When (Only) Women Ruled This Frontier Town

When (Only) Women Ruled This Frontier Town

The Petticoat Rulers of Jackson Hole, Wyoming

SourceAlvaro Tapia Hidalgo/OZY

Why you should care

Because glass ceilings can be shattered — but also replaced.

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A century ago, Jackson, Wyoming, a small frontier town of around 300, was a poster child for what economists call a tragedy of the commons. With laws going unenforced and taxes and fines unpaid, the town’s coffers were drying up while its streets were swimming in mud and garbage. In need of a Wyatt Earp figure who could put a stop to the lawlessness and decline, the errant town stumbled on a radical solution to its problems: female rule.

That’s right: In 1920, the same year the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified, guaranteeing women the right to vote, the citizens of Jackson elected an all-female town council, an unprecedented “petticoat government” that would clean up the dirty frontier town — and then vanish from the town hall and the pages of history. And as America prepares to elect what would be its first woman president, the story of Jackson’s democratic experiment serves as a cautionary tale about the sporadic, often temporary nature of social progress.

A trailblazing territory from the start, and the first in the U.S. to grant women the right to vote and hold public office (in 1869), Wyoming had earned its nickname, the Equality State, more than half a century before Jackson’s regime change. But it was less noble sentiment than desperate pragmatism that led to an all-female town council. Being a member of that council was a part-time job, and for Jackson’s menfolk, such a task represented a major distraction from their real jobs — and one they had not suffered well.

Jackson’s “petticoat” rulers quickly applied the same efficiency they had used in managing their households to the town’s management.

 

And so at a town caucus in early 1920, when the subject of male political impotence came up, a man named Dick Winger reportedly called out: “Why not let the women run the government?” It’s not clear whether the proposal was offered in earnest or in jest, but the women present agreed and an all-female slate of candidates was nominated to face off against the men. “My recollection is that it was not in protest to former administration, nor, really, a matter of politics,” Winger’s wife, Marta — later appointed town clerk — observed, “but just an impulsive and spontaneous gesture on the part of an assembled town caucus to give women a chance to run things.”

The five women nominated, all members of the socialite Pure Food Club, ran on the simple platform of cleaning up the town’s streets. And in the May 11 election, they won in a landslide, with Grace Miller being elected as the town’s mayor. One of the new councilwomen, Rose Crabtree, bested her own husband by 19 votes. The election made national headlines, where it was largely treated as a charming curiosity. “Husband defeated by wife,” The New York Times trumpeted. “Their complete victory surprised even the women themselves.” Jackson was not the first American town to elect an all-female council, but it entered a league of its own when several more women were appointed by the victors to fill additional administrative positions, including a 22-year-old town marshal with a pearl-handled gun.

Jackson’s “petticoat” rulers quickly applied the same efficiency they had used in managing their households to the town’s management. First, they replenished the town’s coffers by collecting back taxes and uncollected fines. “They went out personally and collected every cent due the town from those who ignored the notices,” reported The Delineator magazine in 1922. “Before the end of a fortnight, there was $2,000 in the treasury.”

With new cash on hand, they set about making a rash of improvements, from installing culverts and grading streets to instituting garbage collection and anti-littering ordinances. “We simply tried to work together,” Mayor Miller told The Delineator. “We put into practise [sic] the same thrifty principles we exercise in our homes.”

They just wanted to fix their town. And when they did it, they were happy enough to go back to their former lives.

But the same pragmatism that had prompted the women to step up and save their town also led them to step down a few years later when the job was done. Women and political power may have been on the nation’s mind at the time, says Sherry Smith, a professor of history at Southern Methodist University and resident of Jackson Hole, but it was not on the minds of the Jackson women. They just wanted to fix their town. “And when they did it,” says Smith, “they were happy enough to go back to their former lives. They were not really interested in sustaining public political power.”

And, in part because there was no intention in Jackson of expanding power for women, there was also no follow-up — and amazingly the town would not elect another female mayor until 2001. The arc of the moral universe is long and sometimes it sags considerably in the middle — where you’ll find the so-called Equality State, which today ranks dead last in its percentage of female state lawmakers at just 13 percent.


As for Jackson, that paragon of rugged frontier parity? Well, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the winter playground for the rich is the single most economically unequal metropolitan area in America. And, alas, there is no radical democratic experiment afoot to clean that up anytime soon.

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