Your Village: The story of Emma Harvat, Iowa City’s history-making mayor

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Emma Harvat

I’d like to know more about Emma Harvat, the first woman mayor of Iowa City. —Rebecca, Iowa City

Her name does live on in Iowa City — the chamber where the city council meets is named for her, as is a small park in the Peninsula neighborhood — but Emma Harvat’s contemporaries would have been surprised at how the memory of her has faded. Because for a few months in 1922, after she became mayor of Iowa City, Harvat was one of the most famous women in the country.

Harvat was the first woman to serve as mayor of a city with a population of more than 10,000, and newspapers across the country, and even a few in Europe and Asia, wrote stories about her and the city’s new “petticoat administration.”

Harvat herself would never have used a frivolous (and sexist) term like that. A tall woman with an imposing physique and serious countenance, she cultivated a no-nonsense style.

When she was sworn in as mayor in June 1922, Harvat kept her remarks brief. After thanking the city council, she simply said, “You know where I stand, and I have only one thing to say. It is this: I propose to do my duty as mayor of Iowa City.”

Emma J. Harvat was born in Iowa City in 1870. Her parents, Joseph and Mary Harvat, were Czech immigrants who settled in the Goosetown neighborhood, and Emma was the ninth of their 10 children. When he first arrived in Iowa, Joseph was a day-laborer, but eventually he started his own business, Harvat Meat Market.

The Harvats were Catholic, and Emma attended parochial school before going to the Iowa City Academy (later called University High) and Williams Commercial College (also located in Iowa City, also now gone) to learn clerical skills. By the time she was 19, she was as a clerk at Lee Welch Book Store (now Iowa Book), and supporting her younger sister, Clara. Their parents had died, and their brothers and sisters had either moved away or started their own families.

Clara enrolled at the University of Iowa in 1893, with Emma helping pay the tuition. After Clara graduated three years later, she married and moved out of town. Now Emma fully focused on business.

By 1902 she’d saved enough money to quit Lee Welch and buy a rival bookstore. Two years later, she turned a profit by selling that store to her former employers. Harvat took her money, and moved to Kirksville, Missouri.

In Kirksville, she owned a series of successful businesses and by the time Harvat was 43, she had enough money to retire. In 1913, she moved back to Iowa City to enjoy her retirement.

Harvat rented a room in the home of Theresa Stach, a widow whose family owned a downtown shoe store. Also living in the house was Theresa’s daughter, Mary. Seven years younger than Harvat, and known to everyone as May, she quickly became the most important person in Harvat’s life.

Combining their money — May had inherited $2,500 when her father died — the two opened Harvat & Stach, the first ready-to-wear women’s clothing store in the area. It was an immediate success.

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Ready-to-wear clothing was new at the time, and it was very much associated with the increasing independence of women. Such clothes meant women who could afford them no longer had to spend time making their own. Harvat dealt with the business side of things, Stach handled the fashion.

But Havart and Stach were more than just business partners. Until Havart’s death in 1949, they were domestic partners as well.

Stach is often referred to as Havart’s “lifelong companion,” which may have been a euphemism for something deeper. The two lived together — in 1919, they had a house built at the corner of Gilbert and Davenport Streets — and accounts of their lives make them sound like a married couple.

When the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing the right of women to vote, was ratified in 1920, politically active women in Iowa wanted to expand their roles. Harvat wasn’t one of them. She later claimed to have never been interested in politics. But in 1921, when the local women’s branch of the Republican Party asked her to run for city council, Harvat agreed. She won easily.

It was a tumultuous time in Iowa City. The city was growing rapidly. Prohibition started in 1920. Bootlegging was now a major business in eastern Iowa.

In 1922, state and federal agents conducted sweepings raids in the area, resulting in 86 indictments. Just after that, Mayor Ingalls Swisher unexpectedly fired the chief of police — provoking public outrage — and when the council wouldn’t confirm his inexperienced choice for chief, Swisher immediately resigned.

The council elected Harvat to complete his term, believing her business experience was what the city needed. (By then, she and Stach had sold their store and become real estate developers.)

Harvat’s approach to governing was business-like, but she also believed Iowa City’s morals needed improving. Shortly after becoming mayor, Harvat told a reporter she wanted a city free from corrupting influences, so parents could send their children to UI without worrying about a daughter becoming a “brazen flapper” or a son turning into a jazz-loving “cake eater.”

Harvat’s combination of a focus on bottom-line efficiency (paving streets, creating a zoning commission, making city financial information public) and moralizing (lecturing drunks, banning the movies of an “immoral” Hollywood star) proved popular enough to get her elected by voters to a new term in 1923, but when she ran for reelection in 1925 she was narrowly defeated.

Out of office, Harvat continued her real estate work and remained active in public affairs. In 1935, she ran for city council, but lost in a landslide.

Emma Harvat died on May 30, 1949, at age 79. May Stach would live for another 23 years, dying in 1972 at age 95. The house they shared for 30 years still stands, and in 2000, the Emma J. Harvat and Mary E. Stach house was added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 280.