Gender & 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.

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:

"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."

"Women Seek Lifeguard Posts Despite Park Board Coolness" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 2, 1941 Civil Service Scrapbooks (6000-09), Seattle Municipal Archives 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."

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."

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.

City Light Steno Pool, 1954 Seattle Municipal Archives item no. 26932 Helene Madison McIver and Marilyn Luper Madison started swimming through Seattle Parks and Recreation at age 12. In the 1932 Olympics she won three Gold Medals. During her career she earned 16 women's world freestyle swimming records and 56 American records. Ben Evans Recreation Program Collection (5801-02) Seattle Municipal Archives item no. 31086
 City Light Steno Pool, 1954 Seattle Municipal Archives item no. 26932  Helene Madison McIver and Marilyn Luper Madison started swimming through Seattle Parks and Recreation at age 12. In the 1932 Olympics she won three Gold Medals. During her career she earned 16 women's world freestyle swimming records and 56 American records. Ben Evans Recreation Program Collection (5801-02) Seattle Municipal Archives item no. 31086
City Light Sales Room, 1934 Seattle Municipal Archives item no. 8828 Advertisement for lifeguards, 1945 Box 15, Folder 2, Ben Evans Recreation Program History Collection (5801-02), Seattle Municipal Archives
 City Light Sales Room, 1934 Seattle Municipal Archives item no. 8828 Advertisement for lifeguards, 1945 Box 15, Folder 2, Ben Evans Recreation Program History Collection (5801-02), Seattle Municipal Archives

Women and the Trades

The 1964 federal Civil Rights Act prohibited employment discrimination based on either race or gender. The legislation allowed women to work in traditionally male jobs, but women found it difficult to be accepted in those jobs. Translating legislation to action meant that many women had to work in unfriendly environments, blazing the way for women who came after them.

City Light first established an apprenticeship program for linemen in 1957, and standards for the program were approved. These positions required a higher degree of training and offered higher pay than some of the other trades jobs. In part because of this, the linemen positions were especially difficult for women to break into.

City Light had one of the first trainee programs in the country for women in the electrical trades. In an effort to increase the number of women and minorities at Seattle City Light, Superintendent Gordon Vickery hired Clara Fraser in 1973 to initiate an Electrical Trades Trainee program for women and minorities.She was fired in 1975, supposedly as part of a budget cut. Fraser filed suit with the City for wrongful termination. Many saw her case as one fought for all other women at City Light. In 1982 she was awarded damages, reinstatement and seven years' back pay. When she retired in 1986, then City Light Superintendent Randall Hardy called her the utility's "institutionalized conscience." Fraser died in 1998. Her book, Revolution, She Wrote, a collection of her columns, speeches, and other writings, was published the same year.Ten women were selected from over 200 applicants for the first Seattle City Light trainee program. But many of the ten women who entered the program in 1974 filed grievances stating they were discouraged from completing the program. The women won their discrimination suit and were awarded back pay, benefits and damages. Of the ten original trainees from 1974, seven were still with City Light as of 1999.In the first seven years that a lineman-apprenticeship training program was offered by City Light, Teri Bach was the only woman to graduate. Like Bonnie Beers in the Fire Department, she met resistance. She told the Seattle Times "there is no way to prove yourself except by changing your sex." The complaints of harassment continued into the mid-1980s. In 1986, line worker Sherrie Holmes filed a complaint that a male co-worker unhooked her safety strap and tried to pull her from the top of a 30-foot pole. Other complaints by women included finding their safety straps undone, heavy objects dropping near their heads, and electrifying of lines on which they were working.

In 1981, the City's Affirmative Action Task Force assigned "target" status to City light for the next four years, indicating the department had not adequately met its goals of hiring women and minorities. One of the issues City Light encountered in the early 1980s was that although goals for hiring women and minorities were close to being met, the rate at which women and minorities were resigning offset any progress. A 1984 report found an especially low success rate at hiring women and minorities in the apprentice programs.

Under the direction of Superintendent Randy Hardy, City Light started a pre-apprentice line workers program in 1988. A six-month program first attended by six women and six men, it was designed to prepare workers for the apprenticeship program. Three of the six women who attended are still with City Light. One of them, Nettie Dokes, became the first African American woman in the country to graduate as a journeyman level line worker in 1992. She became manager of the apprenticeship program for the City in 1997. As of 2004 she was on the Executive Board for the national organization Tradeswomen, Now and Tomorrow and was treasurer for Washington Women in Trades.

In July 2004, Dokes was a presenter at a Congressional luncheon sponsored by Senator Murray, Senator Snowe, and Senator Clinton. The Senators introduced a bipartisan Senate Resolution pledging to help more women obtain the skills they need in the skilled trades. Despite problems encountered by women in the first years of the program, in the 1990s, City Light claimed it had more women in the trades than any other electrical utility in the nation.

Organizations such as Washington Women in Trades, founded in 1978, helped women construct a network regarding employment in the trades and provided education and career opportunities in nontraditional trades work. The City of Seattle has participated in the annual Women in Trades Fair at the Seattle Center since the 1980s. The Seattle Jobs Initiative, founded in 1995, works with the Seattle City Office of Economic Development and local labor unions to link low income Seattle residents, people of color, and women to job opportunities in construction. As of 2000, however, only 4 percent of the workers in the skilled trades in Washington were women.

Men Working sign City Light slide collection, Seattle Municipal Archives Sue Dodd, 1991 Seattle Municipal Archives negative no. 38333 Nettie Dokes with Senator Clinton at the information briefing about the resolution regarding Women in the Trades, June 5, 2004 Courtesy Nettie Dokes
 Men Working sign City Light slide collection, Seattle Municipal Archives

Sue Dodd, 1991 Seattle Municipal Archives negative no. 38333

Nettie Dokes with Senator Clinton at the information briefing about the resolution regarding Women in the Trades, June 5, 2004 Courtesy Nettie Dokes
Women in Trades  Women in Trades Women in Trades
 Women in Trades Brochures

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.

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."

Jeanette Williams, April 1973 Seattle Municipal Archives negative no. 28077 Seattle Women's Commission, 1971 Jeannette Williams Subject Files(4693-02), Seattle Municipal Archives
Jeanette Williams, April 1973 Seattle Municipal Archives negative no. 28077 Seattle Women's Commission, 1971 Jeannette Williams Subject Files(4693-02), Seattle Municipal Archives

 

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.

Women Working in Seattle City Government

  1938 1944 1950 1965 1985 1995 2004
Total employees 5343 4655 6806 8527 9232 9924 9713
Women employees 277 682 642 1211 3402 3895 3691
  5% 15% 9% 14% 37% 39% 38%

Source: Civil Service Commission, Personnel Department, Budget Office reports