FOR WHOM IS the 19th century known? Answers abound, but a half-dozen progressive women from Seattle claimed it as their own during the century’s final decade.
Because of educational, occupational, social and political strides, especially the right to vote, this local group adopted the phrase “the Woman’s Century,” forming a club with that name in 1891. The designation also took off nationally throughout the 1890s.
To no surprise, the appellation was appropriated commercially. The Singer Manufacturing Co. placed full-page ads headed “The Woman’s Century” in turn-of-the-century editions of McClure’s Magazine. The ads touted Singer sewing machines and typewriters for providing “increased time and opportunity for women’s rest and recreation or for other occupations from which they had been debarred.”
In Seattle, club founders were more high-minded. An early organizational history states that amid “the sordid atmosphere of a rapidly developing western city,” they felt the need to gather “for intellectual culture, original research and the solution of the altruistic problems of the day.”
Leading them was Carrie Chapman Catt, who soon took on coast-to-coast fame, succeeding Susan B. Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and, when ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was nigh in 1920, founding the League of Women Voters.
Such influence flourished in the club’s early decades. In 1926, members helped elect Seattle’s first woman mayor, Bertha Landes, a former club president. In 1933, they hosted a reception for famed aviator Amelia Earhart.
The club’s talks and teas held an additional purpose: to raise money for a permanent headquarters and theater on Capitol Hill. A three-story brick edifice, with “Woman’s Century Club” etched above its entrance, took shape in 1925 at the southeast corner of Harvard and East Roy.
Club events happened there for 40-plus years, but thinning membership prompted its sale in 1968 and conversion to what became the charming Harvard Exit Theatre, with movie auditoriums on two floors. The club still met in its parlor, but screens went dark when the building was resold in 2014 and renovated by Eagle Rock Ventures. The main tenant today is the Mexican Consulate.
Now based at Dearborn House on First Hill, the club sponsors stimulating presentations and funds an annual scholarship for a young woman “with promise.”
Members appreciate the club’s focus on history and the arts. They also revere its trailblazing legacy. In its 130th year, Debra Alderman, vice president, says, “We need to continue to have important conversations.”
We are a little more than one-fifth of the way through the 21st century. For whom will it be named?