In 1916, the town of Umatilla, Oregon (population 198) seemed to be going backwards instead of forwards. The incumbent town government had let the town slip into disrepair, failed to enforce the laws, and made baffling anti-public safety decisions like removing the electric streetlights that had been installed. To make matters worse, there didn’t seem to be any end in sight. Voter turnout for the town was abysmal as everyone believed the incumbent government would retain their positions and so, as the thinking went, there was no point in voting. And this fact…is what the women of the town were counting on.
For years, the women of Umatilla had watched their inept and sometimes downright lazy husbands make a shambles of the town’s governance and they had finally reached a breaking point. Laura Starcher, wife of current mayor at the time, EE Starcher, was one of the women who had had enough. During a meeting of the town’s women, disguised as a tea party, Starcher made her case for what would become known as The Petticoat Rebellion of 1916.
The plan was simple. The women would run for office. And because there was no law in Umatilla that required a candidate to declare before the day of the election, they could keep their plan completely secret. Before the tea party had ended, the women discussed the particulars of who would run for which office and agreed to quietly canvas for support.
When election day came on December 5th, 1916, to no one’s surprise, the polls were empty…and stayed that way for most of the morning. This was a particularly slow election day, even by Umatilla standards, and the men at the polls commented on how it was strange that they had not seen any women come to vote. But that was about to change.
At 2pm, the agreed upon time, the women of Umatilla put down whatever they were doing and marched to the polls. They had kept their secret so well that none of the sitting city officials had any idea that they were about to be unceremoniously thrown out of office by the town’s women and, in EE Starcher’s case, by his own wife.
On the day of the election, 38 votes were cast in total for the mayoral position (other offices received slightly more) with Laura Starcher beating her husband 26-8 (it’s not clear who received the other four votes). Other women who won their races that day were: Treasurer: Lola Merrick, Auditor: Betha Cherry, Councilor: Florence Brownell, Councilor: H.C. Means, Councilor: Gladys Spinning, and Councilor: Stella Paulu
The new administration took office in January 1917 and undertook several reforms aimed at cleaning up the town, opened a library, and appointed women to several law-enforcement posts.
An East Oregonian article from December 11, 1916 described the political atmosphere in the city that fostered the feminine coup:
”The present administration had been letting city affairs run along the lines of least resistance. Laws were slackly enforced, city improvement was at a standstill and Umatilla was rapidly retrograding back into the sagebrush stage of years ago … [A] change of administration was needed for Umatilla if that town is to grow, the need was realized and the woman of Umatilla arose to the occasion.”
Upon her inauguration Starcher proclaimed: “Umatilla will be given a business administration and a progressive administration. We believe the women can do many things and effect many reforms in this town that the men did not dare do. We propose to replace the electric street lights, which the present administration removed, clean up and improve the streets, lay sewers and do everything we can to improve the physical and moral health of Umatilla. We shall enforce the laws strictly.”
She also promised that a new female police marshal would be appointed, saying “[w]e will not leave the enforcement of our laws to any man, because past experience has proven the laws will not be strictly enforced.”
As you would expect, news of the coup spread quickly and met with a mostly positive response. The move did have its detractors however, and they were vocal in their skepticism as to the suitability of women for public office. Starcher, for her part, would have none of it. In a rebuttal to such accusations, she said:
“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 the affairs of this municipality 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.”
Starcher served eight months before suffering a nervous breakdown and leaving office. The city council appointed a new woman as mayor, H.T. Duncan, only for her to resign after a month, and then appointed the newly elected councilwoman Stella Paulu to serve the remainder of Starcher’s original term. Paulu was reelected in her own right with about 80% of the vote in an open campaign in 1918 for a full two-year term. By 1920, the town had returned to an all-male city government…but the women had made a lasting impact and ensured the future of the town. Without them, as the East Oregonian put it, Umatilla probably would have “rapidly retrograded back into the sagebrush stage of years ago.”
A side note if you’re wondering how old EE Starcher took to being replaced as mayor by his wife…the answer is: not well. Despite losing by 26-8, he asked for a recount directly after the election. A fact which, although no one is sure, may have been a deciding factor in their divorce shortly after.