In 1926, Seattle became the first major American city to elect a woman as mayor.
The inauguration of municipal reformer Bertha Landes brought national headlines and seemed to signal a new era for women in public office.
But after just two years, city voters rebelled against what some called “petticoat rule” and booted Landes in favor of Frank Edwards, a virtually unknown businessman.
Despite Seattle’s progressive self-image — and its role in sending women to the U.S. Senate and governor’s office — the city has not elected a woman mayor in the 85 years since Landes left office. In all that time, a woman has not even appeared on the general-election ballot.
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With a hyper competitive 2013 mayoral contest shaping up, the early signs point to that trend continuing. Of the seven announced challengers to Mayor Mike McGinn, only one is a woman: Greenwood activist Kate Martin, who has raised just $133 — all from herself.
The long record of only men as Seattle mayor has puzzled many in local political circles. But the underrepresentation of women in top political offices — especially executive positions — remains widespread across the country.
Several political consultants and others involved in local politics suggested a well-qualified woman might stand out in the 2013 Seattle mayoral field.
“I do think the time is right. I think the advantage would be real,” said Lisa MacLean, a local political consultant who worked on Greg Nickels’ three mayoral campaigns.
Several prominent women have been mentioned as potential candidates, but so far none has been willing to take the leap.
“You’ve got to be in the game to win, right? Not enough women have been willing to be in the game,” said Jan Drago, a former Seattle City Council member who ran for mayor in 2009 but placed fifth in the primary.
The lack of diversity among Seattle mayors isn’t limited to gender. Of Seattle’s 53 mayors, all have been white men, except for the city’s first black mayor, Norm Rice, who served two terms from 1989 to 1997.
Although women have made major gains in political representation in recent decades, the top U.S. political offices remain male dominated — especially big-city mayor’s offices.
Among the largest 100 cities in the U.S., only 12 had women mayors as of last year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Some major cities have never elected a woman mayor, including New York and Los Angeles.
Women fare somewhat better in smaller cities, leading more than 17 percent of those with populations of more than 30,000. That holds true in Washington, where cities including Tacoma and Kent currently have women mayors, and others, including Spokane, have had women as mayors in recent years.
The numbers in legislative bodies are a little higher: Women hold 18 percent of the seats in Congress and 24 percent in state legislatures.
All those numbers are low compared with women’s share of the population. So why do men still dominate top political offices?
The fundamental reason, according to a major 2012 study for the Women & Politics Institute at American University, is “a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don’t.”
The study surveyed 4,000 people in fields that typically produce political candidates — business leaders, lawyers, educators and activists — and found women tend to talk themselves out of running compared with similarly qualified men.
“Women who don’t think they’re qualified don’t think about running for office. Men who don’t think they’re qualified still think about running for office,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute and professor of government at American University, who co-authored the study.
Women are particularly disinclined to run for top executive positions such as mayor or governor, when compared with legislative positions, especially school boards, the study found. Lawless said it’s possible that women are more attracted to legislative positions that involve collaboration and coalition building.
The study also found women view the electoral environment as biased against female candidates, an impression aggravated by the struggles of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin on the national stage. And women also face the extra barrier of being responsible for more child-care and household duties than men.
When women do run, Lawless said, the evidence shows they are just as likely to succeed as men, based on fundraising and electoral results.
“The issue is not the voters, which is the good news,” she said.
Some local political observers said they’ve seen the male ego factor play in city politics: hence the crowd of men vying to be mayor this year while women largely remain on the sidelines.
“There are women that could run and be strong candidates,” said John Wyble, a political consultant working for McGinn. For example, he said, there is “no reason” why City Councilmember Bruce Harrell is running while Sally Clark, the City Council president, is not.
Martin, the only currently announced female candidate, said she doesn’t view herself as “the woman candidate.” A planner by trade, she said she’s concerned with what she says is the city’s over reliance on asking voters to raise taxes through levies, while basic needs like hiring more police go unmet.
Other, better-known women have mulled the race or been approached about running but have shied away, citing satisfaction with their current jobs and uncertainty about their prospects as a mayoral candidate.
“I think there really is a pent-up demand” for a woman mayor, said Maud Daudon, president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce who served as deputy mayor under Paul Schell and has been mentioned as a possible candidate. “It’s something people really lead with when they talk to me.”
But while not entirely ruling out a run, Daudon said she is happy in her current role as chief advocate for the city’s business community.
Clark, the council president, said she too has no current plans to run for mayor, but could change her mind if a bunch of current contenders imploded.
But Clark noted her good working relationships with other candidates already in the race, including state Sen. Ed Murray and Councilmember Tim Burgess.
Clark said she’d like to see a woman elected mayor, both because it would provide a role model for girls and because a woman might bring different skills to governing.
“We are a city that is proud of being a liberal place that values diversity — that we haven’t had a woman mayor for 85 years is at odds with that,” she said.
Anne Levinson, the former deputy mayor under Rice who is currently civilian auditor for the police department’s internal investigations, said she’s been urged to run but isn’t considering it.
Levinson suggested Seattle’s progressive reputation has perhaps blunted the urgency in voters minds of the need to elect a woman.
“People might have had more concern about it if in fact there were candidates or incumbents who didn’t support equal pay or hiring,” she said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner