YONCALLA — In 1920, the small town of Yoncalla made the national news when it elected what may have been the first all-woman city council in America.
This turn of events was termed a “sex uprising” and the new rule of a “petticoat government” by newspapers from Portland to New York. The Oregon Daily Journal speculated the men had decided the women should run, while other newspapers suggested the women had campaigned in secret.
The Literary Digest, the Newsweek of its day, went with the secrecy claim. It quipped the women’s surprise election proved “the falsity of that moss-grown libel that a woman cannot keep a secret.”
Yoncalla author Shannon Applegate believes the five women entered public service for the reason women often have since. Because they saw something that was wrong and they were motivated to fix it. Applegate told an audience of about 40 Tuesday at the Douglas County Library in Roseburg that the women believed the male council hadn’t been doing its job.
The board sidewalks along the town’s main street were rotted and dangerous to walk on, the outhouses were in unsanitary locations, and the lighting downtown was poor. These issues — along with the problem of cars driving too fast through town — were what motivated the women to step up.
Applegate said there may have been another issue on their minds as well. She recalled her father telling stories of a colorful character in town, Old Pete, an alcoholic who once rode his horse into the barber shop and demanded the horse be given a shave.
It wasn’t too long after this incident that the ladies filed to run for office. This was a time when prohibition was the law of the land, and all five women were connected to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. While these anti-alcohol activists have since become the butt of jokes, Applegate said at the time they were the only group talking about the very serious problems caused by alcohol abuse.
Prohibition brought more women into politics than either the abolition of slavery or suffrage had, Applegate said.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that when Old Pete was found wandering through town wearing nothing but his socks, that the new “petticoat government” firmly (but politely) insisted he be sent to jail.
“They were always civil and respectful and polite and they didn’t engage in name-calling, though the same thing could not be said about some of the men in town. Several of the councilwomen shook Pete’s hand and said they hoped he wouldn’t hold it against them personally,” Applegate said.
“They also fixed the sidewalk, and the lights, and moved the outhouses. Their governing was even-handed and efficient, even according to some local men,” she said.
Women had won the right to vote nationwide in 1920, but Oregon women had the vote in 1912. There had been a couple of other Oregon mayors by the time the five took over the Yoncalla council, but the combination of an all-woman council headed by a woman mayor was unique.
Applegate is related to Mayor Mary Burt. Burt appeared square-jawed and serious in a group photo with the other women elected in 1920, but she had a sense of humor, Applegate said. These women were in their 60s, for the most part, and many were already pillars of their community.
Councilwoman Nettie Hanan was the butcher’s wife and owned considerable property in her own right. She was also active in local clubs. Councilwoman Bernice Wilson descended from Oregon Trail pioneers and Applegate believes she is connected with the Whipple family. Councilwoman Edith Thompson was a widow new to Yoncalla.
Councilwoman Jennie Laswell was the wife of an outgoing councilman, and her grandson later became Judge William Laswell. She founded the Yoncalla library, donating her own books.
“Not too much more about our sweet little library or I might cry, or get angry. History doesn’t always march forward,” Applegate said.
In one respect, history did march forward, though. Yoncalla would go on to have many more female mayors “who changed the face of their town in the decades to come,” Applegate said.