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How a Wild West Town Shocked the World in 1920 by Electing an All-Female Government

Remembering When Women Ruled a Wild West Town

On May 11 2020, the small town of Jackson in Wyoming marked the 100th anniversary of its “petticoat rulers”, an all-female government that was elected to run the notoriously lawless town. Jackson wasn’t the first city to achieve this unique political milestone, but it is one of the most famous historical cases. Considering the huge current interest in seeing more female participation in the political process, the story of how this small Wyoming town achieved this is worth consideration.

100 years later, the story of women in politics seems to have not progressed. Whilst there is an increasing number of women running for office in the US, their success rates vary greatly. The 2018 midterm elections saw a record 117 women (out of 535 members) get elected to the US Congress. The 2020 Presidential Primaries saw three women compete for the Democratic nomination, and now Democratic nominee Joe Biden has committed to picking a female Vice President. But the long process that has led to all of these female candidates can be traced back to the town of Jackson,

How Women Took Control

Back in the 1900s, Jackson was like any other frontier town. The town square was dirty, cattle grazed everywhere and no one bothered to collect taxes. The biggest challenge, though, was Jackson’s isolated setting (in the Jackson Hole valley), which made it a refuge for outlaws of all kinds. Jackson’s Hole Courier put it this way in 1920: 

Whenever a serious crime was committed between the Mississippi River and the Pacific coast, it was pretty safe to guess that the man responsible for it was either headed for Jackson’s Hole or already had reached it.” 

However, successive incumbent governments, composed entirely of men, didn’t seem to care as they believed civic duty wasn’t an important role. So, in 1920 the women of the town, fed up with the parlous state of their town, decided to take matters into their own hands. They believed that they could actually make a difference, and turn Jackson into a respected city. They also wanted to show the men that civic duty was something worthwhile and shouldn’t be an afterthought. 

Much to everyone’s surprise, especially the men’s, the all-female ticket of Grace Miller standing as mayor, Rose Crabtree, Mae Deloney, Faustina Haight, and Genevieve Van Vleck standing as council members claimed victory against an all-male roster. In many cases, the women beat their male oppositions by a resounding 2-to-1 ratio, and ironically, Rose Crabtree beat her husband for a spot on the council.

The all-women’s council of Jackson, Wyoming. Source: Collection of the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum, 1958.0090.001P

A Joke That Lead to Victory

How did Miller and her team pull off such a victory? According to Scott LeTourneau (writing for the local 106.3 Cowboy Country website) — it was (partially) because one man joked “let’s elect women”. Apparently the joke was made at a tense town meeting, where women had presented a list of grievances to the incumbent council. The story goes that the women were claiming that the council was a bunch of “do-nothings” who cared more about their ranches than the city, especially as the incumbent councilmen did not want to run for office again, and no new men were willing to volunteer.

Whilst the men might have been joking the women weren’t. They organised a meeting and quickly formed the ‘Women’s Party’, presenting the city with an all-female option for the upcoming election with Grace Miller as Mayor, and Rose, Mae, Faustina and Genevieve standing for the council.

Having initially dismissed them, the determination and organisational skills of the women cames a shock to the men of the town, but by the time they got their own act together and formed an opposition, it was too late. The women won the election by a landslide.

It’s a story that Jackson is really proud of and has been telling since the women were elected,” 

Morgan Jaouen, executive director of the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum told Atlas Obscura. Their victory not only made waves across the nation, but the news travelled as far as England, with the Daily Chronicle in London running a story “Town Ruled by Women. Would-Be Councillor [sic] Defeated by His Own Wife.”

The front page of the Jackson’s Hole Courier after the historical 1920 vote. Source: Wyoming State Archives

Within a fortnight of winning the election, the council increased the town coffers from $200 to $2,000 by collecting all the taxes the previous council had failed to. This money was then used to create proper streets and pave the town square.

When the group won a second term a year later, even the criminals began to hail their success. History has it, a convicted stagecoach robber Ed Tafton sent a congratulatory letter to MIller. He wrote 

I believe your little city has the distinction of being the first in the U.S. to elect its city government of women… It not only shows the confidence placed in its intelligent women but the progressive intelligence of its citizens. Hurrah for Jackson, WY.”

 In their successful three year tenure the Women’s Party racked up some impressive achievements. Under their stewardship, the council installed electric lights, improved the public roads, beautified the town square and bought land to create the municipal Aspen Hill cemetery.

Miller’s council is also famous for having an all-female staff. Marta Winger became the town clerk, Edna Huff the health officer, and Viola Lunbeck the treasurer, while Pearl Williams nabbed the position of Marshal, taking on the unenviable task of bringing order to the lawless town. Local legend has it, Williams once killed and buried three male outlaws, after which she apparently had no trouble bringing order to the town.

Within a fortnight of winning the election, the council increased the town coffers from $200 to $2,000 by collecting all the taxes the previous council had failed to. This money was then used to create proper streets and pave the town square. 

When the group won a second term a year later, even the criminals began to hail their success. History has it, a convicted stagecoach robber Ed Tafton sent a congratulatory letter to MIller. He wrote “I believe your little city has the distinction of being the first in the U.S. to elect its city government of women… It not only shows the confidence placed in its intelligent women but the progressive intelligence of its citizens. Hurrah for Jackson, WY.” In their three year tenure, the council installed electric lights, improved the public roads, beautified the town square and bought land to create the municipal Aspen Hill cemetery. 

Miller’s council is also famous for having an all-female staff. Marta Winger became the town clerk, Edna Huff the health officer, and Viola Lunbeck the treasurer, while Pearl Williams nabbed the position of marshal, taking on the unenviable task of bringing order to the lawless town. Legend has it, Williams once killed and buried three male outlaws, after which she apparently had no trouble bringing order to the town.

An Important Decade for Women

Jackson wasn’t the first American city to elect an all-female government, that distinction goes to Oskaloosa, Kansas (1888), followed by Kanab, Utah (1912). However, Jackson’s council is one of the most famous because  1920 was an important year for women in politics. On August 18, the US government ratified the 19th Amendment, finally giving women all over the country the right to vote. Interestingly, Wyoming was the first state to grant suffrage to women, passing a bill in 1869 (thus the nickname the Equality State). 

1920 was also the year the League of Women Voters was created. The organisation was founded to encourage women to vote and spread knowledge and awareness of the political process amongst women. As a result of this, more women started entering politics. In 1922, Rebecca Felton became the first woman to become a Senator (although she served for just a day). More women began to be elected to positions within state and city governments, including women of colour.

Rebecca Felton, the first women to become a Senator. Source: Library of Congress

 In fact, it could be said that the 1920s were pivotal in starting to prove that women could succeed in government. Even though the 2020 Presidential Election primaries featured the most diverse set of candidates, the two nominees still ended up being white men. It stands as proof that momentum is never guaranteed.

What Happened Next?

So what happened to the city and Wyoming after Miller’s all-female council? Well, it was a long time before Jackson saw another female councillor (the 1980’s to be exact). And it was only in 2001 that Jackson elected their second female mayor, Jeanne Jackson. Despite its radical past in more recent times, the Equality State has also fallen behind when it comes to women serving in the state legislature. According to the Centre for American Women in Politics, Wyoming is currently ranked 48th out of 50 states, with just 15.6% of its state legislature comprising women. Only Alabama and West Virginia rank lower.

A ranking of American states based on women’s participation in politics. Source: Centre for American Women & Politics

At a national or federal level, Wyoming’s stats don’t make good reading in terms of female participation in politics. Today, whilst Liz Cheney represents Wyoming in the US Congress, the state’s two Senators are men. Cheney and Cynthia Lummis are the only two women to have represented Wyoming in Congress, and so far no women have been elected to the Senate from the state.

Morgan Jaouen believes the lack of progress is a result of Wyoming’s shift from a pioneering territory to a settled state. When Miller’s all-female council was elected, it was not a result of a feminist movement, but rather convenience. She believes that the women won the election simply because they were willing to do the job no one wanted – run the town.

People were focused on other things, like farming and just trying to make a living,” says Jaouen. “They didn’t necessarily have time for civic duty.” 

That said, Grace Miller’s all-women council isn’t an obscure part of history that few in the town know little about. Everywhere in Jackson today, a photo of the council is hung as a reminder of its progressive past. The city may not have had another all-female government since, but the photo serves as historical proof that a group of women could tame a wild west frontier town, and it offers hope to women of today, not just in the city but everywhere.  

Sources: Atlas Obscura, How Stuff Works, Jackson Hole Historical Society & Museum, Wyoming Public Media, 106.3 Cowboy Country

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