Bertha Knight Landes – a woman who is part of Seattle’s history

I am currently in Seattle for a couple of days, attending the conference of the US National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls, which I had the privilege of addressing on Sunday. It is a fabulous conference, at the heart of which there is the opportunity to share experiences with colleagues and to grow in the knowledge that we are educating our young women for a better future. Seattle, itself, though, I have discovered, is the home of a number of inspirational women, and I have been reading about Bertha Knight Landes, Seattle’s first mayor, back in 1926, so I thought I would share this story.

Bertha Knight Landes – a mother of three born in 1868 – was elected mayor of Seattle in 1926, and became as a result the first woman to lead a major American city. Prior to this, she had been active in women’s organisations, and in 1921, as president of the Seattle Federation of Women’s Clubs, she had been instrumental in seeking to encourage business in a time of recession, earning the praise of the president of the Chamber of Commerce. Subsequently, she was appointed as the only woman on a five-member commission to study unemployment in the city, and her political career sprouted from this, with a strong motivation to make a positive difference. According to the historian, Doris Pieroth, she saw her career ‘as duty and service rather than an opportunity for fulfilment of her own ambition’.

In post, Mrs Landes was widely credited with cleaning up what had been a scandal-hit administration. She rooted out corruption and appointed qualified professionals to lead city departments, improve public transport and parks, and put the city’s finances in good order. One of her administration’s legacies is the Civic Auditorium (now the Seattle Opera House). Her time in office was undeniably a success.

When it came to time for re-election, however, despite endorsements not only from women’s organisations but also from all of Seattle’s major newspapers and key political parties, she lost to another – male – candidate, in a move that she put down to his higher campaign budget and ‘sex prejudice’ on the part of campaigners and voters, part of the underlying sentiment at the time (which was hard to shift, and still is hard to shift now) that a city should have a man at the helm. Mrs Landes did not fade from public view, however, and continued on in a number of leadership positions, making a positive contribution to the life of Seattle into the 30s and 40s. She died in 1943.

I firmly believe that we learn an enormous amount by hearing about people’s lives, by imagining ourselves walking in their shoes, and seeing the world through their eyes. Learning about Bertha Knight Landes puts into context the move into politics by women across the world, and reminds us that we have come a long way in a short time in this period of greater gender awareness and social transition … but that there is still more to do to leave behind us, once and for all, the preconceptions of a bygone age. History matters; let us not forget this – or, indeed, the story of Bertha Knight Landes.

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