When Bertha Broke Ground

It's Been 91 Years Since Seattle's First (and Only) Female Mayor

That could change come November. But why has it taken so long?

By Hayat Norimine June 9, 2017 Published in the July 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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Bertha Knight Landes was the mayor of Seattle from 1926 to 1928.

She took down a gambling ring, fired the police chief, and restored law and order to a city cited as the most morally corrupt on the Pacific Coast. And that was just in one summer. 

Bertha Knight Landes—the first female mayor of a major U.S. city, and Seattle’s only female mayor to date—did all that when, as council president, she briefly took executive office in 1924 so then-mayor Edwin Brown could attend the Democratic National Convention in New York City. 

Two years later (just six years after women got the right to vote) Landes ran against Brown on the promise of cleaning house, and won. 

And yet Seattle—sanctuary city Seattle, city that prides itself on progressive values Seattle—hasn’t elected a woman as mayor since. In fact, Landes is the only woman who’s ever made it through the primary election. 

That could change this year. Emboldened by mayor Ed Murray’s entanglements with accusations of child rape—and later by his decision not to seek reelection—21 candidates have entered the race. Four of the six most high-profile candidates are women: Jenny Durkan’s a former U.S. attorney and close adviser to former governor Christine Gregoire. Jessyn Farrell had been a state representative and a former leader of the Transportation Choices Coalition. Nikkita Oliver (who joined the race before Murray’s lawsuit) is a social justice activist and attorney who’s rallied the millennial vote. And Cary Moon, an urban planner, led the fight against the Alaskan Way tunneling project. When Durkan announced her candidacy for mayor, political consultants thought of her as the instant front-runner; Farrell’s also well connected in the Democratic Party and has successfully run for office before. A woman making it to the general election has never been more likely.

But why did it take us 91 years to get here? 

In 1928, at the end of her first term, Bertha Landes lost in a record-breaking, 19,000-plus-vote landslide to Frank Edwards, a politically unknown theater operator who didn’t even bother to show up to a debate against her. When Landes got stood up, she placed an empty chair on a platform and, according to the Associated Press asked, “Can it be true that a man is afraid of a woman?”

Edwards’s sole campaign criticism of her was that she was a woman. Keep in mind that, at that point, she had been on the city council for four years and been mayor for two, and was endorsed by all the major local newspapers. A city official had told an Associated Press reporter, “She’s the best man Seattle has had for mayor in 20 years.” 

Landes’s loss still may be influencing Seattle politics, says Emma Rodman, whose graduate work at the University of Washington focuses on women running for office. Places where women have run and lost, she says, tend to become “deserts of masculine political space.” Women get discouraged or turned off by the process. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of a decades--long gender disparity. 

“We know that women face greater difficulty on the campaign trail,” adds Rodman, “and part of that has to do with voter perception of female candidacy and female effectiveness.” Media coverage, in Landes’s day and now, tends to focus more on women’s looks and their emotions. In its coverage of Landes in 1926 The New York Times chose to focus on three irrelevant details: She didn’t darn her husband’s socks; she didn’t represent “the new woman” because she didn’t wear short skirts, bob her hair, or smoke cigarettes; oh, and she needed three days to rest after the campaign because it was so physically straining for her. In its longest article about her, shortly after she was elected mayor, the paper quoted her husband far more times than her, with one section dedicated to “her husband’s ideas.”

What’s different this year? Women tend to be elected into office at a time of crisis, says Rodman, referring to the Mayor Murray scandal. And strategically, with U.S. president Donald Trump sparking a new wave of civic engagement, women interested in running could think it’s the right time (more fundraising, more volunteers, more support). 

Though Bertha Landes continued to be civically engaged after her loss—writing articles and pushing other women to run for city council—she didn’t exactly pave the way for women in the executive office. After all, it has taken nearly a century for this city to be on the cusp of electing another woman as mayor. Sometimes it only takes one person to change the course of history. Other times, as we may find out this November, it takes two.


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The Future Is Female

For the first time in nearly a century, Seattle may see a woman candidate—or two—in the general mayoral election. Meet four of the strongest contenders in next month’s primary (pictured left to right).

Jessyn Farrell

The former northeast Seattle state representative is a former leader of Transportation Choices Coalition and appeals to environmentalists.

Nikkita Oliver

The civil rights attorney was a key organizer of the No Youth Jail movement and knows how to build a coalition.

Cary Moon

The urban planner was a vocal opponent of the Alaskan Way tunneling project; holds strong pro-transit and pro-density values.

Jenny Durkan

The first openly gay U.S. attorney has strong business support and a clear financial lead in the race.

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