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Equality for All?
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Women in City Government

Equality for All?

The 1960s was an era of consciousness-raising across the nation, and equality issues for women were in the forefront. At the federal level, the Equal Pay Act (1963) provided for equal pay for men and women in jobs requiring equal skill, responsibility, and effort. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting employment discrimination based on race or sex.

In Seattle, similar laws were initiated, although not until the next decade. The Affirmative Action ordinance was passed in 1972 providing for the implementation of programs in departments to achieve equality of City employment opportunities for minorities, women and people over age 40. The Fair Employment Ordinance was passed in 1973, requiring employers within the City of Seattle to give equal pay for equal work and to hire and promote women and minorities in a non-discriminatory manner. The Open Housing Ordinance was broadened in 1975, to prohibit discrimination against women and minorities in buying or renting apartments or houses, and in providing financing or credit information.

In 1980, the Women and Minority Business Enterprise (WMBE) ordinance was passed in an attempt to ensure the equitable use of minority- and women-owned businesses in the City's contracting process. A goal of 3% participation for women's businesses in the City's contracting process was met in 1981. This ordinance followed an executive policy recommendation issued in 1977, which established a policy of using WMBEs but had no numerical goals or certification process. A Perkins Coie disparity study completed in 1994 demonstrated that the contracting process was not making equitable use of women- and minority-owned businesses.

City Council members Sherry Harris and Jane Noland were instrumental in getting an amendment to the WMBE ordinance passed in 1994, providing for:

  • Setting aside a percentage of City contracts for women and minorities
  • Encouraging use of women- and minority-owned businesses in purchasing and non-professional services
  • Setting targets for the overall level of participation by women- and minority-owned businesses on City contacts in a given year

In 1998, however, voters passed Washington State Initiative 200, prohibiting the imposition of goals, quotas, and set-asides in government hiring and contracting as well as university admissions. WMBE utilization declined by about a third as a result. The Mayor and City Council countered with a series of initiatives designed to increase WMBE participation in City contracting projects, despite I-200.

Jeanette Williams
Jeanette Williams

One person who worked on behalf of women was City Council member Jeanette Williams. Williams served from 1970 until 1989, and was on Council during the strife at City Light. She was a tireless advocate for women's rights, and was responsible for establishing the Women's Commission in 1971. On her election to City Council, she found that of the 10,228 city employees, only 1,565 were women and of these, just 26 were employed in a professional capacity. The Women's Commission worked to increase the number of women in professional positions and opened up Civil Service Commission testing and hiring for women in previously male-only positions.

Many ordinances relating to women were sponsored by the Human Resources and Judicial Committee which Williams chaired from 1970 to 1977. Williams worked on rape, abuse, and child care legislation and explored comparable worth issues. In Williams' speeches throughout the city, she urged women to become active because women need power to make changes. Her definition of power was "the ability to accomplish in your life what you want to get done."

Seattle Women's Commission
Seattle Women's Commission

In 1978 the Battered Women's Project was established, one of the nation's first programs to address domestic violence. City Attorney Doug Jewett initiated the program. Staff acted as advocates for abused women, making recommendations to the City prosecutor to file or not to file charges in specific cases. In the first two years of the program, 2500 domestic violence cases were handled. In 1984 a new State law mandated arrest of the batterer. This mandate was expanded in 1985 to include child abuse and the name was changed to the Family Violence Project. A 1989 study found that the program was severely underfunded; seven family violence advocates were assigned 6,943 cases in 1988.

Jane Noland and Tina Podlodowski also worked hard on solutions for domestic violence issues during their tenures on City Council. The City provided support and funding for domestic violence shelters and transition housing. Lesbian and gay issues were also addressed in the 1990s, partially through work done by the City's Commission on Lesbians and Gays, established in December 1989. In the early 1990s, the focus in domestic violence programs shifted to prevention and outreach programs and the City began working towards a regional plan with others in King County. A Domestic Violence Task Force was formed in 1993 to expand the City's efforts to implement comprehensive policies for intervention in domestic violence.

Many gains were made for women throughout the City in the 1980s and 1990s. The workplace remains a focus for improvement, despite affirmative action plans and comparable worth studies. The numbers of women working in the City do not necessarily reflect how hard women fought to find their place or what gains were made by women in the workplace in the past 100 years. But they give clues about work yet to be done to give women their full place in the City workforce.

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