Jackson made a name for itself in 1920 when it became the first town with a civic government of all women.
Known as the “petticoat” rulers, Mayor Grace Miller and Rose Crabtree, Mae Deloney, Genevieve Van Vleck and Faustina Haight made up the Town Council after being nominated for the ticket by Jackson citizens when prominent men refused to step up.
The women, all socialite members of the “Pure Foods Club,” beat their opponents in some cases by a margin of 2-1. Crabtree bested her husband, Henry Crabtree, garnering 50 votes compared with his 31.
Elected May 11, they swiftly appointed other women to take administrative positions when they took office June 7. Marta Winger was appointed town clerk, Edna Huff was health officer, Viola Lunbeck was named treasurer and Pearl Williams was town marshal, whose main duty was to keep livestock out of town.
Those appointments were what made Jackson especially noteworthy in the year women were granted suffrage with the 19th amendment to the U.S Constitution. Oskaloosa, Kansas, and Kanab, Utah, had already elected all-female town councils in 1888 and 1912.
With its petticoat government Jackson underscored why Wyoming deserved its nickname, the Equality State, which it acquired after giving women the right to vote in 1869.
“My recollection is that it was not in protest to former administration, nor, really, a matter of politics, but just an impulsive and spontaneous gesture on the part of an assembled Town Caucus, to give women a chance to run things,” Town Clerk Winger wrote in a 1981 letter that is now housed at the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum. “It was a very small town, and I remember the delight everybody felt when the event met with such enthusiasm from the press and papers all over the country carried the story. The ladies were besieged by investigative reporters — and Jackson was on the map.”
The women not only put the valley in the limelight but also cleaned up the town financially and physically.
When they took office there was only $200 in town coffers due to uncollected fines and taxes, according to a 1922 article from The Delineator magazine.
“They went out personally and collected every cent due the town from those who ignored the notices,” it said. “Before the end of a fortnight there was $2,000 in the treasury.”
With that money in hand the women began making improvements to what was then a dirty little frontier town due to the “easy-going” men in charge that resulted in a “slatternly town,” as the magazine said.
“What the women have done to the town is worth telling because it proves that women can bring into practical politics common sense and business agility,” it said. “Jackson, Wyoming, is a small-town but small-town problems are big-city problems on a small scale.”
They built new culverts, passed health laws that criminalized littering, instituted a clean-up week, asked homeowners to spruce up their buildings and refurbished the cemetery.
“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. We wanted a clean, well-kept progressive town in which to raise our families. What is good government but a breathing place for good citizenship?”
In 1921, Miller and one-year incumbents Van Vleck and Haight were re-elected by hefty margins, a vindication for the women rulers.
While Jackson’s history has a strong foundation of women in leadership, over the years that heritage has waned. Miller was the only female mayor of the town until Jeanne Jackson was elected in 2001.
“We certainly have a lot to be proud of with our petticoat council of 1920, but when you’re in the Town Council chambers it’s pretty obvious ... there’s a lot of men on that wall,” County Commissioner Melissa Turley said.
When Turley was first elected to the Town Council in 2006 she was the only woman on the council, and there were no women on the Teton County Board of Commissioners. She was met with some opposition because of her age and gender.
Now there are three women — Turley, fellow County Commissioner Barb Allen and Town Councilor Hailey Morton Levinson — between the council and county commission, so gender is less of an issue, she said.
“Research has shown when women make up 30 percent of a leadership body, that’s when folks stop talking about gender,” Turley said.
Statewide, women make up about one-quarter of town officials, she said.
“Women are still 50 percent of our population, and I do believe we should have equal power in leadership,” Turley said. “I’d like to see more women in leadership in our community.”
When more women serve in elected leadership roles, more women run for and are elected to office, Turley said.
“It would be good to kind of get back to the days when we had a more female and more representative government,” she said. “I wish we had another woman or two” on the council.
Still, the all-female government made a lasting impact on the community.
“We’ve kept the values and the things that are important throughout the last century,” Levinson said.
“I’m honored to be in Jackson and part of the Town Council and also part of the community in its 100 years anniversary.”