Laura Starcher and the Petticoat Revolution of 1916

Library of Congress, Rebecca O'Connell
Library of Congress, Rebecca O'Connell / Library of Congress, Rebecca O'Connell

The incumbent all-male government in the tiny town of Umatilla, Oregon—population just 198—was confident going into the 1916 election. Mayor E.E. Starcher didn’t even worry about campaigning to keep his seat. After all, most citizens of the town didn’t bother to vote anymore, and since no one had announced that they were challenging him, ballots hadn't even been ordered.

But it was exactly this sort of complacency and particulars—a disengaged voting population and elections in which writes-ins were acceptable—that allowed the "Petticoat Revolution" to topple the old boys’ club, replacing the majority of elected officials with women (who had gained suffrage in Oregon in 1912) and ousting E.E. Starcher for none other than his own wife, Laura Stockton Starcher.

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.

The plan was hatched under the guise of a card party held at the home of Mrs. C.G. Bromwell, whose husband was on the city council at the time. There, the women discussed the particulars of who would run for which office and agreed to quietly canvas for support without revealing their plan.

On the day of the election, only 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).

She wasn’t the only winner that day. Lola Merrick became town treasurer, Bertha Cherry was elected auditor, and Gladys Spinning, Florence Brownell, H.C. Means, C.G. Bromwell, and Stella Paulu took all but two of the city councilmen seats.

"I didn't know a thing about it until the afternoon of election day," the former Mayor Mr. Starcher told the East Oregonian in shock.

Laura Startcher, Library of Congress

The women entered office with a laundry list of reforms to tackle. In her first public address, Mayor Laura Starcher announced:

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."

Of course, not everyone appreciated the new party in power. The Day Book in Chicago mocked the new Mayor, saying:

Laura’s inaugural address was devoted to what she knew about government and what she should do as mayor, wasn’t it? No, it was not. She just roasted mere man after a fashion that must have made poor Starcher shake as a horrible example.

But for the most part, the so-called Petticoat Revolution received glowing national attention, and Umatilla was happy to have it. Though the paper called it "their little coup," the East Oregonian was thrilled to announce that "With the past two weeks Umatilla has received more publicity than she has received in her whole history prior to that notable election and probably more than she will ever receive again."

Unfortunately—for her health, for Umatilla, and for feminism—Mayor Starcher lasted less than a year in office, departing after a series of "nervous breakdowns." Councilwoman Stella Paulu replaced her as mayor in 1918, and the remaining members of the Petticoat Government made major improvements to the town over the following four years. But ultimately, the 1920 election saw a return to an all-male government.

As for the marriage between the two Mayor Starchers? Although no record of it exists after the election, a commenter claiming to be their niece in a 2012 Oregonian article says the pair divorced shortly after Laura was elected. Considering that her husband demanded a recount in the days following his loss, that sadly doesn't seem hard to imagine.

Although her own political aspirations fell short, Laura Starcher expressed a progressive faith in female politicians that would eventually spread beyond Umatilla. In her first meeting with the new government, Mayor Starcher stood by her convictions, saying at the time:

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.