A special thank-you to Andrea Wilson from the Iowa Writers’ House for writing this article. This is the last installment of our Women’s History Month blog series—visit iawf.org/blogs to read more.
Uncovering the Mysteries of the World’s First Female Mayor
By Andrea Wilson, Founder & Executive Director of the Iowa Writers’ House
Iowa is known for famous firsts and famous women, but did you know we were the first to have a woman mayor? It was 1920 and women had just been given the right to vote. By 1921, they were hungry to demonstrate their long overdue rights, and that year Emma Harvat was elected to the City Council of Iowa City. The next year, the serving mayor resigned and Emma was elected mayor pro tem, and the following year she ran a full campaign and was elected the first female mayor of Iowa City, and of the nation.
I had never heard of Emma Harvat until I was sitting in her living room—now my living room. The Iowa City Council chambers are named after her, and there is a special park north of town that bears her name, but it wasn’t until my feet were on her floors and my life was irrevocably tied to her legacy that I began to learn what a legend she truly was.
Nearly a century after Emma was elected, I made the decision to move back to Iowa City, the city where I was born and thirty minutes from my hometown of Columbus Junction. I was coming back after a decade of fast-paced corporate life—a life that had taken me around the world and back, with jobs in Toronto, Miami, New York, and more. It was a life that I wasn’t sure would ever return me to my origins of cornfields and kindness, but somehow I’d found my way back.
It was 2014 and I’d come home to Iowa to write my book. Iowa City had recently been appointed a UNESCO City of Literature, thanks in large part to its famed University of Iowa writing programs, so home was not just where the heart was, but also where the writers were. Or so I thought. With the confidence of impassioned youth, I jumped into the idea with both feet, purchasing a house sight unseen in the historical northside of Iowa City. (A bold woman makes bold moves, right?) Arriving at my new home for the first time, I was met with 13 empty rooms, glimmering with a past I couldn’t wait to discover. The certificate from the National Register of Historic Places and a historical magazine were the only hints as to the home’s namesake. But inside the Palimpsest pages I read fascinating excerpts of Emma’s mayoral rulings on criminals, from drunkards to degenerates, and her swift moves to send them to jail for a night of “deserved sobering up” or her admonishments that people should do better for themselves. “The only threat I am making is that gambling and bootlegging must go,” she once said. “I have no use for either.”
While I was moving in, and in an eerie twist, I found an old sesquicentennial issue of the Iowa City Press-Citizen crammed inside my grandmother’s antique nightstand. Staring back at me was Emma’s familiar face, featured as one of the most famous Iowans. “Iowa City gained international fame in 1922 by electing the world’s first female mayor,” I read, and “News of the petticoat administration circled the globe. Articles were written about her as far away as Shanghai, China, and Paris, France.” How was it that my grandmother had decades earlier lined her drawers with an article about the woman whose house I now stood in? Was this destiny? Was I meant to live here?
Verbal stories began to make their way to me as well, such as the time Emma lost her wedding ring and pulled the entire police staff off duty to search for it—and to success, as the ring was found! It was clear I had purchased the home of not just any woman, but perhaps the strongest, most courageous woman Iowa had known. She certainly was the most ahead of her time.
Emma wasn’t a solo act—she had support. The house was officially known as the Emma Harvat and Mary Stach House. Further research told me that Emma and Mary were first friends, then business partners, and then partners in life. There was no LGBTQ movement back then, but Mary supported Emma through her time has mayor and beyond, and from everything I found, they were each other’s everything.
Living in the house of the strongest woman I’d ever read about had a considerable influence on my own strength and courage. And so, after a year in Iowa City, frustrated with my book progress, unable to find my own writing community and feeling the city lacked opportunities for writers outside the university programs, I founded the Iowa Writers’ House, Iowa City’s first space for all writers, young and old. In 2015, the organization received nonprofit fiscal sponsorship with the Johnson County Community Foundation and was off and rolling. Since then, we’ve connected with over 3,000 writers across the state and the Midwest. We’ve hosted workshops for young girls to build confidence and for adults to find their stories within themselves. We’ve held night and weekend classes that working parents can attend. And we’ve become tightly integrated into the writing community—one that has wholeheartedly embraced our existence, from Prairie Lights to the university writing programs themselves. We’ve made a name for ourselves in a town that may be the most famed literary community in the country.
Was I destined to live here? I’ll never know for sure. But every day when the sun rises, I remember that all of this is happening under the same roof where Iowa’s great and powerful women have gone before me.