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

Laura Starcher and the Petticoat Revolution of 1916

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.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
France Hires Two Cats to Get Rid of Rats in Government Offices
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The French government just hired two new employees, but instead of making policy decisions, the civil servants will be responsible for keeping offices rat-free. As The Telegraph reports, the cats are the first official mousers to France.

The secretary to the prime minister, Christophe Castaner, brought in the cats after he saw that the mouse problem at the offices near the Elysee Palace was getting out of hand. They're named Nomi and Noé after the early duke of Brittany Nominoé.

Paris is home to about 4 million rats—nearly two for every citizen—and the capital's offices are just as vulnerable to infestation as other old buildings. Until now, government employees had been setting out traps to solve the vermin problem. With Nomi and Noé now living on site, the hope is that the pets will double as pest control.

The new hires aren't unprecedented: The British government employs over 100,000 cats to chase down rodents. Official mouser may sound like a cushy job, but the UK holds its felines to a high standard. Larry, the official Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office to two prime ministers, was nearly fired in 2012 for failing to react to a mouse in plain sight.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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