Pioneers in City Government

Librarian Mary "May" Banks: Addressing "Those in Power"

Seattle Public Library postcard
Seattle Public Library postcard
Courtesy Seattle Public Library

The Library was perhaps the only place where women found employment with little resistance. When the first Freeholders' Charter was ratified in October 1890, the Seattle Public Library was created as a branch of city government. Although unpaid, Mrs. A.B. Stewart and Mrs. J.C. Haines were appointed to the Library Commission in 1890.

The Seattle Public Library was housed at various locations in its early years, including the Yesler mansion at Third and James, which was destroyed by a fire in 1901. With the help of Carnegie funds, a new Central Library opened in 1906 between Fourth and Fifth at Madison and Spring.

Several women worked for the Seattle Public Library in its early years. In 1895, Miss Mary Banks was employed as Superintendent of Circulation, at a salary of $45 per month. Banks began working for the Library in 1893 and quickly moved from the Circulation Department to Reference, becoming Chief Reference Librarian. Known as "May," her reports bubble with energy and ideas.

Seattle Public Library Reading Room
Seattle Public Library reading room, circa 1906
Courtesy Museum of History & Industry,
Pemco Webster and Stevens Collection, 1983.10.7734

At the Library, she was responsible for inaugurating a "Seattle Authors" collection in 1908. Banks thought that the Library could request copies of books from local authors, with the goal of representing each local author with at least one book. Banks wrote in her 1908 annual report:

"Quite unforeseen to the originator of the idea, it has already become one of the attractions of the Library . . . Were it possible to have all of the works of even a few such authors [such] as Col. Chittenden, Mrs. E. W. Champney, Miss Adele Fielde, or others now residing here, it would make a showing that would, I believe, surprise not only non-residents, but those residents who consider themselves best informed about local authors."

In her 1909 report, Banks stated the "Seattle Authors Collection . . . proved one of the main drawing cards to the Library during the [Alaska Yukon Pacific] Exposition, the interest in it still continuing unabated."

Mt. Queets
Photographer Asahel Curtis was the leader
of the Mountaineers' ascent of
Mt. Queets on the Olympic Peninsula, 1907
Courtesy Washington State Historical Society, Curtis 8416

Banks worked to establish the Washington State Library Association and was elected its first secretary. She was a charter member of The Mountaineers, and the first woman to reach the top of Mount Queets during the club's first annual outing to the Olympic Peninsula in 1907. Mary Banks was the first of four women to summit on the first ascent made from the west on August 1, 1907. The ascent was part of a six-week climbing trip chronicled by the editor of "The Mountaineer," Mary Banks.

Banks' last annual report reflects frustration with her inability to secure better resources for her department, despite pleas each year. She wrote of herself "...[I]t would appear that the head of this department had failed to convince those in power of even the most evident needs of the Reference Department, though so keenly aware of them herself. This is especially strange since she has quite the opposite reputation outside the library, to such an extent that when anything seems hopeless of accomplishment it is very frequently turned over to her, with some measure of success . . ."

Banks worked for the Library for 17 years, leaving in 1910 to work for the public service commission in New Jersey. She later worked in a library in New York City and was the librarian for the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio. She returned to Seattle, performing social work until her health failed. She died on May 29, 1917.

Mayor Bertha Knight Landes

Mayor Bertha Knight Landes
Mayor Bertha Knight Landes
Seattle Municipal Archives Image 12285

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. In 1926, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to have a woman mayor when Bertha Knight Landes was elected. 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.

Mayor Bertha Landes with Photographers
Mayor Bertha Landes with Photographers
Courtesy Museum of History & Industry, SHS19233

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."

Report of Sewing Room Work for Women's Division of the Commission for Improved Employment
Report of Sewing Room Work for Women's Division of the
Commission for Improved Employment, 1932
Courtesy Seattle Public Library

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-neutral. "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.

Bertha Landes annual report
Bertha Landes annual report, 1928
Mayor's Messages (1802-C2), Seattle Municipal Archives
Bertha Landes proclamation, June 26, 1924
Bertha Landes proclamation, June 26, 1924
Comptroller File 95242, Seattle Municipal Archives

Parks and Recreation Leader Pearl Powell: "It is only seconds...that we see them and those seconds should be good ones."

Pearl Powell Awarding Swimming Medals, August 1963
Pearl Powell Awarding Swimming Medals, August 1963
Courtesy Museum of History & Industry,
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 86.5.41781

Pearl Powell accepted her first position with the City when Bertha Landes was Mayor. Powell was employed by the Parks Department as playground "instructress" at Collins Playfield from 1927 to 1935. She took summer school classes at Cornish while in college and studied theater puppetry with Tony Sark, as well as dance, including classes in modern dance with Martha Graham. In 1927, while attending the University of Washington on a scholarship, she worked as a play leader for the Parks Department to earn money for her room and board.

Powell's early playground reports burst with her enthusiasm for the activities and the children at the playfield. In her 1931 report, written at the end of the summer at Collins Playfield, Pearl Powell wrote:

"All nationalities, faces, and creeds meet as individuals on a common level here through that splendid medium known as free play . . . Every day almost some one tells me they come to the playground because the mass of voices, that are happy, makes them forget the things that seem to hang heavily with them." It was the rule of a leader, she wrote, "to cram as much joy and fun into the recreational side of their lives . . . as we can. It is only seconds after all that we see them, and those seconds should be good ones . . ."

Ruby Chow, active in the Chinese-American community and a member of King County Council for 16 years, described how Powell made Collins Playfield a "home-away-from-home" for herself and her brothers and sisters. Others echoed her sentiments. Powell taught them softball, basketball and volleyball. She led athletic programs, crafts, and overnights to Camp Denny.

High School Dance
High school dance
Playground Division Annual Report
Ben Evans Recreation Program Collection (5801-02)
Seattle Municipal Archives

In 1929, when 35 girls attended one of the overnights at Camp Denny, they were inspired to form the Sails and Trails hiking program. Powell was the advisor to Sails and Trails, a program open to women over 18 looking for low-cost recreational outings. By 1945 the group's membership, focused on working women, had grown to 215 women. Their annual trips included a boat trip on the Puget Sound and hiking throughout the northwest.

Demonstrating her creativity and inspired by City Council member Mildred Powell, who was also a P.T.A. leader in the 1930s, Pearl Powell organized high school dances. First held in 1932, the dances were sponsored by the P.T.A., the Seattle Public Schools, and the Seattle Park Department. All-city dances were held at the Civic Auditorium, with attendance frequently over 1500. The all-city dances ended in 1960 when construction began to convert the Civic Auditorium into the Opera House.

Powell was promoted to director of Women's Activities in the Playground Division of the Parks Department in 1937. In 1949, she was a recreation supervisor, in charge of public recreation program and activities city-wide. She introduced Junior Programs, cultural arts and special events for adults and recreation for the disabled. Powell was honored for her service to Seattle Public School children through her work as recreation supervisor. Throughout her career she was actively involved in community service, including the Soroptimist Club, the Big Sister Service, the YWCA and Camp Fire.

Powell served as both assistant director of recreation and deputy director of recreation. She became acting director of recreation in 1964, when director Willard H. Shumard resigned, and thus became one of the few women to hold the post in a major city in the U.S.

The first woman to head Seattle's Department of Parks and Recreation was Holly Miller, who served from 1988 to 1998.

Sails and Trails Club
Sails and Trails Club, 1940
Playground Division Annual Report
Ben Evans Recreation Program Collection (5801-02)
Seattle Municipal Archives
Newspaper clipping
Newspaper clipping
Box 48, Folder 39, Ben Evans Recreation Program History Collection (5801-02),
Seattle Municipal Archives

Hints for the Homemaker: Mary Norris

Home Economist Mary Norris
Home Economist Mary Norris, 1953
Seattle Municipal Archives Image 23858

By the 1920s, "electric cooking" increased in popularity in Seattle, due in large part to City Light's encouragement. Selling electrical appliances to customers in the 1920s, City Light had a central showroom downtown and four branch stores throughout the city by 1930.

As early as 1933, City Light also had "for the convenience of the customer, an expert home economist . . . on duty in each district of the city," according to the annual report for that year. By 1936, the home economists offered service not only in the home, but also in free cooking classes held by City Light's Institute of Electric Cookery in the auditorium of the City Light Building on Third Avenue.

In the tradition of Betty Crocker, who was created in a marketing campaign begun by General Mills in 1921, Mary Norris found a niche at Seattle City Light as the expert home economist. Beginning in 1955, Norris presented programs to employees, high school students, and community service groups on canning and freezing, holiday food preparation, and other cooking and baking suggestions. For many years, Mary Norris stated, the home economists were "the only women who were required to have a college degree as a requirement for our position."

Mary Norris Lecture
Mary Norris Lecture, West Seattle High School, 1954
Seattle Municipal Archives Image 26837

City Light promoted the use of electric appliances in the 1950s and 1960s as time-saving devices for the homemaker. "The modern Seattle housewife lives better, for less, electrically" the advertisement stated. Along with Prudence Penny (Maurine Kelley) of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and others, Norris appeared at the Seattle Home Show in the 1950s as "a noted home economist" offering hints and helps for the homemaker. Norris also had her own home economics television show on KIRO where new electric appliances were modeled. By the time Norris left City Light in 1976, home economics had become consumer education, and the emphasis changed from promoting the use of electricity to conserving it.

After leaving City Light, Norris became the first woman to serve on the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee, a nationwide body studying the fishing industry from a world-wide perspective. She was also active in community service organizations, including the Girl Scouts. She is currently serving on the Board of Administration of the Seattle Employees Retirement System.

Elec-tricks Brochure
Elec-tricks: heating, appliances, cooking, lighting, freezing
By Mary Norris, City Light Home Economist
City Light Brochures (1201-12), Seattle Municipal Archives
Seattle City Light Advertisement
Seattle City Light Advertisement, February 1956
City Light Advertising Scrapbooks (1201-03), Seattle Municipal Archives

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Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.