Seattle Women's History

Karen J. Blair, December 2004

When we visualize the history of the Pacific Northwest, we can quickly reconstruct the roles that men played. Early explorers, trappers, missionaries, traders, Indian chiefs, loggers, sailors, pioneer farmers, miners, businessmen, aeronautical engineers, and Microsofties—all these leap easily to mind. Women are conspicuously absent from the colorful pictures that rise before us. Yet this omission distorts the truth. The bias that has dismissed women's varied and critical contributions to Puget Sound history begs for correction. AHA visitors to Seattle may welcome some brief background on the names and places, as well as bibliography on the individuals and women's groups that shaped the area's history.

Seattle has lost many of its architectural reminders of women's contribution to its history, such as its Florence Crittenden Home for Fallen Women; suffrage headquarters; the Junior League Thrift Store; the Woman's Exchange, which sold articles made by housebound women; and the original Nordstrom store. Still, the city is sprinkled with many reminders of women's past. An impressive YWCA remains downtown. Harborview Hospital's early nurses' dormitories still stand, as does the Sisters of Providence retirement home, the Frye Museum exhibiting the art collection of Charles and Emma Frye, the American Indian basket collection of Caroline Burke at the Burke Museum, the Neighborhood (Settlement) House founded by the Council of Jewish Women for immigrants to the city, and the Lakeview Cemetery grave of Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth, for whom the city is named. More recently, the Museum of Flight memorializes the multitude of Rosie the Riveters who built Boeing aircraft during World War II.

While men outnumbered women in the region until the 1930s, women's mark on development reaches deep into Pacific Northwest history. Sacajawea's participation in the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Narcissa Whitman's missionary exploits, however well known, represent only a fraction of women's western history. Mother Joseph, the French Canadian Roman Catholic missionary, has been designated the first architect in the Northwest, thanks to the multitude of schools, hospitals, and social service agencies she and her Sisters of Providence founded in the mid-19th century. One of her Providence Hospitals, now considerably larger, sits on First Hill (or "Pill Hill") above downtown Seattle. A distinguished social service tradition has carried on through the Ryther Home for orphans, now the Ryther Child Care Center. Children's (Orthopedic) Hospital, founded in 1907 by Anna Clise, is still supported by a state wide network of fund raising guilds. "Children's" has always had an all-woman board and, until the 1980s, a woman as chief administrator.

Seattle also had many active women's clubs, whose legacy remains all over the city: in the Woman's Century Club (now the Harvard Exit Movie Theatre) on Capitol Hill, founded by Carrie Chapman Catt; its across-the-street neighbor, the Daughters of the American Revolution meeting place, which is a replica of George Washington's Mount Vernon; and the regular Seattle Ladies Musical Club musicales at the Seattle Public Library and Seattle Art Museum.

The early fight for suffrage distinguished Washington state, where women voted in the Territorial Era (1883–87). Washington became the fifth state in the nation to grant enfranchisement in 1910. Rebecca Mead's new book, How the Vote Was Won, devotes several chapters to the story, including the combat over strategy between local suffrage clubs played out at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909 (now the site of the University of Washington Seattle). There, the feisty May Arkwright Hutton battled the lady-like Emma Smith DeVoe for control of the campaign for women's enfranchisement. Their tactics so embarrassed the National American Woman Suffrage Association that both camps were evicted from the national convention at the fair. Once Seattle women had the vote in hand, however, they united behind a woman candidate for city leadership. In 1926, Seattle became the first large American city to elect a woman mayor, Bertha Knight Landes. She honed her leadership credentials in the woman's club movement and tried to effect a woman's platform, including honesty in the police department and modesty in the dancehalls of Pioneer Square. Her efforts to oppose private power interests and enforce Prohibition laws proved unpopular, however, and she was not re-elected for a second term.

Not surprisingly, Seattle women have been well represented in the arts. The Cornish School of the Arts, still going strong, was created by Nellie Cornish in 1914. University of Washington Seattle piano major Alice B. Toklas went on to legendary status as a cookbook author and companion to Gertrude Stein. Novelist Mary McCarthy grew up on Capitol Hill and her great aunt, Rose Morganstern Gottstein, served for decades as the impresario who secured professional musicians for the Ladies Musical Club concert series. Photographer Imogen Cunningham grew up in the Puget Sound area and earned an MA in chemistry at the University of Washington Seattle before opening her photography studio and launching an international career. Seattle owes its classical music radio station, KING-FM, as well as KING-TV, to Dorothy Stimson Bullitt, who ran King Broadcasting until she died in 1989 at the age of 97. The renowned Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood owes much to patron, co-founder, and art collector Anne Gould Hauberg. Until her recent retirement, librarian Nancy Pearl directed the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library and became a celebrity for her radio program on suggested titles for avid readers. Her lists are now collected in a paperback entitled Book Lust, and she has been immortalized as a librarian action figure in toy stores nation wide.

Women have played a key role in Seattle's work history, most notably documented by labor historian Dana Frank in Purchasing Power: Consumer Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1919–1929. Frank highlights the sturdy union movement, including the Women's Card and Labor League, a consumer pressure group that targeted the Bon Marché Department Store (now Bon-Macy's) for unfair practices. Frank also features Alice Lord, head of the Waitresses Union. Seattle's Anna Louise Strong is well known for her reporting of the 1919 General Strike, before she relocated to the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China. A more contemporary activist, Hazel Wolf, for whom a local high school has recently been named, catalyzed both the 1930s union movement and contemporary environmental movement. Her story, Hazel Wolf: Fighting the Establishment, has recently been published by Susan Starbuck. Japanese American women's long-time contributions to truck farming in the SeaTac Airport area have been documented by historians Gail Dubrow and Gail Nomura. Artfully assembled flower bouquets from Japanese American settlers can be purchased today at the Pike Place Market. The story of public school teachers between World War I and II is newly documented by Doris Pieroth's Seattle's Women Teachers of the Interwar Years. The University of Washington Seattle celebrates the work of women educators by naming Raitt Hall for home economist Effie Raitt, Hutchinson Hall for physical education leader Mary Gross Hutchinson, and McMahan Hall for radical political scientist Teresa McMahan.

Seattle has enjoyed great cultural and racial diversity from its beginnings. Madison Street has been the location of African American businesses, including woman-owned beauty parlors and restaurants, since the late 19th century. In Seattle's Black Victorians historian Esther Mumford describes Susie Revels Cayton, daughter of the Reconstruction Senator and associate editor of the Seattle Republican. There is no better account of growing up as a Japanese American girl than Monica Sone's Nisei Daughter. Her memoir also offers a vivid description of internment during World War II, first at the Puyallup (Washington) State Fairgrounds and then in Idaho. The Local Arrangements Committee has organized a walking tour of the International District with Bettie Luke, granddaughter of the founder of the city's Wing Luke Asian Museum. In addition, look for other tours organized by the committee, including a tour of the gay and lesbian presence in Seattle.

— Karen J. Blair is the editor of two editions of Women in Pacific Northwest History: An Anthology. Her Northwest Women: An Annotated Bibliography won the American Library Association Prize for Best History Bibliography in 1997. She teaches at Central Washington University and is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.