Women in Early Seattle

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.

 Women posting signs to promote women's suffrage, 1910 Courtesy University of Washington, Special Collections, CUR10
Women posting signs to promote women's suffrage, 1910
Courtesy University of Washington, Special Collections, CUR10

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 . . ."

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.

1891 Seattle City Directory listing

1891 Seattle City Directory listing

Women in the Police Department: Offering Kindness, Firmness, and Discretion

A few women were employed by the City before 1900, often when their services could be used to assist other women and children. The Police Department was one of the places the services of women were needed.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) petitioned the Mayor and City Council in November of 1889 and again in 1891 to create the office of police matron, "whose duties shall be . . . searching, caring for and having charge of females who may be arrested by the city authorities." Sarah C. Bowman asked to be appointed to this position in 1889, stating she had "wide experience in Police Matron work." In December 1889 the Committee on Health and Police, chaired by Harry White, recommended postponing creating the position until a new jail was built with "proper accommodations." The WCTU asked that one of their members, Mrs. Jaycox, be appointed to the position in 1891. In 1891, the Committee on Health and Police again gave an unfavorable recommendation, citing budgetary reasons.

Petition from WCTU for Police Matron, 1891 General File 992190, Seattle Municipal Archives Recommendation of Committee on Police, 1893 General File 992124, Seattle Municipal Archives
Petition from WCTU for Police Matron, 1891
General File 992190, Seattle Municipal Archives
Recommendation of Committee on Police, 1893
General File 992124, Seattle Municipal Archives

The City was forced to act in 1893 because the State of Washington passed a law requiring cities with a population of over 10,000 to have one or more matrons on the police force to have "immediate care of all females under arrest and while detained in the city prison, until they are finally discharged . . ." The City Council Committee on Police recommended a salary of $50.00 per month.

Emma Taylor was hired as Police Matron in 1893. She was 44 years old, a widow, of English descent, 5'4" and 114 pounds, and a former dressmaker. Residing at 623 Yesler Avenue, she was the only woman listed of the 63 people on the Police rolls in 1893.

Matrons lacked the powers of police officers and could not make arrests. They worked most frequently with women and children. In her 1896 Report to the Board of Police Commissioners, Taylor described the needs of women and girls brought to her:

"Young girls on the brink of ruin must be reproved, advised and governed, they require kindness, firmness and discretion."

 Seattle Police Department 1900 Seattle Police Relief Association Courtesy Seattle Police Department

 Seattle Police Department 1900 Seattle Police Relief Association Courtesy Seattle Police Department

Police Matron

Seattle Police Department 1900
Seattle Police Relief Association
Courtesy Seattle Police Department
Seattle Police Department 1900
Seattle Police Relief Association
Courtesy Seattle Police Department

She also described providing women with clothes, combs and towels of her own, paying for her own streetcar fare as well as that of others, and paying for a telephone out of her own salary.

Women Finding their Place in the City

Although many women worked as clerks, telephone operators, and stenographers in the first half of the 20th century, women were most often seen in nurturing and caring roles, working with other women and children in the library, the police department and the parks department. Women secured positions by working for less pay, or in some cases, working for free.

Story hour at Collins playground with Seattle Public Library staff, circa 1912 Playground brochure
Story hour at Collins playground with Seattle Public Library staff, circa 1912
Courtesy Seattle Public Library, Item 15401
Playground brochure
Ben Evans Recreation Program History Collection (5801-02),
Seattle Municipal Archives

The playground movement began in the early 1900s as a means of promoting organized play for children, deterring them from the evils of the streets and serving as crime prevention. Women often were hired as playground supervisors by the Parks Department to oversee the organized play of girls during the summer. The Recreation Division of the Parks Department was established in 1910 and playground supervisors were hired. In 1917 men were paid $90 per month; women were paid $80.

The Parks Department and the Library worked together to provide services to children at several parks, including Collins, Beacon Hill, Miller, Ross and South Park.

Corinne Carter

One of the few female African Americans mentioned in early City records is Corinne Carter (Mrs. W. D. Carter). She worked with African American children brought to the Police Department. Carter started working for the Police Department as a volunteer around 1912. She was designated "Special Policewoman" in 1914, which relieved her "of the burden of applying her own limited funds towards the payment of car fare" in her travel throughout the city. Her work for the City, however, remained unpaid.

Appointment of Corinne Carter, January 12, 1914 Comptroller File no. 54932, Seattle Municipal Archives Andrew R. Block to George F Cotterill, January 10, 1914 Comptroller File no. 54923, Seattle Municipal Archives
Appointment of Corinne Carter, January 12, 1914
Comptroller File no. 54932, Seattle Municipal Archives
Andrew R. Block to George F Cotterill, January 10, 1914
Comptroller File no. 54923, Seattle Municipal Archives

Carter was married to Reverend W. D. Carter, pastor of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, one of the oldest and largest African American churches in the city. Her work with children in the Police Department helped her understand the importance of having overnight accommodations for newcomers, especially for African Americans and females. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Phillis Wheatley Branch of the YWCA at Twenty-fourth and Howell. It offered social, educational, and employment programs to African American girls, as well as overnight accommodations for out-of-town girls.

Sylvia Hunsicker

Some women made their own "place," sometimes in conflict with expectations of their superiors. Sylvia Hunsicker was hired by the City as a Registration Clerk in 1911. In 1915 she transferred to the Police Department. She was the only woman in the Police Department who wore a uniform; lore states she sewed her own in 1925.

 Sylvia Hunsicker, undated Courtesy Seattle Police Department Sylvia Hunsicker's civil service cards Seattle Municipal Archives
Sylvia Hunsicker, undated
Courtesy Seattle Police Department
Sylvia Hunsicker's civil service cards
Seattle Municipal Archives

Her independence was a hallmark of her career. She was discharged or suspended more than once. In 1917 one of the reasons cited was "engaging in work other than that assigned to her." She retired in 1936 at age 67.