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April 17: Petticoat Government

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A petticoat is an article of clothing worn under a skirt. It helps to smooth out wrinkles in the skirt. In the days when very full skirts were in fashion, a petticoat of several layers helped the skirt stand out. The petticoat has long been a symbol of modesty and proper feminine behavior. It has also been used as an insult towards women who were deemed to be venturing out of proper feminine behavior. For example, Mary Wollstonecraft, an early advocate for women’s rights, was called “a hyena in petticoats.”

“Petticoat government” was a term of derision directed at women involved in politics. It was also an implied criticism of men who had somehow allowed women to take control. The earliest use of the term is traced to 1699 in the writing of English satirist Edward Ward. While it was used to describe women who had the temerity to become active in politics, it was broad enough to include women who exercised any sort of power among men.

By the late 1800s, the term was in common use. In 1894, the Langdon, North Dakota Courier Democrat printed the text of a recent presentation. It was used to compliment those “who have renounced fealty to petticoat government.” An 1898 article about the Civil War nurse Clara Barton called it petticoat government for her to give orders to male teamsters.

On this date in 1905, the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican printed a letter titled “A Protest.” The writer said that instead of being critical and hiding behind anonymous insinuations, citizens should meet with teachers and principals to ask questions about school policies so they could understand the school procedures and guidelines. He urged the public to support public schools and forego politics and fads, and included petticoat government in his list of bad policies.

North Dakota allowed women to vote in state elections beginning in 1917. The United States finally followed suit with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. However, women who became active in politics were still seen as upstarts. As late as 1937, a newspaper article announced that “Petticoat Pollys” had won control of the government of Ford, Kansas, and the town could now look forward to two years of petticoat government.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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