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Women in City Government

Women in Early Seattle: Looking and Hoping for Justice

When the City of Seattle incorporated in 1869, the frontier population was predominantly male. Men outnumbered females nine to one in the 1860s, prompting Asa Mercer's well-known expeditions to recruit women from New England, known as the "Mercer Girls." By 1890 the ratio of men to women in Seattle was less than two to one.


Due in part to the tireless efforts of Portland's Abigail Scott Duniway, the Washington territorial legislature gave women the vote in 1881, but the territorial supreme court voided female suffrage in 1887. In the decade following statehood (1889) female suffrage measures were defeated twice. It was not until 1910 that women suffrage was approved in Washington. The Nineteenth Amendment, giving all women in the United States the right to vote, was not ratified until 1920.

Women do not appear early in paid positions in City government, but they were active in City affairs and frequently interacted with City officials on issues of importance to them. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) ran the Day Nursery, an orphanage and day care for poor working women. The WCTU communicated its views frequently to City Council and the Mayor in the 1880s and early 1890s. Opposition to saloons and tobacco sales were favorite topics. The WCTU also wrote on behalf of the Day Nursery, requesting the City provide water free of charge. There were several different chapters of the WCTU, including the Lake Union, Central, and North Seattle chapters. The Frances Harper chapter was organized in the early 1890s by members of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

One issue which triggered many petitions to City government was that of license fees for employment offices. In 1890, City Council passed an ordinance providing for the regulation and licensing of employment offices, known as "intelligence offices." Many women wrote to the Mayor and City Council, outraged that the license fee was the same for women as for men - $100. A petition signed by 10 citizens stated:

"A grave injustice has been done to the ladies who have but recently engaged in that calling. It is a well known fact that employers and employees among the ladies do not equal one tenth of those among men. To place the license fees at the same figures for both classes of agencies is practically to drive the ladies from the business, and place it entirely in the hands of men against whom only have complaints of unfair dealing been made . . ."

city directory
City directory

Lydia Hubbard also wrote, "Will you allow me to call your attention to the fact that there are offices in the city that only find employment for women and do not do one half the business . . . I wonder that such a very small business should have to pay a license and if so, such a very high one?"

Ordinance 1356 was amended "to discriminate in favor of women who follow the business of employment agents," based on the four-page recommendation of the Committee on License and Revenue, and the license fee was changed to $20 for women's employment offices.

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