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Women in City Government
Mayor Bertha Knight Landes
In the early 20th century, the campaign for women's suffrage and prohibition issues brought women into the public sphere. With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 giving women the right to vote, the idea of women in the political arena was no longer unacceptable. Seattle was the first major U.S. city to have a woman mayor. In 1926, Bertha Knight Landes became the Seattle's first, and to date only, woman mayor. She served a single two-year term.
Landes moved to Seattle in 1895 when her husband Henry was appointed to the University of Washington faculty. She was the mother of three children and active in women's clubs. She founded the Women's City Club and was president of the Washington State League of Women Voters. Landes' leadership was recognized early; she was appointed by the Mayor in 1921 to serve on a commission studying unemployment.
Bertha Landes and Kathryn Miracle were the first women to serve on Seattle City Council; both were elected in 1922. Landes was Council President after her reelection in 1924. She was acting mayor in 1924, when Mayor Brown left town to attend the 1924 Democratic National Convention. Angry at what she saw as police corruption and lawless activity, Acting Mayor Landes fired Police Chief William B. Severyns. She began her own law and order campaign, closing down illegal activities throughout the city, including lotteries, punchboards and speakeasies. Upon his return, Mayor Brown reinstated the Police Chief.
While on City Council, Landes supported city planning and zoning, improved public health and safety programs, and promoted social concerns such as hospitals and recreation programs. She continued this work as Mayor, encouraging the use of professional expertise in many areas, such as hiring by merit through a strengthened Civil Service Commission. She worked to get the City to adopt a city manager form of government, which it did not do. She also supported public ownership of utilities. Landes countered the dominant business perspective with one that included caring for the City's moral, social and physical environment. The legacy Landes left is one of using city government for civic betterment.
When Landes was defeated for re-election for Mayor in 1928 by Frank Edwards, she was asked about the future of women in politics. She said, "Women now wield considerable power along political lines and I believe each succeeding year for some time to come will find them wielding that power more effectively. But . . . at present men in general are not ready to yield to women the privilege and right of holding high political office."
She wrote extensively for national magazines and encouraged other women to get involved in politics. In a 1929 Colliers article she wrote, "In politics it commonly takes a superior woman to overcome the handicap of traditional prejudice." Landes wanted to be treated equally with men and called for public service to be gender-netural. "Let us, while never forgetting our womanhood, drop all emphasis on sex, and put it on being public servants." She despised being called "mayoress."
Landes continued to be active in the community after she left office. During the 1930s, she was chair of the Sewing Room Work for the Women's Division of the Mayor's Commission for Improved Employment. She oversaw 673 women who sewed garments for women and children to "help improve the unemployment situation."
Landes paved the way for other women and encouraged Mildred Powell to run for City Council. Powell subsequently won office and served on the Council from 1935 to 1955. The first African American woman on City Council, Sherry Harris, was not elected until 1992 and served one term, from 1992 to 1995. In 1992, the balance of Council members shifted for the first time to include a majority of women members. In addition to Sherry Harris, Cheryl Chow, Sue Donaldson, Jane Noland, Martha Choe, and Margaret Pageler were on City Council, comprising six out of the nine members. With the election of Jan Drago in 1994, the numbers increased to seven out of nine. Women lost their majority status in 1998.