written by Lindsay McWilliams
In the fall of 1916, seven women in the small town of Umatilla gathered for a seemingly innocent “card party.” Their husbands paid no mind. Meanwhile, these seven women secretly formed a coup to elect themselves as city government officials in place of the male-dominated ranks.
It had been four years since women had gained the right to vote in Oregon, and the current male government was lacking—setting the stage for the women of Umatilla to make a change.
According to an article in the Eastern Oregonian from December 1916, “The present administration had been letting city affairs run along the lines of least resistance. Laws were slackly enforced, city improvement was at a standstill and Umatilla was rapidly retrograding back into the sagebrush stage of years ago.”
Then-Mayor E.E. Starcher and Councilman C.G. Brownwell didn’t think they had any competition in the race for administration that year. That is, until 2 p.m. on election day, when the two men saw their wives’ names on the ballot.
“I felt secure enough but I got busy at once,” Mayor Starcher said, as reported in the same article. “Everywhere I went among old adherents I found they had voted for my wife, and I thought all the time they had voted for me.”
It was too late. By the end of the day, Laura Starcher—the mayor’s wife—had been voted in as mayor-elect, along with four new “councilwomen,” a treasurer and an auditor, all female. The women also appointed marshal and law enforcement positions to other women in the community.
The elected women had long been dissatisfied with the work of their administration and felt that they could do a better job. “We believe the women can do many things and effect many reforms in this town that the men did not dare do,” Mayor-elect Laura Starcher told the Eastern Oregonian. “We will not leave the enforcement of our laws to any man, because past experiences has proven the laws will not be strictly enforced.”
Reform they did. The women created sidewalk projects and cleanups, moved ahead on city electrical bills, started a library and more, as reported by The Oregonian in 2012. Despite this progress, the administration returned to its all-male state in 1920, with no new women running for office in place of the previous ones.
The story of the brave and cunning women of Umatilla lives on, celebrated during city anniversaries and retold in a local play called “Operation Clean Sweep.”