Breaking the Glass Ceiling - Big Time! - Visit Palm Springs

Breaking the Glass Ceiling – Big Time!

In 1954, Palm Springs’ All-woman Tribal Council Made National History and Changed the City Forever!

By Barbara Beckley

Palm Springs has always been ahead of its time. Architecture. Sophisticated cocktail culture. An all-woman governing board – in the 1950s!

Rewind to 1954 – the “Mad Men” era when women were glamorous, but hardly in business. And if they were it was usually as secretaries and assistants.

Not so in Palm Springs. Five women made history on so many levels. Not only did they shatter the glass ceiling as the first all-woman Tribal Council of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. They shook things up for their Tribe and Native Americans across the country. And forever changed Palm Springs for the better. They set in motion a sequence of events that altered the fortunes of their Tribe, all U.S. Native Americans and Palm Springs.

Led by Council Chairman Vyola J. Ortner, with members LaVerne Saubel, Eileen Miguel, Elizabeth Pete Monk and originally Flora Patencio (who resigned after six months) so the Council voted in Gloria Welmas Gillette, these remarkable movers and shakers saw what needed to be done – and did it!

Agua Caliente Council Chairman Vyola J. Ortner
Vyola Ortner in Washington D.C. with Frank Bogert and Congressman D.S. Saund. Photo by Palm Springs Historical Society.

First in Palm Springs and likely the Nation and the World

Arguably the Fabulous Five are the first all-woman elected ruling body anywhere. Certainly in 1954, women were unlikely to be government officials and Board of Directors members. Much less controlling members.

First in the Native American Community  

In addition to being the first all-women council for the Agua Caliente Band, Ortner, Saubel, Miguel, Monk and Gillette were one of the first all-women Tribal Councils of any Native American governing body in North America.

First in Doing What Needed to be Done!

Need a new hotel to stimulate the Tribal and Palm Springs’ economy? Done!

Among the Fabulous Five’s most stellar achievements is the Palm Springs Spa Hotel. Designed by mid-century architectural guru Donald Wexler, the women facilitated the construction of this stylish new hotel on the site of the Agua Caliente hot spring (Palm Springs’ namesake) in downtown Palm Springs. Opened in 1963, the chic property sparked new development throughout downtown, spring-boarding the city to fame and fortune as the must-visit destination we know and love today.

Need land leases extended to improve business opportunities? Done!

Ortner regularly traveled to Washington D.C. (as well as Sacramento) lobbying and testifying in favor of a 99-year lease for Agua Caliente Tribal lands. Her work culminated in the General Leasing Act of 1959, authorized by Congress and signed by Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, approving the 99 year leases. This landmark ruling was the first long-term lease applicable to Indian land anywhere in the U.S. It cleared the way for downtown Palm Springs’ brisk development and enabled the Agua Caliente – and ultimately all Native American Tribes – to shape their own economic futures.

Need it in Writing? Done!

In 1955, the Fabulous Five wrote the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ first-ever  Constitution and By-laws ratifying and insuring the Tribal Council as the official governing body of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Want to Know More?

Randall Garner details Palm Springs’ Tribal history in his 2020 book, Palm Springs: History of a Desert Playground on Amazon.

Randy Garner Palm Springs history book

Ortner has also written a book called, You Can’t Eat Dirt, available at the Palm Springs Historical Society and www.youcanteatdirt.com .

You Can't Eat Dirt book cover

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