Meet the Women Who Fought for Their Place in Seattle Politics
In the early 1960s, a group of Chinese Americans brainstormed how to get Wing Luke, then an assistant attorney general, elected to Seattle City Council. Restaurant owner Ruby Chow had an idea—all the Chinese joints in town could fill their fortune cookies with a message: “It’s wise to vote for Wing Luke.” He took the seat with a landslide 30,000 votes and became the first person of color on the council.
The intersection of dining and politics was Chow’s domain. Opened in 1948, Ruby Chow’s on First Hill was the city’s first Chinese restaurant not in Chinatown. It had gravity (a fledgling Bruce Lee waited tables there) and became a watering hole for those who held sway in the city: businessmen, reporters, politicians. Memorable with her tall, beehive hair, Ruby entered their fold as she waited on them. “Ruby Chow was one of the boys because she was entirely street in her talk,” wrote Frank Chin in a 1988 essay, “down and dirty and cussed them out with an authentic understanding of the art’s potential.”
In this milieu, Ruby—who was born on a Seattle fishing dock and dropped out of high school during the Depression to wait tables for two dollars a day—honed her frank political style. Some thought her way brutal, but no one denied she got things done. In 1958 she and six other women overthrew conservative leadership in the influential Chong Wa Benevolent Association. In 1973, she was elected to the King County Council, the first Asian American to hold a seat. She served three terms on the council and was a tireless advocate for immigrants, especially her Chinese community, pushing for naturalization classes, a Chinese girls drill team, and bilingual programs at Seattle Public Schools, which it still offers today.
Bertha Knight Landes
The Motherly Mayor
Seattle’s first woman mayor never downplayed her key difference from other politicians—her gender. The mother of three ran campaigns all about housework; “Home standards should be city standards,” she wrote in the Seattle Star in 1922. “Give the woman a chance.”
The same year, she and businesswoman Kathryn Miracle swept into office, the first women to be elected to Seattle City Council. Landes soon cleaned house by firing the chief of police during her time as council president. Elected to the mayor’s office in 1926 with promises of “municipal housekeeping”—making her the first woman to lead a major American city—Landes had bootleggers arrested and cracked down on dance halls, and brought a new level of professionalism to city government.
It may have been 89 years before the city saw a second female mayor in Jenny Durkan, but to Gwen Whiting, lead curator at the Washington State Historical Society, Landes’s legacy resonated nonetheless: “More than anything, she simply inspired women to understand that seeking those higher office positions was possible.”
It started with finger painting. Or rather, a former preschool teacher heading to the state capitol in Olympia in 1980 to protest an early learning program threatened by state budget cuts. Patty Murray rallied 13,000 supporters despite being dismissed as a “mom in tennis shoes.” She still hasn’t stopped advocating. Since her election as Washington’s first female U.S. senator in 1992, she’s served as the primary sponsor for 29 enacted bills (many dealing with health care and education) and is currently the third-ranked Democrat in the Senate. While most her accomplishments have been on the national level—she made headlines when she called for presidential impeachment this summer—Murray has protected Washington wilderness and gave our state’s delegation its reputation for unapologetic lady legislators.
The Minimum Wage Champion
“There was something in the air,” recalls Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant about 2013, when the Occupy Seattle movement was winding down and the economics professor ran her first council campaign. “Workers…were finally ready to fight,” she says. While the media focused on Sawant’s history with the Socialist Alternative party, she handed out red-and-white posters with the words “$15 hr minimum wage!”
Sawant won the election over the incumbent by a slim 3,000 or so votes, but the real victory came six months into her first term, when the council voted 9–0 to raise Seattle’s minimum wage to match the highest in the nation, arguably due to the fervor stoked by the rookie representative. When Sawant’s 2019 reelection campaign rolled around, championing a single issue was old hat; this time, her posters had a new refrain: “rent control.”