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Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Let's Elect the Women:" Jackson, Wyoming’s all Woman

Jackson, Wyoming has the historical distinction of being the first town in the United States to be governed entirely by women. It all began back in the spring of 1920, when civic minded men and women of Jackson met for a special town meeting to discuss the numerous problems facing the city. Many agreed that what was needed was the election of a new council, one that would be more responsive to community concerns than the current administration. Women in particular were tired of what they considered to be a do-nothing council whose members seemed to care more about their ranches and businesses than improving Jackson’s quality of life. The women presented the council with their list of grievances. Their complaints fell on deaf ears. The mayor and councilmen seemed not to care about city improvements, nor did they seem to care about the up-coming election. When the discussion turned to the selection of candidates for mayor and city council, there was a general lack of enthusiasm among the men; the incumbents did not want to run again and there were no male volunteers. Perhaps as a joke, or out of frustration caused by the list of complaints submitted by the ladies, one of the men offered a solution: “Let’s elect the women.”

That very evening the ladies held a caucus, where they formed the Woman’s Party and presented to the citizens of Jackson a party ticket for mayor and city council comprised entirely of women. Grace Miller headed the ticket as the mayoral candidate; and Rose Crabtree, Mae Deloney, Geneviene Van Fleck, and Faustina Haight volunteered as candidates for city council. As if struck by lightning, and certainly with a new interest in all things political, the men moved quickly to form an opposition party and offered to the voters a slate of male candidates for city offices.

As candidates for the Woman’s Party ticket, the ladies championed many issues that were of concern to the citizens of Jackson. High on the list was doing something about the town’s muddy streets. The combination of heavy winter snows, quick thaws and spring rains created streams of mud. With inadequate ditches and no culverts, water ran down the street, and in many areas, left stagnant pools of water. The muddy streets and the lack of sidewalks angered the town mothers whose children had to wade through the mud to and from school. Another issue the women embraced was the need for an adequate facility for refuse disposal. The traditional method of disposing of garbage was evidently to dump it in vacant lots. The women promised that they would create a facility for the town garbage. The ladies also campaigned to construct a road to the cemetery, which was located on a hillside adjacent to town and mostly inaccessible.

The May elections turned into a contest between the men and women of Jackson to see which party could win the election and to prove who was better suited to run the city government. The citizens of Jackson overwhelmingly elected the Woman’s Party.

The Jackson’s female city council was one of many political firsts for western women. In 1869, while Wyoming was still a Territory, legislators granted women the right to vote--the first territory or state to do so. It was also in Wyoming where the first woman judge was appointed and where county authorities first called women as jurors. The women of Jackson recognized the egalitarian spirit apparent in the West. After the election, Mayor Grace Miller commented that, “The voters of Jackson believed that women are not only entitled to equal suffrage, but they are also entitled to equality in the management of governmental affairs.”

The election of an all female government was not only a momentous occasion for Jackson, but brought renewed celebrity to the infamaous town. Newspapers across the country published articles about how the newly elected officials were going to bring civilization to Jackson. Journalist thought it was especially interesting because Jackson and the valley to the north known as Jackson’s Hole enjoyed the notoriety of being “last wilderness” and the “wildest” place on earth; a reputation earned by the numbers of outlaws who sought asylum in the isolated valley that is surrounded by the Teton and Gros Ventre Mountains. The publication of Owen Wister’s The Virginian in 1902 reinforced the area’s reputation. Wister lived in Jackson’s Hole at one time and his stories helped to create an image of the West as a place where men celebrated rugged individualism. The election of women to run Jackson was an indication that Owen Wister’s West had changed. The new “petticoat government” took a “demoralized” town and turned it into what Mayor Grace Miller described as a “clean, well-kept, progressive town in which to raise our families.”

In 1893, Grace Miller and her husband, Robert, were among the first settlers to homestead in Jackson’s Hole, a high mountain valley in present day western Wyoming named for fur trader David E. Jackson. The Millers built their home in a part of the valley that today is a sanctuary for thousands of elk who winter in the National Elk Refuge. In the nineteenth century, the isolation of the valley and harsh winter weather kept most men out of the area until the snows melted in the spring. Then, parties of hunters traveled over high mountain passes and descended into the valley, where they spent the summer trapping along the Snake River and its tributaries. By October, most of the men left the valley before mountain snows closed three of the main passes. In 1884 some of the hunters decided to make Jackson’s Hole their year round residence and by the early 1900s, more and more settlers established homesteads and ranches. In 1897, Grace Miller purchased land at the south end of Jackson’s Hole for a future townsite. Three years later the town consisted of an assortment of buildings including a saloon, mercantile, gun club, and post office. Jackson was incorporated into a town in 1914, and by 1920, there were 350 residents. Although many of the modern conveniences of the 1920s were making their way into Jackson’s culture, the town was isolated most of the year from the outside world. The nearest railroad station and postal route was seventy-five miles away at Rexburg, Idaho, an arduous journey over 8429 foot Teton Pass.

Grace Miller and her husband were counted among the town’s most prominent citizens. Robert Miller was a partner in the Bank of Jackson and ultimately became Superintendent of Teton National Reserve. The newly elected town councilwomen were also wives of Jackson’s merchants and ranchers--Mae Deloney’s family owned the town mercantile, Geneviene Van Flack’s husband owned a hardware and sporting goods store, Rose Crabtree and her husband ran a hotel and restaurant and Faustina Haight and her husband were prominent ranchers. Faustina was also the town schoolteacher. All the women belonged to the Pure Food Club, a misnomer for a card club where the ladies played poker and enjoyed an afternoon of culinary delights.

After taking office, the new mayor and city council immediately began to work on improving Jackson’s infrastructure. The first order of business was to assess the town’s finances. The women quickly discovered that there was only two hundred dollars in the treasury and a significant number of uncollected fines and taxes. The council recommended that delinquent notices be sent, and when residents ignored the notices, council members personally made house calls to collect from those who owed the town money. The money they collected increased the town coffers by $2000.00, just enough money to begin construction of ditches and culverts. Eventually sidewalks were built with the financial aid of the parent-teachers association, and the help of the town’s men, who not only cut logs and transported them to the sawmill, but furnished the nails and the muscle to assemble a walkway from the town square to the schoolhouse. The women fulfilled their campaign promisees by passing health laws that made it a misdemeanor to dump garbage in vacant city lots, by providing a refuse facility outside of the town, and by building a road to the cemetery that would accommodate wagon and automobile travel.

In keeping with the spirit of an all woman city government, the council appointed only women to fill vacant administrative positions. The most colorful of these was the appointment of Pearl Williams as town marshal. Newspapers across the country reported Williams’s appointment as evidence of the true mettle of western womanhood. With so many questions from reporters about her unusual position as town marshal, Williams decided to “play” to the eastern perception of western culture. The petite five foot tall twenty-two year old young lady represented herself to newspaper editors as a tough, no-nonsense, gun-toting law woman. She told one reporter that she “did not have any problems with lawbreakers after she shot three dead and buried them herself.” She did wear a pearl handled revolver, but the only outlaws she rounded up were outlaw cattle grazing on the town square. It was her responsibility to inform the owners to keep their cattle out of town. On weekends, Pearl locked up drunken cowboys, and if they were too much for her, she deputized her older brother to help.

In the twenty first century, Jackson is known for its ski resorts, dude ranches, and summer vistas of the Teton Mountains. Thousands of tourists visit Jackson every summer, where they mill through the numerous mercantile and eating establishments that boarder the town square. Most of these people do not know about marshal Pearl Williams and her duty to keep cows out of town. And, as visitors walk along the wooden sidewalks that symbolize to eastern tourists the true character of a western town, most will not know that it took a mini political revolution by the women of Jackson to build those sidewalks, and “civilize” the town in 1920.

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