Petticoat Rule: When women governed the Town of Washington

‘There was nothing stopping them, they were in full throttle’

Dorothy Hawkins, now 93 years young, made history in 1950 when she became part of an all female Washington Town Council, led by Mayor Dorothy Davis, known as “Dotsy.”

America similarly took notice of the town’s unique government makeup and the press went wild. One ensuing national political splash labeled the Rappahannock phenom, “Petticoat Rule.”

Courtesy image
In a 1950 Colliers magazine photo, the all-woman Town government: Mayor Dorothy Davis, Elizabeth Racer, Dorothy Hawkins, Louise Price, Acsah Miller, Bobbie Critzer and Ruby Jenkins.

In fact, Dr. John Snead erected a sign at Washington’s corporate limits: “Caution: You are now entering She-Town.”

It is told that a few men in the nearby hamlets and hollows forbade their wives to set foot in the town, fearing they might get “uppity” ideas.

An in depth article written by Colliers pointed out that for more than two centuries “male politicos ruled the town of Washington.”

The Democratic Digest of 1950 quoted Dorothy: “We inspired women in surrounding counties to get involved. Not long after the elections here, Winchester had women in county government.”

The election of the all-ladies town council came about when Judge Brooke M. “Snippy” Miller overheard a conversation amongst the women on Mt. Salem Avenue, where they would congregate on their porches and discuss, among other issues, the declining conditions of the town — weeds growing along the streets, burned out street lamps, dogs running loose, and plenty more.

Courtesy photo
Dorothy Hawkins and six other women made history in the town of Washington — and in doing so were the focus of national headlines.

“Snippy” heard all he needed to hear. He rounded up six women and put every last one of them on the ballot.

Dorothy related that when “Snippy” approached her she was reluctant, arguing that she knew nothing about government affairs and meetings. “After one meeting,” he responded, “you’ll know about government meetings. I’m putting you on the ballot.”

Wouldn’t you know after the ballots were counted the council consisted of Achsah Dudley Miller, Louise Miller Price, Nellie Elizabeth Racer, Bobbie Critzer, Ruby Jenkins and Dorothy Hawkins.

Smiling slyly, Dorothy recalls that rather than acknowledging their sound defeat, the men who lost what was a contentious election good naturedly told all that they had actually quit.

Regardless, ushered in were six “councilmen.” And the mayor made seven — “four wives, a widow, a secretary and the town beautician.”

The ladies took to task immediately, created a finance committee to study city expenses and draft a budget, a device never before utilized by the men. Committees were formed to address burned out lights, and within 24 hours a man was hired to keep the streets clean and the grass down; laws were passed designed to keep stray dogs off the streets; mileage signs were installed, and the Civil War monument repaired.

There was nothing stopping them, they were in full throttle. Dorothy recalled that in later years, thanks in part to the town’s new momentum, the water system was improved, a playground was built and street signs were installed designed by Peter Kramer, then mayor of Washington.

“He’s such a wonderful craftsman,” she remarked, and relayed how quaint and attractive were the street signs, how perfectly they fit the character of the town.

Dorothy served on the Town Council for 34 consecutive years. She shared stories of the recent town election and the visiting politicians, telling that she politely shooed them away, already decided on her vote, that is until Hank Gorfein came to the door and she invited him in. She found him delightful, he “wasn’t pushy at all,” and she laughed recounting that he’d told her “he was an old man.” And she responded, “What? You’re kidding, you’re just a baby.”

I asked of her favorite memories and she was quick to respond: “The unity, people were so united in everything, the churches, total acceptance of all, there was none of this bigotry and carrying on, it was a wonderful place to raise a family.”

“I can remember,” she added, “when there was a hitching post and livery stable and hog pens in the middle of town!”

Dorothy met her husband in the sixth grade, Milton Mortimer Hawkins, Jr., known as “MM,” but she called him June. When he returned home after serving in World War II, he took a position with Viscose in Front Royal, they married and started a family, welcoming two sons Ronnie and Stewart.

She lives today in a charming Dutch Colonial, with a sloping gambrel roof and classic 1800’s style Pennsylvania Dutch front doors, one opening into the foyer and the other leading into a cozy parlor. Meeting with her brings to mind the iconic Betty White — feisty and smart, exuding warmth, gracious charm and above all possessing more chutzpah than many half her age.

Chris Green
About Chris Green 149 Articles
Chris Green (formerly Chris Doxzen) is an an executive recruiter by profession who enjoys exploring and writing about all things Rappahannock. Friends and neighbors with potential stories for her Sperryville column should email her at chrisdoxzen@gmail.com.

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