Dorothy Popham Cox Davis was a giving woman — of her time, humor, her warmth, smile and her strong love for the town of Washington. By all accounts she loved Rappahannock County for what it stood for and was beloved by many who came to know her.
Davis died March 2 at the age of 92. She was known to many as “Dotsy” and was elected as the first woman mayor with an all-woman town council in the United States in 1950, a position she held for 20 years.
Special thanks to the Rappahannock Historical Society, whose archives include the many magazine and newspaper articles written about Davis and her colleagues, including a long feature in Colliers, which pointed out that for more than two centuries, “male politicos ruled the town of Washington,” but in 1950, the town made headlines in newspapers in Virginia and the rest of the country by electing a female mayor and an all-woman town council. “Petticoat rule,” the papers called it.
It all started when Judge Brooke M. “Snippy” Miller overheard a conversation about declining conditions in the town, about weeds growing along the streets, dogs running loose and burned out street lamps. He rounded up seven woman and put them on a ballot. When the women’s rebellion proved successful, the renown so long withheld suddenly arrived in a veritable deluge. Reporters, radio television and newsreel men flocked to the village.
The council included Achsah Dudley Miller, Louise Miller Price, Nellie Elizabeth Racer, Bobbie Critzer, Dorothy Hawkins and Ruby Jenkins, with Davis as mayor. The six council members earned the munificent sum of $2 a month for their work; the mayor got $5.
The ladies went to work at their very first council meeting, promising to show the men how to run things. They immediately appointed a finance committee to study city expenses and draft a budget — a device never before utilized. A book of bank checks was ordered. In the past, all town bills were paid by warrant, a clumsy and long-obsolete system.
Committees were also appointed to replace burned-out lights within 24 hours; a man was hired to keep the streets clean and the grass down; and laws designed to keep stray dogs off the village streets were reinforced. The gals left no doubt that they were running the show.
In addition to the new council, the magistrate, banker and owner/editor/publisher of the Rappahannock News were also women, leading Dr. John Snead, of neighboring Sperryville, to put up a sign at Washington’s corporate limits: “Caution: You are now entering She-Town.” A few men in the nearby hills even forbade their wifes to set foot in the village, fearing they might get “uppity” ideas.
Following her first couple of elections, Davis and her “she-town” council were widely touted for all their hard work, including getting the state department of highways and transportation to include Little Washington on mileage signs and repairing the Civil War monument.
What she was most proud of, however, was the new town water system. A depression project undertaken by the Works Progress Administration, the system had been in receivership for years. Some people lacked water meters and were receiving free service. With the help of the court, the water system was turned over to the town in the late 1960s and was paid out in five years. Water meters were installed where needed. The town reservoir also got its first cleaning in 20 years.
Davis wasn’t just famous within Little Washington, however. She appeared on “The Big Surprise,” a weekly quiz show, where her expertise on George Washington helped her stick around for six weeks and win $9,000. Later in the 1960s she won the $20,000 grand prize in a contest called “A New You,” sponsored by the Coca Cola Company for its new diet soft drink, Tab.
She had a love for politics and current events and early American history, especially related to George Washington, the town’s namesake. Her wide-ranging interests also included entertaining, gardening, family genealogy, flower arranging and judging floral competitions. She was also instrumental in creating the annual House Tour & Dried Flower Sale for Trinity Episcopal Church. Davis finally stepped down in 1974.
Dorothy Hawkins, now the only living member of that all-female council, described Davis as “one amazing woman and a dear friend. She never let anything get in her way of doing her job. She always got the job finished.”
“The town of Washington is best known for George laying out the 2 by 5 grid in 1749, Patrick’s Inn at Little Washington and Dorothy’s election as mayor with her all-female team in 1950,” said current mayor John Sullivan. “By all accounts she was a force to be reckoned with; I only wish that I could have met her and grateful that I don’t have to run against her.”
This poem is for Dorothy:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
A graveside memorial service for Dorothy Popham Cox Davis will be held at a later date. Memorial gifts can be made to the Rappahannock Historical Society (328 Gay Street, Washington, VA 22747).
The clergy of our community, led by Rev. Sara Keeling, gathered on Ash Wednesday for the imposition of ashes in the town square; more than 30 people came to participate.
Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence: Beginning in the Middle Ages, it became customary to begin Lent by being marked in ash with the sign of the cross.
Russ and Mary Collins were awarded Lifetime Membership at the February meeting of the Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue company. The status is conferred by the company members; to even be eligible, one has to serve the WVFR actively for 20 years or be at at least 65 and serve for at least 10 years.
Russ and Mary say they will continue to be active members. Russ is a medic and runs calls frequently, providing advanced life support to residents of the county. He also is firefighter certified and helps out on fires. Mary has served many years as treasurer for the company. She’s now the assistant treasurer, but puts her dedication into the Thrift Shop, which has taken off and provides a much-needed service to the community.
An exhibition of new works by local artist Thomas Mullany opens Sunday (March 16) with an all-day open house (10 to 6) at R.H. Ballard, 307 Main St. Food and refreshments are provided, and Mullany will be present to discuss his work with guests who attend. The show runs through April 6. There’s more about Mullany on page 2, in The Rapp column.
The Ecumenical Lenten Service continues at 6 p.m. (service at 7) Wednesday (March 19) at Washington Baptist Church. The dinner and set-up will be hosted by the parishioners at St. Peter Catholic Church, music is provided by the United Methodists and Trinity’s Rev. Jennings Hobson III is the featured speaker. For more information, call 540-987-8137.
Congratulations to Jessica and William Metcalf of Washington on the birth of their daughter, Natalie Catherine Alice Metcalf. She was born on Feb. 27 at Fauquier Hospital. Weighing 6 pounds 3 ounces and measuring 18.5 inches, she was welcomed home by her sisters, Sydney and Madelyn. Mom and baby are doing well. Jessica is a part-time clerk at the Washington Post Office.
Congratulations to you both!