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Women in City Government

Gender and Employment: The Rights of Employment Between the Sexes

Women discovered that different rules applied to them than to men. Whereas the marital status of men was not a factor in whether or not they kept their jobs, women could lose their employee status if they married. In some cases, they were ineligible for jobs if they were female.

City Light steno pool
City Light steno pool

Rules could be bent, however, and during wartime in the city at large, women were hired for some male jobs by necessity. The 1919 Annual Report of the Labor Commissioner stated, ". . . as war conditions necessarily demanded replacement of men by women workers on certain factory work, the transition was welcomed by latter as it incidentally offered more freedom from restraint usually imposed by duties and environment of domestic employment. .. " As men returned they wanted their jobs back. "While the services of women were very satisfactory in connection with their employment as elevator operators, factory workers and kitchen and dining room workers in mill and camp commissaries, there is a growing sentiment in alignment with the present unemployment status which will undoubtedly serve to hasten adjustment . . . in the conflict of rights of employment between the sexes."

Some positions were simply not open to women. Civil Service Commission minutes record some of the appeals by women regarding their classifications. In 1936, Gertrude Gillmer filed an objection with the Commission because she was unable to secure employment as an Electrical Appliance Salesman with Seattle City Light. Before coming to the Commission she spoke with City Light Superintendent J.D. Ross and the City Light sales manager, P.C. Spowart, but was unable to change their views. Spowart testified in September at the Commission hearing, stating that women did not have the necessary knowledge, could not do heavy work and that there were no women's restrooms in the branch offices. Spowart stated:

City Light sales room
City Light sales room

"While women workers in general are often more efficient in the technique of a certain task then men, it has been demonstrated over and over again in the industry that they do not get the broad over-all knowledge of the system so necessary in earning the respect of the public through service contracts . . . Years of experience have proved that men employed as appliance salesmen give the department many advantages that the use of women does not afford. Men are more versatile and flexible for utility sales work . . . it is our opinion that men should be selected whenever possible in order that the best interest of the customers of City Light shall stand above those of the job-holder. After all, we are the servants of the people."

In October, the Commission denied Gillmer's request, stating that City Light's decision was "not arbitrary nor capricious, [and] that no personal element had entered into the matter."

In other positions, permission was given to request females. In December, 1936 the Civil Service Commission "approved the specification of sex in connection with request of the Lighting Department for one female Clerk-Stenographer for temporary work in the general office; and also, in the case of request of Engineering Department for six female Typists for work at the Testing Station."

lifeguard ad
Lifeguard ad

Summer positions as lifeguards at beaches in the City were traditionally held by males. Describing lifeguards in 1919, the superintendent of the Parks Department stated, "For guards we employ young men whose ages range from twenty to about thirty years. The only requirements are a good character, first class swimming and ability to handle a boat."

During World War II, the Parks Department was short of lifeguards. Three women applied for lifeguard jobs in 1941. The first to apply was Alice Powell, the daughter of City Council member Mildred Powell. She was a lifeguard at the Campfire summer camp Camp Sealth and was a lifeguard at the Whitman College pool where she was in school. Powell said, "I think women are just as capable as men at handling this sort of a job. A well-trained woman lifeguard is just as good at rescue work and when it comes to handling children and beach patrol, women are more conscientious and probably can do the job a little better." A Seattle Post-Intelligencer article dated August 2, 1941 was titled "Women Seek Lifeguard Posts Despite Park Board Coolness."

Helene Madison
Helene Madison

Theresa Follette, another interested applicant stated, "Rescue work is not a question of strength but rather of swimming skill and life-saving training." None of the women who applied were hired. In August 1941, Theresa Follette filed a protest with the Board of Park Commissioners "about discrimination against women lifeguards." The matter was referred to the Recreation Director for a reply; no reply is found in the records. Grace Wahlborg and Helen Michel applied for lifeguard positions in 1942. A Parks Department list of those employed at beaches and pools 17 years later listed no women in lifeguard positions.

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