March is Women in History month. Each Saturday, I’ve been shining a spotlight on a woman from the past who did something extraordinary, like Fern Hobbs, known as the girl who tamed a wild West town, and Minnie Hill, the second licensed female steamboat captain in the country.
Today, I thought I’d share a little about a woman who did something so remarkable, I’m not sure many women today would attempt the feat – she defeated her husband to become mayor of their town!
In 1916, Laura Stockton Starcher defeated her husband twenty-six to eight to become mayor of Umatilla, Oregon, a small Eastern Oregon town of not quite two hundred, in what became known as the Petticoat Revolution.
Laura Jane Stockton was born in parents moved to Parma, Idaho, where she lived for many years in Idaho before moving to Oregon. No details were available on how and when she met her husband, E.E. Starcher, but in 1912, the couple moved to Umatilla, a town located on the southern bank of the Columbia River. It was a community where most everyone knew everyone else.
It was also a place where laws were slackly enforced and city improvement had ground to a standstill. Instead of progressing into the new century, it was sliding back toward a the days gambling and lawlessness.
The women of the town decided to do something about it.
Under the guise of a card party held at the home of Mrs. C.G. Bromwell, (her husband was a city council member), the women discussed the particulars of who would run for which office and agreed to quietly, discreetly seek support without revealing the details.
On the morning of December 5, 1916, no one expected a big voter turnout. The same men had held the same town office positions for years. The polls opened at eight that morning with men sauntering in to vote. No one even bothered to order ballots. Names were written on a slip of paper and dropped into the poll box.
Since no women arrived to vote in the morning, although Oregon had given them the right in 1912), it seemed men assumed they were at home doing their daily tasks of cleaning and cooking.
Much to the shock of the men in town, women arrived at the polls around two that afternoon and they wrote names on those slips. Names that would upend the present councilmen.
Only 38 votes were cast for the mayoral position, but Laura beat her husband 26-8 (and the other four votes are lost to history).
Laura Stockton Starcher was voted in as Mayor of Umatilla. Lola Merrick became town treasurer. Bertha Cherry was elected auditor. Gladys Spinning, Florence Brownell, H.C. Means, C.G. Bromwell, and Stella Paulu took all but two of the city councilmen seats.
Perhaps the most stunned person in town that day was Laura’s husband, the current mayor. He had no idea his wife intended to run against him, and demanded a recount, but the results were the same. The women had received the majority of the votes.
In an interview in the the Idaho Statesman, Laura said, “Well, my husband’s administration claimed that the reason it accomplished so little for the city was that it was impossible to get the entire council, or even a quorum, out. Now, I intend to get my council out in this way. We will all be women except the two holdovers, men, who, I understand, are going to learn to do fancy work, in order to feel at home with us, and I shall turn the city council meetings into afternoon teas if necessary, in order to be sure of the full council being present.”
At first, the election made humorous news throughout the nation, referred to as the “Petticoat Government.” The women were often referenced in publications by their married initials: the new mayor, Laura Starcher, was listed as Mrs. E.E. Starcher. Regardless, the women soon proved that they were serious about their newly elected positions.
In her first public address, Laura stated: “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.”
Within a month, the Laura and her council members had paid the outstanding balance of the town’s electric bill and installed several new street lights.
During the next four years, the council funded projects to improve streets and sidewalks, improved electrical and water maintenance, and created the city’s first “Cleanup Weeks.” They also founded a town library, designed a plan for monthly garbage pickup, and appointed a city health official during the 1918 smallpox epidemic.
Sadly, Laura only served less than a year due to illness. Stella Paula took over the position and when she was elected mayor in 1918.
In 1920, an all-male council was voted in, but the ladies of Umatilla had proven a point. The women could govern as well as the men (and sometimes better!).
Although there is no mention of it, a woman claiming to be Laura’s niece later stated that the Starcher’s divorced after the election, and Laura suffered from health issues some called “nervous breakdowns.”
At any rate, Laura stepped up and because a symbol of courage and hope to women across the country, particularly when some women still fighting for the right to vote.
Laura eventually returned to Idaho and she passed away in Parma on May 2, 1960.
What woman (famous or otherwise) has had an impact on your life?
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She’s waging a war for women’s rights
He’s fighting a battle to win her heart. . .
There’s nothing typical about Quinn Fairfield. The outspoken suffragette spends her days writing sensational headlines as a newspaper reporter and indulging her natural curiosity. She’s much more likely to be found riding a bicycle around town than learning the social graces at which her sister, Caitlyn, excels. When Caitlyn announces her plans to wed a man Quinn doesn’t trust, she sets out to find a reason to break up the happy couple. In the process, she finds herself falling for an intriguing, kind-hearted man.
After spending several years in Portland at college, Walker Williams returns to Pendleton, eager to make his mark on the world. He’s determined to become a legendary architect despite the challenges that arise from his upbringing on the nearby Umatilla Reservation. When a feisty red-headed newspaper reporter catches his eye and captures his heart, Walker fights his growing feelings for her. He’ll do anything to shelter Quinn from the prejudices aimed at him and his heritage.
Can the two of them overcome their fears, set aside the burdens of the past, and surrender to the sweet romance blossoming between them?
Filled with laughter, adventure, and historical tidbits from 1912, Quinn is a sweet historical romance brimming with hope and love.