On November 2, 1920, the citizens of Yoncalla, Oregon, got a big surprise as the ballots were tallied in their local election. All the incumbent men on the city council had been voted out. Yoncalla, a small town of 323 residents about 40 miles south of Eugene, had voted in an entirely female city council.
Newspapers flocked to the story. Mary Burt, the square-jawed daughter-in-law of Yoncalla’s benefactor, became the town’s new mayor. Nettie Hannan displaced her own husband, the local butcher, from the council. The town’s most glamorous resident, Jennie Lasswell—the wife of the outgoing mayor, Jess Lasswell—was also elected to the council. The Literary Digest, the Newsweek of its day, reported, “He had no knowledge of the step to overthrow his administration, let alone the fact that his wife was on the opposing ticket.”
The story of the women spread: They had held secret meetings, in which they voiced frustration with the current administration. Upset by broken sidewalk planks and misaligned outhouses, they had hatched a plan to run for office themselves. And, because they were elected just two months after women in the United States received the right to vote, their new administration made headlines all the way to the East Coast. Most publications treated it like a coup d’état: “Campaign secretly organized,” Morning Oregonian declared; “Sex uprising in Yoncalla,” asserted The New York Times.
“Pessimists who predicted that, once women were given the vote, they would soon chase mere men into political extinction, may ‘point with alarm’ to the recent feminist revolution,” stated The Literary Digest. “The women in the little town have risen in their wrath. ... That their husbands, brothers, and sons were kept in the dark may be accepted as proving the falsity of that moss-grown libel that a woman can not keep a secret.” At the end of the article, Mayor-elect Burt was quoted: “We intend to study conditions and do all in our power to give Yoncalla a good, efficient government. At the worst, we can’t do much worse than the men.”
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The women’s election proved gripping—a perfect narrative of gender warfare, as fears percolated about what could happen in this unprecedented moment of gender-role shakeups. But there were two real problems with the story people told about the new council in Yoncalla. First, aside from the election of an all-female council, much of the story about the scheming Yoncalla women very likely wasn’t true. And second: The story suffered from cute simplicity. Much like Donald Trump’s dismissive refrain that Hillary Clinton has nothing but “the woman card” going for her, the story of the Yoncalla women was a kiss-off—a sidebar in the Style section, a swift negation of the idea that women could have legitimate grievances, let alone see themselves as the most fit to address them.
Shortly after their election, the members of Yoncalla’s all-female government posed for photos on the porch of city hall. Each woman wore a high-collared, long-sleeved frontier dress, and Burt sat in the middle. In one image, the women stare at the camera, their lips zipped in straight lines. In a second, the women don reading glasses and peer at a bill in Burt’s lap.
To fully understand the so-called “Petticoat Council,” it helps to know that Oregon was an early adopter of women’s suffrage. The state voted on the issue six times, and in 1912—eight years before Congress ratified the 19th Amendment—Oregon residents extended the right to vote to women. As a result, the state overflowed with feminist firsts. In 1914, Marian B. Towne became the first woman elected to the Oregon House of Representatives; in 1915, Kathryn Clarke joined the Oregon state Senate. And the same year the Yoncalla women ran for office, Oregonian physician Esther Pohl Lovejoy stepped out as the first woman to run for U.S. Congress.
In addition to these pioneers, it also helps to know two women who live in the town today: Doris Means, an 89-year-old former school librarian and a founder of the Yoncalla Historical Society, and Shannon Applegate, an author who lives in one of the oldest houses in Oregon. Means is the great-granddaughter of Yoncalla’s first two settlers. “They came in the fall 1848, in a covered wagon,” she said. “The grass was belly-deep on the horse.” Applegate is the great-great-granddaughter of another early Yoncalla settler and a descendant of Burt’s; she even owns the graveyard where Burt is buried. “Mary’s mother was an Oregon Trail woman of some significance,” said Applegate. “In the women of Mary Burt’s family, there was a very active, outspoken nature. Not in any way passive. Not about ready to sit down and take it on the chin.”
“Our City Council has been careless and inefficient for the last few years.”
Born in 1855, Burt proved a sharp student. She graduated from Pacific University, became a teacher, and, at age 26 (average today, ancient then), married her second cousin, Henry Burt. Burt was a steadfast attendee of the Yoncalla Women’s Study Club, a twice-a-month gathering that Means’s mother attended as well. “They read and reviewed books,” said Means. “My mother was just in heaven when she could give a paper on China.” Lasswell, whose husband owned the local bank and was reportedly ousted as mayor, organized the study club. Means told me she remembers Lasswell fondly. “She was always so neatly dressed and perfectly color-coordinated,” said Means. “She opened the Yoncalla Library, donating books from her personal collection.” Members of the Women’s Study Club took turns keeping the library open.
In 1920, Yoncalla was young and prosperous. Two decades before, Burt’s father-in-law had donated land for a train station, which allowed farmers there to trade cattle and turkeys, and send prunes and dried apples to the East Coast, satisfying pre-refrigeration cravings for fruit. In 1920, the city’s streets also pumped with traffic from the newly opened Pacific Highway. Despite the growth and progress, Burt, Lasswell, and the study club noted problems—and not just a few broken sidewalk planks. Street lighting was spotty, which they perceived as a danger. Automobiles hurtled through town at dizzying speeds—which was more than just a nuisance. Cars were still a new technology, and they represented a vivid fear. And then, there was the drinking.
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“Our City Council has been careless and inefficient for the last few years,” Burt told The New York Times after her election. When “pressed for further specifications,” Burt “hesitated.” She cryptically referenced “the need of enforcing city ordinances.”
But Means and Applegate told me they know exactly what Burt meant. They point to an incident described in Yoncalla Yesterday, a series of first-person accounts from old-timers collected by the Yoncalla Historical Society in 2001. One day, a local drunk named “Old Pete” rode his horse into a Yoncalla barbershop and demanded that the barber give the animal a shave. Rather than punishing him, the city council just laughed. This wasn’t just inebriated tomfoolery; it was illegal, as Oregon’s Prohibition began in 1915. “Old Pete went too far,” said Means and the council not far enough. So the townswomen, “they decided to run for office.” Applegate added, “The subtext in this town has always been temperance.”
As in many parts of the country, the temperance and women’s suffrage movements spun around each other in a complicated dance. Women often felt like the victims of male drunkenness—watching family paychecks disappear at local watering holes, living with alcohol-related abuse and violence, or feeling disappointment at their husbands’ failures as fathers. As Catherine Gilbert Murdock wrote in Domesticating Drink, “Alcohol, more than slavery or suffrage or any other single cause” mobilized women to get involved in politics. Unsurprisingly then, the members of the Yoncalla Women’s Study Club were also, for the most part, members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. “I belonged to it,” said Means. “I’m still a teetotaler.”
“The men quit, and the women stepped up to the plate.”
But this part of the story is largely absent in the puff-piece coverage the Yoncalla women received at the time. The press also notably got a few basic facts wrong. The majority of publications at the time reported that the women unexpectedly ousted “Jesse R. Lasswell” as mayor. First, they got his name wrong—“Jess,” not “Jesse.” What’s more, local records list a C.H. Burkholder as the outgoing mayor—and show that Jess Lasswell acted as treasurer while the women were in office, a detail that suggests some amount of support from at least one supposedly shocked husband.
A few publications offered other rumored takes on how the women’s campaign unfolded. One newspaper posited that the women opted to run after hearing about a “gentleman’s agreement” to forgo the election and have the incumbents remain in their seats. Two others hinted that the men were curious to see what the women would do after hearing their complaints. But Means and Applegate said they think the most probable account of what happened can be found in Yoncalla Yesterday’s first-person essays. One town resident shared that, when a pair of women filed paperwork to run, “the male incumbents resigned their unpaid and largely thankless jobs.” In other words, said Applegate, “Those guys quit.” It sounded like the words tasted awful in her mouth. “The men quit, and the women stepped up to the plate.”
“I think they couldn’t wait to get started,” said Means. “They had to prove they could do a better job.” Indeed, by all accounts, the female city government made a mark—and quickly. In 1921, The Oregon Daily Journal noted the “wonderful changes” in Yoncalla. And, yes, they did end up addressing the sidewalks: “Immediately after they assumed office, they began a campaign to beautify, with the result that brand new sidewalks have replaced the ancient variety and the streets present a more citified appearance.”
But more importantly, the women also cracked down on alcohol. In January 1922, a local moonshiner was arrested. That February, a man received a fine of $50 for public drunkenness. And, according to Yoncalla Yesterday, Old Pete’s fortunes took a stark turn after the women entered office:
Grandpa and I heard a woman shouting, “Stop him, stop him.” Pete was walking down the sidewalk of Yoncalla’s main street, weaving a bit and clad only in his socks.
A lady I recognized as one of Yoncalla’s councilwomen stopped us. “Did you see what he did?” she demanded of Grandpa.
The lady official was in no mood for jesting. “You come over to town hall,” she directed. “We may want you for a witness.”
The whole city watched as Old Pete was tried before the all-women council. Pete claimed the stunt had been a “bet” and promised he’d never drink again. Still, he received a sentence of six months in county jail. In Yoncalla Yesterday, the story concludes: “Several councilwomen shook Pete’s hand and said they hoped he wouldn’t hold it against them personally.”
Applegate pointed out the detail about the bet. “The men were thumbing their noses at the women,” she said. “[Burt] wanted to be liked and admired by her townsmen and women. She didn’t want to be ostracized by the men in the community. This took courage.”
Mary Burt, Jennie Lasswell, and Bernice Wilson finished their two-year terms in 1922. The mayoral seat passed to R.F. McKaig, and two townsmen took council seats alongside Nettie Hannan and Edith Thompson, who were serving four-year terms. The moment inspired perhaps the greatest Morning Oregonian headline of all time: “Yoncalla Elects Men.” The Oregon Daily Journal also gave dramatic flourish to this end of an era: “The famous woman administration of Yoncalla ... will pass into history on the first of the year.”
Today, Yoncalla—like its famous prunes and apples—has dried in the sun. In the 1950s, a freeway bypassed the town, and its main streets have grown quieter since. Meanwhile, the women of the 1920 city council have faded from local lore. They are specters only visible in the photo hanging at the Douglas County Museum. The curators say the image surprises people who don’t realize the town’s feminist past. “Hardly anyone locally knows about them,” Applegate said.
Applegate also asserted that the forgetting “speaks volumes.” While the women couldn’t be derailed in the moment, the disdain the townsmen showed them led to silence and, eventually, to the erasure of their legacy. Still, the Petticoat Council may have had a subliminal effect: The town has had three more female mayors since the 1920 election—most recently Joyce Evarts, who served for nearly a decade, from 2006 to 2015.
Their story tapped into a fear that women would have the electoral muscle to overrun political offices.
Female leadership isn’t a monolithic thing; women’s backgrounds and values span the full spectrum of human experience. But Yoncalla’s all-female council reflected one modern through-line: Women tend to run for political office in reaction to specific circumstances. In a survey of U.S. Congress members conducted for the 2003 book Women Transforming Congress, 69 percent of male respondents strongly agreed with the statement, “I always wanted to get into politics,” while only 30 percent of women did. Female members of Congress were much more likely to agree with the statement that they were motivated by the “issues” or by a desire to spark “social change.” Susan R. Madsen interviewed 10 current or former female governors for her 2009 book, Women and Leadership Around the World, and notes that they, too, “entered politics because of something they felt strongly about—an injustice or something scary that happened with a child.” It’s a common thread with female mayors as well. Even Clinton fits the model: A video shown at the 2016 Democratic National Convention highlighted the fact that Clinton entered politics after a formative experience interviewing disabled children who were denied schooling.
Similarly, the women of Yoncalla’s 1920 city council wanted to create specific local change. But they received national attention because their story tapped into a fear that women would have the electoral muscle to overrun political offices. That fear, it turned out, has been mostly unfounded. After all, female voters didn’t start outnumbering male voters until 1980—and even today, women only represent about 20 percent of Congress, 24 percent of state legislatures, and 12 percent of governors. That doesn’t mean women aren’t influential though; Trump’s unpopularity with women will certainly be a detriment to his chances in this election: In 2012, 71.4 million women voted—but only 61.6 million men did.
Clinton’s problem, meanwhile, is the fact that she’s perceived as untrustworthy. Could this be at least in part gender-related? Is a narrative of duplicitous women—like those sneaks in Yoncalla—easier to understand than a narrative of women who simply care about the state of things and want to enact change?
In 1920, as the women of Yoncalla’s city council took office, they must have felt watched. As far away as New York, a columnist wrote, “The demonstration of ability which they give may serve as a horrible example or a beacon light to other towns.” Today, female leaders still express being faced with the impossible task of representing their gender. They are aware that their actions don’t just affect how people feel about them, but how people feel about female leaders in general.
Now, a female presidential candidate finally stands on the ultimate political stage. But she is still monitored from the same strange vantage point that the Yoncalla women were nearly 100 years ago: What is she up to? And will she be a horrible example or a beacon light? If the Yoncalla women’s success is any indication, it will be the latter.
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This article was originally published on The Atlantic.