These women broke with convention — even if that meant being first in the nation — for what they or their community needed and deserved.
Maybe it’s in the water. Washington women have long been pioneers in education, law, employment equality, community activism and self-sufficiency. Here are seven women who broke with convention — even if that meant being first in the nation — for what they or their community needed and deserved.
Kikisoblu. The oldest daughter of Duwamish Tribe Chief Si’ahl, Kikisoblu is often known as “Princess Angeline,” based upon her regal appearance and heritage.
Kikisoblu refused to leave her cabin home in downtown Seattle, despite the U.S. government’s attempts to move all Suquamish Tribe and Duwamish Tribe members to a reservation far away from Seattle.
In Seattle, she lived simply and independently. For income, she washed clothes and wove baskets — and wisely charged anyone hoping to take her photo. After her death in 1896, her funeral was well attended, and she was buried in a canoe.
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Corrine Carter. At age 34, Corrine Carter was the first black policewoman on the West Coast, and the second in the United States. She first started as a volunteer with the Seattle Police Department, and was later designated a “Special Policewoman” in 1914, although her work was unpaid. She helped provide services for black youth, including child trafficking victims and within families needing social support.
Carter declined any need for a sidearm, saying “anybody that can sing as loud as I can in church, can holler loud enough to wake up a whole neighborhood.”
Safe, overnight accommodations for African-American women and children was essential, so Carter helped found the Phyllis Wheatley Branch of the YWCA, in Seattle’s Central Area in 1919. The branch provided beds at night to black, female newcomers, along with social, employment and educational programs, and still serves the community 100 years later.
Bertha Pitts Campbell. Born in 1889, Bertha Pitts Campbell graduated with honors from Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she was one of 22 co-founders of Delta Sigma Theta, one of the largest African-American Greek-lettered sororities today.
Pitts Campbell moved to Seattle in 1923, where she also helped found the Christian Friends for Racial Equality, was an early board member of the Seattle Urban League, and four-term chair of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA. As chair of the Phyllis Wheatley Branch YWCA in Seattle’s Central District, Pitts Campbell earned the right to vote on YWCA’s board in 1934 – the first black woman in the country to do so. She remained an active civil rights advocate throughout her life, and died in 1990.
Thelma Dewitty. Thelma Dewitty had been working as a teacher in Texas for 14 years. Then she moved to Seattle, which had never hired a black schoolteacher. After advocacy from civil rights organizations, she became Seattle Public Schools’ first black teacher — and first married teacher.
The first black woman to be hired by Seattle Public Schools in 1947, and the first married woman officially appointed — before 1947, SPL had a rule against hiring married female teachers.
She went on to teach in five different SPS elementary, middle school and high schools, and was branch president of Seattle’s NAACP.
Ruby Chow. Seattle-born Ruby Gum Seung Mar Chow opened the city’s first Chinese restaurant outside of Chinatown in 1948 — Ruby Chow’s — in a former First Hill mansion. She co-founded the Wing Luke Museum, and became the first Asian-American King County Council member in 1973.
Chow advocated for bilingual programs in Seattle Public Schools, people of color on government and school boards, and equitable services for South Seattle, including community centers and bus routes.
While serving three terms on the council, she went on to mentor former Washington Governor Gary Locke and King County Executive Ron Sims.
Florise Spearman and Dorothy West Williams. By mid-1942, two young women were working at the Boeing Airplane Company, after more than a decade of African American activism. Florise Spearman was hired as a stenographer. Dorothy West Williams worked with sheet metal, assembling planes as the first black production worker and union member of Local 751. Both women were trained at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA.
The company and the union’s joint history of hiring practices effectively banned black employees. Qualified applicants were turned away, again and again. Advocacy from national and Seattle-based black newspapers, community groups and activists convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue executive order 8802 in 1941, prohibiting discrimination in the U.S. defense industry.
Spearman and West broke the color barrier at Boeing. By 1945, Boeing had hired 1600 black workers.
To learn more about the fascinating history of Washington women, join YWCA in attending the next History Café: Black Women’s Legacy in Washington’s Workforce at MOHAI, Sept. 18, 2019, 6:30 P.M. – 8:30 P.M.