Great women of Oregon History, Part II: The “Firsts”
Not many people know it, but Oregon had the first female governor (in 1909), first female sworn police officer (in 1908) and first female stagecoach driver (in the 1860s).
By Finn J.D. John — April 10, 2016
In last week’s column, we launched into an overview of great women from Oregon history whose names ought to be mentioned next time the chance comes up to name a bridge or mountain after an important and overlooked historical figure. Today we’ll continue that list with several more path-breaking, relatively unknown women from Oregon history:
Gov. Carolyn B. Shelton
First female governor in U.S. history
First former governor to marry another former governor (tie with George Chamberlain)
Carolyn B. Shelton was, essentially, a paralegal before there were paralegals, working for a progressive young attorney named George Chamberlain. She started out working for him as a stenographer, but he quickly recognized her aptitude for the law, and soon she was drafting legal documents and doing research. She soon became his most trusted assistant. And when her boss was elected governor of Oregon, she went with him to the Capitol as his private secretary.
Now, to the modern ear, this sounds like a very commonplace thing, because to modern people, secretaries are stereotypically women. But this was not the case with private secretaries to government officials in the 1910s. It was as unusual for Chamberlain to have a private secretary who was a woman, as it would be today to have a female Secretary of Defense — which is to say, not unusual enough to elicit shocked comment, but not common either, and with very little if any historical precedent.
Then Chamberlain was elected to the U.S. Senate, and had to travel to Washington, D.C., to be sworn in. His successor, Franklin Benson, was sick in bed.
In a situation like this, the standard procedure for the state of Oregon was for the governor’s private secretary to step in as acting governor during his absence. But never before had a governor’s private secretary been a woman.
Nonetheless, Chamberlain handed over the keys to the office to his trusty private secretary and hopped on an eastbound train.
And so, for the first time in U.S. history, for one weekend in early 1909, a U.S. state was governed by a woman.
Come Monday, Benson was feeling better. After he was sworn in, Shelton traveled east to rejoin her boss.
By the way, while we’re on the subject of “firsts,” 17 years after this incident, Shelton and Chamberlain married each other. It rather goes without saying that this was the first time THAT had ever happened — two former governors marrying one another.
Charlotte “One-Eyed Charley” Parkhurst
Likely the first woman to vote for a U.S. president (after 1807)
First (and probably only) female stagecoach driver
Back in the 1860s, before railroad lines were punched through the Siskiyou Mountains to connect Oregon with California, the stagecoach lines were the most important thing going. And the men who drove those four- and six-horse rigs were among the most admired tough guys of the frontier.
A stagecoach driver faced all sorts of hazards in his daily work, from runaway horse teams to nests of rattlesnakes. But the biggest risk a stage driver ran, by far, was robbers. Until the railroad came through, most of the gold and valuables sent from town to town — lumber-camp payrolls, the produce from gold mines, stacks of cash to be used for political bribery — came and went in an “express box” on a stagecoach.
Robbers very seldom, if ever, set out to murder a stage driver. But when a stagecoach driver heard the words “Stick ‘em up,” he never knew if the robber was going to be one of those smooth, gentlemanly types like “Black Bart” Bolton, or a twitchy, jittery drunkard clutching a cocked Winchester. Sometimes gunfights did break out. Most often, the stage drivers lost those gunfights; they made fine targets high up on their seats.
“One-Eyed Charley” Parkhurst was a stagecoach driver, and one of the very best. Charley was better with the horses than anyone else. He had less trouble with robbers than most other drivers, too — he had a reputation as a hard driver to get the drop on. In at least one robbery attempt he “turned his wild mustangs and his wicked revolver loose,” according to an 1880 article in the New York Times — and, leaving at least one would-be robber behind dead, brought the box through safely. After that, most robbers just avoided crossing paths with him. He mostly worked the California runs, but his job also regularly brought him over the Siskiyous into southern Oregon as well.
Charley didn’t die on the job. Stricken with tongue cancer (probably from chewing tobacco), he gave up the ghost in 1879 and was laid out to be prepared for burial.
It was only then that the frontier doctors and coroners discovered the truth: “Charley” was short for “Charlotte,” not “Charles.”
The truth slowly emerged: Orphaned as a little girl, Charlotte had run away from the orphanage and dressed as a boy to disguise herself. The disguise had opened so many doors for her that she’d never switched back.
In 1868, “Charley” was registered to vote in the Presidential election that elected Ulysses S. Grant. If she cast that vote, as she most likely did, she was probably the first woman to vote for a president since before 1807, when the franchise was still tied to land ownership in a few eastern states.
First sworn policewoman in U.S. history
There is some dispute as to whether Lola Baldwin was really the first policewoman; it comes down to one’s definition of “police officer.” She didn’t wear a uniform or walk a beat. But in 1908, when Baldwin was officially hired by the Portland Police Department, it was the first time a city P.D. had sworn a woman in and given her police power, badge and salary.
Baldwin was a teacher and social-hygiene activist from back east who moved to Portland with her husband, a dry-goods merchant, in the late 1890s. As a volunteer with the Travelers’ Aid Society, she soon developed a sterling local reputation as a strong, effective, compassionate advocate for young women. Meanwhile, the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition was coming to Portland, and Mayor Harry Lane was worried about out-of-town swindlers and human traffickers rolling into town and preying upon the young women working at the fair.
Baldwin threw herself into the work, checking out newspaper ads that seemed to promise big paychecks for light work, catching statutory rapists and human-trafficking operators (they called them “white slavers” back then) and getting “fallen women” and “unwed mothers” the help they needed. She also earned a reputation for fair dealing among saloon and brothel proprietors, with whom she often worked to keep underage girls away from their businesses.
In 1908, having worked for three years as a volunteer supported by local charities, Baldwin put the touch on the Portland City Council to create the “Women’s Auxiliary to the Police Department for the Protection of Girls,” and hire her to run it. She laid out her case in very rational, logical terms … and then, in mild tones, closed the deal with mic-dropping finality:
“We notice that there was $5,030 used this year for the dog pound, and an additional $1,000 is asked for 1908,” she remarked. Wouldn’t the city consider allocating just half that amount, she added, “for practical, positive protection for the growing girlhood of the city of Portland”?
It certainly could. In fact, what choice did it have?
(Sources: Myers, Gloria. A Municipal Mother. Corvallis: OSU Press, 1995; blog of Dr. Kimberly Jensen of Western Oregon University at kimberlyjensenblog.blogspot.com; archives of The New York Times, 1879-1880)