By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

Missoula’s newly elected female mayor admitted, “I had no intention of running, but I kept getting hotter under the collar when I couldn't find any” man to do it.

The quote is from Juliet Gregory, looking back on her successful 1947 campaign for mayor.

That’s right. It’s been over 75 years since Missoula elected its first female mayor – remarkable in such a progressive city as Missoula, but true.

Current Mayor Andrea Davis (elected last year) became the second woman ever to hold the position.

Juliet Gregory
Juliet Gregory
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Today, we look back at Juliet Gregory’s remarkable story, one that (had it occurred in today’s combative political atmosphere) would likely be downright scandalous because of issues surrounding the candidate filing deadline.

But first, the backstory. It all started out with Gregory asking Mayor Dwight Mason “if there was a possibility of having a planning committee in town. He said, "Oh, I don't think that we need that."

“So I walked out of the office, and I went to several prominent men in town, and I said, 'Our mayor comes up for election in three months and this is what he told me this morning.'

"It's a good home town and let's get busy - let’s get somebody that will have some ideas. So I got 11 men together, but they didn't have any ideas as to who it would be.”

The Missoulian March 16, 1947
The Missoulian March 16, 1947
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The job only paid $300 a month, “so we looked for retirees, and we went over the list of the Democrats and the Republicans in the telephone (book) and all the big lists in town. We narrowed it down to about 15 people we thought could do it and might.”

“We finally got an older man who was very progressive, and asked him to run, and he said 'I won't run. If you want me to be mayor I'll be mayor, but I won't run for it.'

“So then, we asked three or four others, and we couldn't get anybody. Then somebody suggested my name, and I said: 'No, I've only had high school civics' classes."

Besides, said Gregory, “It's no place for a woman. That's what I told them.”

Just six hours before the filing deadline, Gregory called her husband, who was traveling the state on business. “I said, 'What do you think about it? Could I do it?' He said, 'Yes Judy, you could do it, but you're a damn fool if you do. It's a headache.' I said, 'Well, do you think I could do a good job of it?' He replied, 'Yes, an awfully good job.' "

Mrs. Gregory then returned to the group of men who had refused to run, and told them she wouldn’t take their offer of campaign money, but she would take a copy of the filing petition.

“It was the last day for filing,” Gregory said. “It was supposed to be a 5 o’clock deadline, but of course filing isn't 5, it's until midnight. It's the date. But you see, the city hall closed at 5. So you can't file after that, because you can't get the clerk and get the thing filed.”

So “at about noon, I got my duds on and went down to the Florence Hotel where the Rotary Luncheon was that day, and I knew there would be a lot of my friends there because Mr. Gregory was a Rotarian.”

She got the needed signatures, but held off going to city hall immediately. She wanted to be sure she had a decent chance in the race. She hoped a fifth Democrat would file, making the candidates of the opposition party more likely to “cut each other's throat and then the Republican would make a better showing than half of the Democrats.”

“So I had somebody down there to watch.” When the fifth Democrat put in his petition, “they called me and I took my petition down to file. (I) went to the city treasurer, paid my fee and got my receipt. Then I went into the city clerk's office to file my petition, and he said it wasn't legal."

“When I got home there was a man and his two sons on my front doorstep waiting for me.” They heard Gregory’s petition had been thrown out, but told her the 5 p.m. deadline meant nothing. “So I got an attorney, and he told me to hold on for a while.”

“I don't know whether he or somebody else called the city. (Whoever it was) told them that my petition was good, and they had better take care of it. I guess the lawyer must have told them that I had the sufficient number of signatures and I had affidavits for (the deadline) time.”

By then, the ballots were already printed. Gregory said they told her she’d “have to be a write-in, if it was legal.”

Her lawyer called her “Saturday at noon to come up and bring my petition.” The two conferred, after which she told the lawyer, "You file it and date it as of the proper date prior to 5:00," and he did. “That legalized me.” So the city was forced to reprint election ballots which included her name.

Gregory, by today’s standards, wasn’t much of a campaigner. She refused to have her photo in any advertising. “I didn't have to cheapen myself by putting my face up.” And the majority of the campaign work was done without her knowledge.

Poster for Juliet Gregory - the first woman mayor of Missoula
Poster for Juliet Gregory - the first woman mayor of Missoula
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A large group of women “formed the folding and stuffing and pasting and mailing and addressing groups. They also put an ad in the paper that anyone voting for Mrs. Gregory for mayor could call them, and they would pick them up if they didn't have a ride - or they would babysit while they were voting.”

Gregory’s campaign centered on the neglected needs of the community. She said the city’s physical plant was in deplorable condition and that city buildings and equipment were “worn out, obsolete or overcrowded.”

She feared that “the money in her administration would have to be used for patching rather than for progress.”

For a city of Missoula’s size, she said, the police department alone needed more officers, “a patrol car for drunks, two motorcycles (one with a sidecar), as well as better training and equipment."

The fire department had less than 20 men to handle “three eight-hour shifts” and desperately needed a new “chief’s car, gas masks, protective clothing” and more.

The street department was even worse off. Its only bulldozer (second-hand when purchased) was 20 years old. There was “no equipment yard and inadequate garage facilities.”

Gregory Wins Headline - 08 Apr 1947 - The Missoulian
Gregory Wins Headline - 08 Apr 1947 - The Missoulian
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The voters apparently agreed. Gregory, in an interview conducted decades later, proudly said, “I brought out 78 percent of the vote in that election, which is the largest they had for years and years and years.”

Missoula’s current mayor, Andrea Davis, as a political newcomer, didn’t do quite that well (she garnered about 60% of the votes) but in the post-John Engen era, that’s still impressive.

Davis will fill out the remainder of John Engen's final term (Engen died of pancreatic cancer on August 15, 2022). Engen, by far, was Missoula’s longest-serving mayor, logging 200 months in the position.

As reported in the Missoula Current, “During her campaign, Davis focused on social services and her experience as the director of a nonprofit that specializes in housing.” She has just returned from attending the Program for New Mayors at Harvard.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at fuzzyfossil187@gmail.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.

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