Bertha Landes wasn’t even allowed to vote until she was 41, but rose swiftly in civic life to become the first woman to lead a major U.S. city just 16 years later, in 1926.
Throughout her brief political career, Landes had to prove herself in ways that men did not — facing constant scrutiny over whether her dress and demeanor were proper for a woman of the early 20th century.
Newspapers and magazines took pains to reassure readers that Landes was “a plain, unassuming, churchgoing woman” not “the chattering kind” and not a smoker or a threatening “new woman,” noted the 1994 biography of Landes by the late University of Idaho professor, Sandra Haarsager.
Women in Washington had only been granted the right to vote in 1910, and that wasn’t extended nationwide until 1920 with the adoption of the 19th Amendment.
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In 1922, Landes was one of the first two women elected that year to the Seattle City Council.
Two years later, she performed perhaps her most famous act.
As council president in 1924, Landes was acting mayor while Mayor Edwin Brown was in New York City for the Democratic National Convention.
She wielded her temporary powers to fire Police Chief William Severyns after accusing the police department of collusion with bootleggers and gambling joints. Naming herself acting chief, she then ordered a campaign to shut down vice activities.
The action was reversed when Brown, alerted by a telegram, boarded a train home to resume his duties.
In 1926, Landes ran against Brown for mayor, pledging to clean up City Hall. She even favored changing the city’s form of government to a city-manager system, which would effectively eliminate the mayor’s office. Voters rejected that plan, but backed Landes.
As mayor, she cemented a legacy as a good-government reformer, pushing for civil-service hiring, the city’s first traffic code and tighter regulation of nightlife.
But in 1928, Landes faced a mysterious challenger named Frank Edwards. The theater operator had seemingly emerged out of nowhere. Reporters could not verify his claims about his business background.
Edwards ran a secretive well-financed campaign, refusing to even debate Landes. He announced he had to decline to appear on a stage with her to answer “the questions that are encased in your pent up bosom” because it was “manifestly hard” for a man to debate “a hostile or infuriated woman,” according to the Landes biography.
Although she garnered glowing endorsements from all the city’s newspapers, Landes lost her re-election bid — ending her political career. Some commentators speculated Landes lost because Seattle wanted to regain its reputation as a “manly” frontier town.
After the election, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a photo of Edwards looming over his wife, who struck a submissive pose.
The photo caption noted the new mayor “receives the first signal of his success — an acknowledging curtsy of obeisance from his wife.”
Edwards didn’t last long. He was recalled by voters three years later.