It was a calm morning for Election Day, December 5, 1916, in the small Oregon town of Umatilla, population 198. Nestled on the southern bank of the Columbia River, Umatilla was a place where everyone knew everyone else. No one expected a huge voter turnout that day since the same men had held the same town office positions for several years. Voting was not an imperative priority.
The polls opened at 8:00 am, and throughout the morning men sauntered in to vote. No one had even bothered to order any ballots because you simply wrote the name of the person you were voting for on a slip of paper and dropped it in the poll box.
Although the state of Oregon had given women the right to vote four years earlier, no women showed up at the polls during the morning. There were presumably at home, cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry.
But then, around 2:00 pm or so, the women did come to the polls, a large group of women and they wrote in who they wanted to see in office. Unbeknownst to the men of the town, the women planned to write themselves into office.
Laura Stockton Starcher, who headed this effort, voted for herself to become Mayor of Umatilla. All the other women voted for her, too. Then the group proceeded to cast votes for Gladys Spinning, Anna Means, Florence Brownell, and Stella Paulu to take positions on the town council and Lola Merrick to become the town treasurer and Bertha Cherry the recorder.
No one was more surprised at the outcome than the current Mayor – Mr. E. E. Starcher, Laura Starcher’s husband. All seven women garnered enough votes to be formally elected to office, and only two men retained their seats on the council.
The mayor demanded a recount, but the results were still the same: the women had received the majority of the votes.
At first, the election made humorous news throughout the nation, being referred to by journalists as the “Petticoat Government.” The women were now officially elected council members, but the press resorted to naming them in print by their married initials. The new mayor, Laura Starcher, was listed as Mrs. E.E. Starcher. Nonetheless, the women soon proved that they were completely serious about their newly elected positions and took on town-wide projects previously neglected.
Within a month, the Petticoat Government paid the outstanding balance of the town’s electric bill and installed 16 new street lights. Within four years, the town saw many improvements. Updated water and electrical services, street and sidewalk repairs, new railroad crossing signs, the beginning of a town library and monthly garbage collection, were just a few of the initiatives. The council also inaugurated an additional position—that of a city health inspector, which was of utmost importance during the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918.
Laura Jane Stockton Starcher had moved to Umatilla in 1912. She was dainty in stature but robust in character. Few of her neighbors would have predicted how Laura would change the town.
First at weekly card parties, just talking about the possibility of women running for town council seats, to a full-fledged plan on how to write in the votes, Laura proved that women’s ideas should not be taken as frivolous.
Four years later, in the 1920 town election, the town council reverted to all men. But the ladies of Umatilla had proven a point—women could govern just as well as men, sometimes even better.
Thank you to Allyson Hopkins and Dee Taplin who both wrote to me suggesting I look into Laura Stockton Starcher as a candidate for a strong woman.
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Happy Holidays to all!