Speck” Starcher, who lost his bid for reelection 26-8—to his wife.
The Umatilla voters, primarily women enthusiastically supporting the secret campaign, elected women to every open position on the ticket. Florence Brownell, Anna Means, Stella Paulu, and Gladys Spinning took seats on the Umatilla City Council; Lola Merrick became treasurer; and Bertha Cherry was named City Recorder. Both Paulu and Cherry would serve as future mayors for Umatilla. Only two men, C.G. Brownell and A.B Stephens, whose terms carried over the 1916 election, remained in office. Mr. Brownell had the distinction of serving on the City Council alongside his wife until his term ended in 1918.
The election results hit the news wire, and the national spotlight focused on the tiny railroad town on the banks of the Columbia River. Mayor Laura Starcher’s portrait graced the front page of newspapers from Washington State to Washington, D.C. Reporters and readers alike were fascinated by the “dainty” woman with the “laughing gray eyes” who dared to take control of a city when, in most states, women weren’t even allowed to vote.
Headlines marveled at the women’s victory and mocked Speck Starcher’s defeat: “Woman Defeats Husband,” “Beats Husband for Mayor,” and “Woman Mayor is Pretty, Clever and Diplomat.” Despite earning their elected positions, the women of Umatilla’s new administration were listed in print by their husbands’ initials—Mrs. E.E. Starcher—or by their husband’s profession. Bertha Cherry and Lola Merrick were simply “the wives of railroad men,” Brownell was “the wife of a gravel dealer,” and so on.
Even after the election—and the subsequent press frenzy—the men had one last hurdle for the ladies to leap: the outgoing councilmen almost forgot to verify the election results within the four-day period mandated by state law.
“If we had let the women be disqualified, I would never have gone home again,” Speck Starcher told a reporter. “The world wouldn’t have been big enough to hold us present officials. It would be no use to explain that we forgot. That would only make it worse.”
But the men did pull off a last-minute canvass, and Mayor (Laura) Starcher took the oath of office on 9 January 1917. She ran her first meeting with a full council in attendance—a rarity for the city—and filled the city’s committees with women. During that first meeting, the “mayoress” announced she would not appoint a city marshal because “the salary for that official was an unnecessary expense.” That move alone saved the city $57 a month (the equivalent of $1,220 a month in 2015). She also promised that her council members would attend meetings—even if she had to serve tea.
The day after the first meeting, the East Oregonian recorded Mayor Laura Starcher’s closing address:
“There has been a great deal said about the so-called petticoat government and many wild speculations made as to how we would manage the city affairs, being mere women. However, we will manage without a shadow of a doubt. And if I did not believe that any woman on this council was not as competent and capable as any man who ever occupied a chair in this council, I would resign right now. It is a long way from the early steamboat days when Umatilla was the distributing point for all inland points of eastern Oregon and Idaho and the days of the wild Indians and cowboys to the so-called ‘petticoat’ government, but we are here, ladies, never the less, so let us all pull together for the improvement of what is left of the office of the once famous old city.”
The city celebrated the new government with an inaugural ball where each of the women led one dance, named in her honor. Papers would later report on the “Mayor Starcher one-step” and the “Brownell shivers.” They had fun in their new positions, but the Petticoat Government soon proved it was much more than a publicity stunt. Although they never announced a platform, the women quickly began addressing known issues. First on the agenda they paid the power bill and had 16 new street lights installed.
Over the next four years, a woman’s touch would land in every corner of town. The Petticoat Government repaired sidewalks, graded streets, and initiated monthly garbage service. They put a fresh face on the town by cleaning City Hall, planting trees on city properties, and overseeing the construction of a new campground. The women raised city standards by creating a library board, installing railroad crossing signs, and bringing in a health inspector during the 1918 smallpox epidemic. The Petticoat Government even convinced the state highway committee to route the Columbia River Highway through Umatilla.
Laura Stockton Starcher served eight months of her two-year term before she stepped down for health reasons and returned to Idaho. Councilwoman Stella Paulu took her place and was elected as mayor in 1918. Women maintained control of the city until 1920, when, having accomplished everything they set out to, they gracefully stepped away from public office. The election of 1920 returned the town to an all-male government—for a while, at least. Bertha Cherry returned to Umatilla City Hall as mayor in 1933, and Umatilla residents elected more than a dozen women to City Council in the last century. No Umatilla election has quite captured the national interest as well as the Petticoat Rebellion of 1916, however.
When the city celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2012, female community members staged a mock protest and kicked the male City Council members out of their seats—the lone woman on the council picked up a picket sign before returning to her chair—and ran the meeting. Heidi Sipe, superintendent of the Umatilla School District, served as mayor for the day and delivered a proclamation: “Whereas, we no longer need a ‘clean sweep’ but instead appreciate those who have led and lead, as we move toward the next 150 years, we honor those who served our community, thank those who serve currently, and welcome those who are to come.”