Emma Harvat once said that many of the men who were ordered before her thought they could get off easy because she was a woman.
She proved them wrong.
“A man who visited the jail told me that several prisoners declared they didn’t want to come before me again,” Harvat said in a newspaper clipping now preserved in the University of Iowa Libraries. “I’ve had several students locked up for speeding.”
The 52-year-old Harvat was elected as mayor of Iowa City in 1922, becoming not only the first woman to ascend to the post in what was then a city of 15,000 residents and 6,000 students, but of any U.S. city with a population of more than 10,000. Her election earned her headlines in newspapers around the world, from San Francisco to Shanghai, and the press dubbed Harvat’s office as the “Petticoat Administration.”
Harvat, who grew up in Iowa City, worked for years in the book and stationery business and later helped open a women’s ready-to-wear clothing shop.
After becoming Iowa City’s first woman on the city council in 1921, she served as alderman at-large before being written in by her fellow council members to replace former mayor Ingalls Swisher, who had resigned. When the mayorship later came up for popular vote, as was the practice then, Harvat, a Republican, ran on the platform of cleaning up the city’s bootlegging and gambling problems.
At that time, the mayor also served as police judge, a role Harvat embraced. With her large and imposing figure and confident manner, she ruled with a firm hand. In 1923, she pulled in a record $6,000 in fines for the city, more than doubling any preceding year.
The mayor once said that she “wished to put the city on such a basis that a mother can send her daughter to the university without feeling that she will return a brazen ‘flapper,’ utterly devoid of old-fashioned charm, and a father will feel that his son will not return a ‘cake-eater.’”
During her term as mayor, which lasted until 1925, Harvat organized the first juvenile home in Iowa City and began paving the city’s streets.
It would be another 40 years before another woman served as mayor of Iowa City — Thelma Lewis in 1961-62. The council’s chambers at City Hall were named Emma J. Harvat Hall in 2001.
“Running a city is like running any business,” said Harvat, who died in 1949 at age 79. “A woman can do it just as well as a man. A councilman told me the other day that I shouldn’t try to be a mother to all these fellows that come before me, but I think I have persuaded several men to stop drinking. Women, too, come to me to talk things over when they would not feel free to visit a man mayor.”
— Josh O’Leary