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15 things you didn’t know about Seattle’s first female mayor

It’s the first time since 1997 that the incumbent mayor of Seattle won’t be seeking re-election. It’s also the first time in 40 years when a woman will (likely) win the primary, and become the city’s second female chief executive.

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Bertha Knight Landes was the city’s first female mayor – less than 20 years after women got the vote in Washington — and she’s considered to be the first female mayor of any big American city. Most people know that she’s the namesake for the boring machine that dug the waterfront tunnel. Some even know about the conference room named for her at City Hall.

But since Bertha Knight Landes left office almost 90 years ago after only a single two-year term, and since she died in Michigan way back in 1943, that’s about the extent of most people’s knowledge.

Until now . . .

1. Knight was the mayor’s maiden name

Okay, no surprise there (her birth middle name was Ethel, by the way).  But, her older brother was Rear Admiral Austin M. Knight of the United States Navy. Admiral Knight wrote the classic nautical reference manual “Knight’s Modern Seamanship” that was originally published in 1901. It’s been revised several times, but is, amazingly, still in print. In 1907, Knight was commander of the armored cruiser USS Washington, named in honor of the Evergreen State, but which was later renamed USS Seattle (about a decade before Bertha Landes became mayor of . . .  you guessed it, Seattle).

2. The birth-a Bertha was …Ware

Bertha Knight was born in Ware, Mass. (located in the central part of the Bay State) in 1868.  She then moved to nearby Worcester with her family around 1873 when she was about five years old. Polli McChrystal, vice president of the Ware Historical Society, says that the former Seattle mayor is not on their radar screen, and that there are no monuments to her in Ware. It turns out that another prominent female politician was born in Ware in 1877. Ruth Baker Pratt was the first woman elected to the US House of Representatives from the state of New York. She served two terms beginning in 1929; she was elected in November 1928, just a few months after Bertha Landes left the Seattle mayor’s office.

3. The Knight family back home was surprised by Bertha’s political career

Bertha Knight grew up in Worcester and worked there as a high school teacher after she graduated from college. When she was elected mayor of Seattle in 1926, it took her family somewhat by surprise. The day after the election, the Worcester newspaper quoted Mrs. Asa O. Richardson, one of Bertha’s older sisters: “My sister is the baby of the family and always has been. Bertha has never been aggressive nor prominent in any circle and her immense prestige in political circles in the West is amusing to us as it is astonishing to us.”

4. Worcester, Mass. doesn’t remember native daughter Bertha Knight

A research librarian at the Worcester Historical Museum had never heard of Bertha Knight Landes but was able to locate a slim file with a few newspaper clippings from the 1920s. There are no monuments to Mayor Landes in Worcester.

5. Bertha Knight Landes is remembered by her alma mater Indiana University

Bertha Knight graduated from Indiana University in 1891. Via email, Dina Kellams, director of the University of Indiana Archives, wrote that a portion of a residence hall is named for the former Seattle mayor. “It is one of the wings of Daniel Read Hall, a dormitory opened for women in 1955,” Kellams wrote. “In 1962, each of the four wings [were] named for prominent 19th Century alumna – Lena Adams Beck House, Jennie Foster Curry House, Bertha Knight Landes House, and Emma Jennings Clark House.” Kellams also said that various alumni publications have highlighted Mrs. Landes over the years, and Landes wrote a reflection on her time as mayor for the alumni magazine in 1939.

6. The UW gets all the credit for bringing Bertha Knight Landes to Seattle

Bertha’s husband was named Henry Landes (they met as students at Indiana University; he was a native of Carroll, Ind.; Bertha’s sister was married to a college professor named David Starr Jordan who later went on to become the first president of Stanford). Bertha and Henry married in 1894. Henry got a job teaching geology at the University of Washington in 1895, when the campus had just relocated from downtown Seattle to its present location. Henry Landes was later Dean of the College of Sciences and served as Acting President of the UW between the long tenures of Thomas Kane and Henry Suzzallo.

7. Bertha Landes was elected to the City Council before she ran for mayor

In 1922, Bertha Landes and Kathryn Miracle were the first two women to run for positions on the Seattle City Council. Miracle entered the race first. Both Landes and Miracle were elected in 1922 and became the first women to serve on the council. Landes was re-elected to her council seat in 1925. As Council President, she was Mayor Pro Tem when Mayor Edwin J. “Doc” Brown went to New York for the 1924 Democratic Convention.  While Mayor Brown was gone, Landes exercised her temporary powers and fired the Chief of Police. Brown reinstated the Chief upon his return to Seattle.

8. Landes was not the first woman to run for mayor in Seattle

That honor goes to fellow Seattle City Councilmember Kathryn Miracle, who ran in 1924, two years before Landes did. It was something of a stunt, since Miracle withdrew from the race before the primary vote was held. Miracle warrants further study – she also sang a few songs at her City Council swearing-in ceremony in 1922. Also, it’s a shame she pulled out of the race – “Mayor Miracle” has a great ring to it.

9. Bertha Landes’ political nemesis Edwin J. “Doc” Brown was a real character

Mayor Brown, who served two, two-year terms beginning in 1922, was something of a ham and lover of public spectacle – even dressing up in costume on occasion – so much so that this reporter/historian believes his public antics may have inspired a young Ivar Haglund (but I have no proof to offer). Under Brown’s leadership and that of his Chief of Police Bill Severyn, Seattle had a reputation for being the place to go on the West Coast for easily accessible gambling, prostitution and alcohol (in spite of Prohibition). Bertha Landes was elected to the mayor’s office in 1926 – beating Doc Brown – with a focus on morals and reform, and what was described in now-sexist terms as “municipal housekeeping.” When she wrote about her approach to governing for an alumni magazine several years later, she described a more nuanced philosophy: “Private morals cannot be legislated by public legislation. I believe in the enforcement of law in a sane way. I am not of the opinion that vice and lawlessness can be completely eradicated from any city, but I am firmly convinced that open, flagrant violation can be. Vice has no right to flaunt itself in public.”

10. Bertha Landes was mayor during a particularly busy two years for Seattle

Mayor Landes officially welcomed Seattle to a who’s-who of 1920s figures, including aviator Charles Lindbergh, Queen Marie of Romania, and humorist Will Rogers.

11. Bertha Knight Landes is buried in Seattle

The former mayor’s grave is adorned with a simple metal marker, and she’s buried next to her husband, and two of the three children she bore (who both died before reaching adulthood). Also nearby is her adopted daughter Viola, and Viola’s husband Edward Peach. The plot, at Evergreen-Washelli, is marked with a large boulder, in tribute to husband Henry Landes’ long geology career at the UW.

12. The Seattle mayor’s office was non-partisan, but Bertha Landes was a Republican

She supported Republican President Herbert Hoover in his 1932 bid for re-election to a second term as a member of something called the Board of Counselors of the Women’s Division of the Republican National Committee.

13. Phyllis Lamphere was last female mayoral candidate in Seattle to make a serious run

Lamphere was a member of the City Council in the 1960s and 1970s, and then ran for mayor after Wes Uhlman left office after two terms. Lamphere placed fourth in the primary that saw Charles Royer and Paul Schell finish first and second, respectively. Royer carried the general and served three terms. Schell ran again in 1997 and won, but lost in the primary in 2001.

14. Portland didn’t elect a female mayor until 1949, but …

Dorothy McCullough Lee was elected to a single four-year term as mayor of the Rose City in 1948, and is considered the second female mayor of a large American city. According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, during her time in office, “the city shut down burlesque houses, brothels, and a gay club that boasted female impersonators . . . [m]any of the people involved in promoting the criminal element in Portland left town, and the vice industry suffered; but downtown businesses also languished, their property values declining.” Portland has elected a total of three female mayors over the years.

15. Mayor Landes was KIRO Radio’s first-ever guest

Back on the evening of Friday, April 1, 1927 when what’s now KIRO Radio first came on the air in Seattle, the station was called KPCB (for the “Pacific Coast Biscuit” company). The signal was found at 650 on the AM dial, and programs originated from a suite of studios in the Central Building (which still stands on Third Avenue between Columbia and Marion Streets). KPCB’s inaugural guest was, no fooling, Mayor Bertha Landes.

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