While the United States continues to lag in terms of female leadership statistics (America ranked 81st out of 193 countries as of June 2020, in women's representation in government), one unlikely town became known for unprecedented progressiveness a century ago: Jackson, Wyoming. In 1920 — yes, the same year the 19th Amendment first granted women the right to vote — an all-female ticket nicknamed the "petticoat rulers" established order in the Wild West town.
"This may be a bit dramatic, but I often say that Jackson could have very easily faded into the landscape in the early 20th century if not for these women," Morgan Albertson Jaouen, executive director of the Jackson Hole Historical Society & Museum, writes via email. "This was a rugged place and incredibly difficult to settle. While Jackson had a strong community where everyone helped each other out, there was very little emphasis on government and civic responsibility."
It may be tough to believe an all-female government ruled a small town in early 20th century America when sexism still remains a major barrier in modern politics, but on May 11, 1920, Jackson elected Grace Miller as mayor and Rose Crabtree, Mae Deloney, Faustina Haight and Genevieve Van Vleck as council members. The five women claimed victory over an all-male roster, and Crabtree even beat out her husband, Henry. This landmark win was no accident, either: The election drew the most voters the town had seen at that point, and in many cases, the women dominated their male opponents by a margin of 2-to-1.
While Oskaloosa, Kansas, and Kanab, Utah, had already elected all-female town councils in 1888 and 1912, respectively, the election was a major turning point for Jackson. "The all-women town council of 1920 stepped up and shaped the town into the place we know and love today — they graded the streets, they expanded electrical service and installed street lamps, they established the first town cemetery, and built the town's budget to be able to continue serving community members," Jaouen says.
According to a 1922 article from The Delineator magazine, there was only $200 in town coffers when the women took office, due to uncollected fines and taxes. As the article states, "they went out personally and collected every cent due the town from those who ignored the notices. Before the end of a fortnight there was $2,000 in the treasury."
Things didn't necessarily all start out with a flashy bang, however, according to Jouen. "A funny story: I had always heard that the all-women town council had 'formalized' town square, and until recently, I assumed that meant creating the park-like square we see today," she says. "But what it actually meant was that these 'councilmen' (as they called themselves in official town documents) simply prohibited the grazing of cattle on town square. You have to start somewhere!"
It's a Simple Question: What Is Good Government?
As for what inspired the women to effect lasting change, Jouen says their methods and motives were rather simple. "I think Mayor Grace Miller perfectly sums up their time in office when she said in an interview in 1922: 'We simply tried to work together ... we put into practice the same thrifty principles we exercise in our own homes. We wanted a clean, well-kept, progressive town in which to raise our families. What is good government but a breathing space for good citizenship?'"
While the so-called "petticoat rulers" successfully established a lasting legacy, Jouen cautions that celebrating their history simply isn't enough. "The story of the all-women town council is incredible, and certainly something to celebrate and be proud of for the town of Jackson," she says. "Jackson Hole has many stories of powerful women and generally our history is one of inclusivity, adaptability and ingenuity — everyone had to pull their weight and be open-minded in order to survive. However, it's still important to look at the big picture and use history as something to learn from and not just celebrate. Jackson did not see another woman in an elected position until the 1980s. The all-women town council was necessary and successful, but unfortunately did not create a new normal and Jackson was not immune to the times. But it is exciting and encouraging to see more diversity in our local government, including women in all levels of elected positions. The women of 1920 still serve as encouraging role models."
Highlighting Women's History
The Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum is highlighting an exhibit of women's history in 2020:
"To honor and highlight women's history during this important anniversary year, the JHHSM has two special exhibits on display through 2020. The first exhibit in the museum's main gallery space, and coming online soon, is entitled 'Mountains to Manuscripts: Women's Writing in Wyoming, 1900-1950' and features notable women writers of the early 20th century in Wyoming. Narrative writing about the state — certainly, the Tetons — is sparse before 1950, and published works are few and far between in comparison to the rest of the American West. Women's words are even harder to come by, but provide important insight into the changing nature of the region," says Jouen.
The museum has also installed a traveling exhibit from the University of Wyoming's American Heritage Center entitled "Wyoming Women" which includes 30 framed historic photographs of Wyoming women throughout history, specifically highlighting the leadership roles they pursued in their family, in the outdoors and in their community.