From Seattle’s first female mayor, to a popular longtime news anchor, women have held prominent roles across the public arena.
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.
Between Landes’ spell in office and last year, no woman appeared on the general-election ballot in a Seattle mayoral race. But a few made serious primary bids, including Phyllis Lamphere (1922-2018), who came in fourth in the 1977 mayoral primary. In that same year, Lamphere, who was one of the first women on the Seattle City Council, was also named president of the National League of Cities, becoming the first woman and nonmayor to hold that title. Lamphere was central in the push for the Washington State Convention Center and other major projects.
After Landes’ temporary stint, Seattle waited 90 years before it saw another female police chief. The city hired 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. After O’Toole stepped down Dec. 31, 2017, Deputy Chief Carmen Best served as interim chief before being selected as the permanent chief in the summer of 2018.
Jenny Durkan became Seattle’s second woman mayor, defeating Cary Moon with 61 percent of the vote in the 2017 election. In her first 100 days in office, Durkan pushed for affordable housing, grappled with the city’s homelessness crises and moved to expand a free-college program.
Durkan grew up in Issaquah with six siblings, attending a private Catholic girls school, Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart. She received her bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame, then taught English and coached basketball in a remote Alaska town before getting her law degree from the University of Washington School of Law in 1985. She became the first openly gay U.S. district attorney after being appointed by President Barack Obama.
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.
In 2015, 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.
It took until 1988 for Washington state to send a woman to the U.S. Senate. Patty Murray still serves there today and is now a member of Senate Democratic leadership.
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.
When the University of Washington in 2015 hired Ana Mari Cauce, she became the first woman and the first Latina to head the state’s largest college.
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, was named one of American Banker’s 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking seven times. The president and CEO of the Tacoma-based bank died Feb. 20, 2017, at 64. 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 Executive Sally Jewell served as Secretary of the Interior.
Princess Angeline (1820-1896), the oldest daughter of Chief Seattle, is remembered as a powerful image of resilience. She was born around 1820 in what is now Rainier Valley. The 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott forced the Duwamish Indians off their land and to a reservation, but Angeline remained. She lived alone in her waterfront cabin. She made her living selling handwoven baskets and washing laundry for the settlers, with whom she became close, and was a recognizable figure along the streets of the city.
An iconic portrait of Angeline lives on in Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, representing reverence for the indigenous people of this place.
The gleaming Seattle Children’s Research Institute downtown is a bit shinier than the first children’s hospital in Seattle 110 years earlier, but its female founder’s basic ideas of providing pediatric care for “every child” regardless of family finances remains true today.
Anna Herr Clise (1866-1936), who moved to Seattle with her husband from Colorado in 1889, lost her youngest son to inflammatory rheumatism. She was inspired to seek out better children’s medical care for the area, as the closest children’s hospital was in San Francisco at the time of her 6-year-old’s death.
In early 1907, Clise gathered 16 of Seattle’s leading ladies to make plans for incorporating a children’s hospital. They each paid $20 to fund the medical institution dedicated to treating and caring for children. For 97 years after the founding of Children’s, the hospital’s board of trustees was made up solely of women — not by rule, but in following tradition.
On January 11, 1907, the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital Association became the first pediatric clinic in the Northwest and the third on the West Coast. It operated out of Seattle General Hospital for a year, then slowly expanded out to other facilities.
Today, Seattle Children’s is a top-ranked pediatric hospital that served 405,817 patients in 2015. With 11 clinic locations throughout Washington, Children’s has more than accomplished Clise’s hope of serving the Seattle area.
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.
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 in 1960 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.