From Seattle’s first female mayor, to a popular longtime news anchor, women have held prominent roles across the public arena.

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In Seattle and across Washington state, women have shaped the news we consume, the air we breathe, the way we govern and how we learn. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, here are several women who have broken barriers and advanced our region.

Bertha Knight Landes in 1926 became the first female mayor of Seattle — or of any major U.S. city.

She’d made a strong impression a few years earlier as City Council president. With the mayor out of town for a trip to New York City, Landes became the acting head of government in Seattle. She took the opportunity to fire the police chief, whom she accused of collusion with criminals. Landes became the temporary police chief, the first time a woman held the position.

The mayor later reversed the decision, but Landes got the last laugh. Two years later, she won the office, and before starting her term, sacked the police chief once again.

Since Landes’ spell in office, no woman has been on the general-election ballot in a Seattle mayoral race.

Seattle also had to wait 90 years before it saw another female police chief. The city hired current Chief Kathleen O’Toole in 2014. She had a long career in Boston, including as a patrol officer, and was that city’s first female police commissioner from 2004 to 2006.

Washington extended voting rights to women long before the rest of the nation did — and it started electing them soon after. The first two women to serve in the state Legislature, Frances Axtell and Nena Jolidon Croake, took the oath of office as state representatives in 1913. They were elected in November 1912, the first state election in which Washington women could vote.

Frances Axtell, left, and Nena Jolidon Croake
Frances Axtell, left, and Nena Jolidon Croake

Last year, women made up 34 percent of the Washington Legislature, the fourth-highest percentage of any state, according to a Rutgers University study.

Washington elected its first female governor, Dixy Lee Ray, in 1976. A marine biologist, Ray was director of the Pacific Science Center and taught at the University of Washington. She was appointed to the Atomic Energy Commission by President Richard Nixon in 1972, and chaired the commission from 1973 to 1975.

Thelma DeWitty reads to her second-grade students at Cooper Elementary School in 1950. (Josef Scaylea / The Seattle Times)
Thelma DeWitty reads to her second-grade students at Cooper Elementary School in 1950. (Josef Scaylea / The Seattle Times)

The first two black teachers hired by Seattle Public Schools, in 1947, were women: Marita Johnson and Thelma Fisher DeWitty.

“I think I’ve had more visits from parents than any other teacher in school, primarily through curiosity, I suppose. But everyone is most friendly,” DeWitty told The Times in an Oct. 22, 1947, story. She added that students brought her flowers.

A Pride Foundation scholarship in DeWitty’s honor was founded in 2005 “for current and future African-American LGBTQ leaders and role models.”

When the University of Washington last year hired Ana Mari Cauce, she became the first woman and the first Latina to head the state’s largest college.

Ana Mari Cauce, shown greeting the crowd at Husky Stadium last fall, was recently named president of the University of Washington. (John Lok/The Seattle Times)
Ana Mari Cauce, shown greeting the crowd at Husky Stadium last fall, was recently named president of the University of Washington. (John Lok/The Seattle Times)

Washington women have made waves in the business world, too.

Columbia State Bank CEO Melanie Dressel, who grew up in Colville and went to the University of Washington, has been named one of American Banker’s 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking six times. And while we’re looking at lists: The first female Microsoft CFO, Amy Hood, is ranked by Forbes as one of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. Fellow tech executives Maria Cantwell and Suzan DelBene have gone on to serve in Congress, while former REI Chief Exeuctive Sally Jewell is now Secretary of the Interior.

In 2014, after 46 years in the news business, Jean Enersen called her storied career quits at KING5. She had been the first woman in the country to anchor a local-news show.

When she retired, Enersen was the country’s longest-standing female local-news anchor. For many years, she was the most powerful TV broadcaster in town.

KING 5 TV’s Jean Enersen chats with co-worker Doug Mossano ahead of Enersen’s last 5 p.m. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)
KING 5 TV’s Jean Enersen chats with co-worker Doug Mossano ahead of Enersen’s last 5 p.m. broadcast as a daily news anchor on June 13, 2014. Enersen, the “Queen of KING,” spent 46 years at the station, 42 of those in the anchor position. She was the first female local TV news anchor in the country. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)

Our state’s first female newspaper publisher, Missouri T.B. Hanna, bought the Edmonds Review in 1905. These words from her introductory column still ring true in today’s world of ever-consolidating media and shrinking newsrooms: “A newspaper is part of a city,” she wrote, encouraging Edmonds residents to “help it along, read it, criticize and help pay for it, but don’t kill it.”

Hanna sold the paper five years later and became more involved in the suffrage movement in Edmonds and Seattle, according to Seattle Times news partner site HistoryLink.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the statewide amendment granting women the vote, The Seattle Times ran a roundup of Washington women in politics. Noted there alongside Landes, Axtell and Croake was the state’s first — and, at that time, only — congresswoman, Republican Catherine May of Yakima.

That article, which covered Landes’ mayoral term extensively, quoted another Seattle Times piece in which columnist and historian C.T. Conover wrote that Landes “did a notably clean, housewifey job as mayor.”

Presumably, as the rest of the column praised Landes’ impact on the city, Conover meant that as a compliment.



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