(Above) Bertha Landes shakes hands with dentist-turned-mayor “Doc” Brown, whom she defeated in 1926.
(Editor’s note: Thanks to yesterday’s election in Seattle, the largest city in Washington state will soon have a woman—a lesbian, no less—installed in its mayor’s chair. Although there are still ballots yet to be counted, The Seattle Times reported last night that 59-year-old Democrat and former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan leads with 61 percent of the vote, on her way to becoming the burg’s 56th mayor. If her margin of victory holds against challenger Cary Moon, an activist with little political experience, Durkan will be the second woman ever to lead Seattle, her only predecessor being Bertha Knight Landes, who was chosen as America’s first big-city woman mayor 91 years ago, in 1926. Those are big shoes for Durkan fill, as I explain in the following excerpt from my 2003 book, Eccentric Seattle: Pillars and Pariahs Who Made the City Not Such a Boring Place After All [Washington State University Press]. Let’s hope she’s up to the task.)
When they remark at all upon the political career of Bertha Knight Landes, modern historians generally concentrate their attention around her call for strengthened law enforcement in Prohibition-era Seattle, her efforts to improve city planning and management of the municipal power company, and her demand that professional standards replace cronyism in hiring civic administrators. Those annalists observe how “peaceful” and “quiet” Landes’ two-year mayoral stint was when compared with those of her more colorful but often less ethical predecessors. And they go on at some length about her conviction that a city should be run under the same standards of efficiency, decency, and morality that would pertain in a home.
But Landes wasn’t yet recognized for most of these things in the early 1920s. Back then, she was known more widely as the woman who’d tweaked Seattle’s patriarchal establishment in a bloodless and brief coup that won her not only the powers of the mayor, but those of the police chief, as well.
The story is rather comical. It seems that in the summer of 1924, Landes was serving her first term on the city council and had recently been elected to its presidency. Edwin J. “Doc” Brown, a flamboyant former “painless” dentist and Seattle’s latest “tolerance mayor,” had decided to attend the Democratic National Convention in New York City. During his absence, council president Landes automatically became acting chief exec. (The deputy mayor’s office didn’t yet exist.) Newspapers played up Landes’ precedent-setting temporary assignment, but nobody really expected her to do much while Brown was off whooping it up at Madison Square Garden.
However, on June 23, 1924, Landes summoned Police Chief William B. Severyns into her office. She handed him a letter explaining how disturbed she was by repeated violations of local bootlegging and gambling laws and by the youthful chief’s recent intimation to the press that probably 100 men on his force were too corrupt to perform their jobs properly. If that’s true, her letter read, “then it must follow as a logical conclusion that one hundred men should be removed.” Landes wanted Severyns to act within 24 hours. When he balked, complaining that Landes was merely trying to score political points at his expense, the acting mayor dismissed him in favor of Joseph Mason, his top lieutenant. Mason also refused to carry out her order, so Landes canned him, as well. Then, exercising an obscure provision of the city charter, she declared Seattle in a state of emergency and appointed herself as its new top cop.
A palsy of shock passed briefly over the town as people realized that, for the first time in its history, the positions of mayor, police chief, and city council president all belonged to the same person—and that person was a woman! But Landes didn’t break pace. She dispatched bluecoats to close the town’s most reprehensible speakeasies and gambling joints. Other violators shut down voluntarily to avoid Her Honor’s righteous wrath. A special detail was assigned to investigate beat officers and boot out any who’d benefited from graft or bribes.
Incensed Brown supporters and threatened vice operators blizzarded the mayor in Manhattan with telegrams, begging him to immediately begin his three-day train journey home. Meanwhile, Doc’s staff supposedly plotted an early end to Landes’ reformist reign. With Brown still a day out from Puget Sound, his secretary had a pair of the mayor’s suitcases dropped off at one of his favorite breakfast haunts, and then instructed Brown’s chauffeur to retrieve them before picking Landes up for work. Bertha naturally inquired about the luggage, but the equally duped driver could say only, “It appears that the mayor is back in town.” This impression was reinforced by what Landes found in Brown’s office: another suitcase lying open with a pair of the mayor’s shoes inside; some current-edition New York newspapers; and a lighted cigar reclining beside Brown’s prized autographed photo of perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Convinced that Doc Brown had indeed returned, Landes cooled her plans to shake up more city agencies.
Mayor Brown soon set about undoing Landes’ accomplishments. But not before the national press could applaud her audacious 10-day rule. “Men in the past have been wont to talk patronizingly of ‘women’s instinct’ as opposed to ‘man's reason,’” editorialized the Los Angeles Times. “Seattle seems to prove that an instinct for getting things done is far more useful in the world than an intellect that only talks about them.”
Not all local media were pleased, however. As the Seattle Argus groused, Landes “proved conclusively that woman’s sphere is in the home or at any rate that hers is not at the head of the city government.”
Two years more, and the Argus would be eating those words.
* * *As the first woman mayor of a major American city, Bertha Landes helped pave the way for all women in politics. Yet she was hardly your classic feminist. “In fact,” explained one of her longtime friends, “she was decidedly opposed to the women’s suffrage movement when it was launched, believing that a woman’s place was in her home, with her children.”
Landes’ own upbringing had been very traditional. She was born Bertha Ethel Knight at Ware, Massachusetts, on October 19, 1868. Her family’s pious American roots wound all the way back to the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony. The youngest among nine children, she watched at least two of her siblings find their way into circles of fame. Her brother Austin entered the navy and eventually became commander in chief of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet. Sister Jessie married David Starr Jordan, an ichthyologist and president of Indiana University, who later headed Stanford University. As a woman in the 19th century, it seemed unlikely that Bertha could attain renown except through marriage. Still, she was too filled with intelligence and dynamism to wait quietly until some ambitious gent swooned before her perennial smile, alert dark eyes, and olive skin.
In 1888 Bertha went to live with the Jordans in Bloomington, Indiana, and enrolled at her brother-in-law’s university. After only three years, she’d earned a degree in history. She had also developed an abiding interest in politics. This was during the rise of Progressivism, a movement largely among middle-class, educated, and urban Americans who believed in trust busting, public welfare reforms, and a graduated income tax—all intended to restrain the corrupting power of the nation’s wealthy minority. President Theodore Roosevelt was Progressivism’s poster child, and he incorporated the movement’s liberal precepts (at least temporarily) into the Republican agenda. David Starr Jordan was a great fan of Roosevelt’s and helped inculcate Bertha with progressive ideals. As a result, she thereafter labeled herself a Republican, though even before her mayoral election the GOP was already turning more conservative, away from egalitarian activism.
One other thing her college experience provided Bertha was an introduction to geology student Henry Landes. Despite conventional wisdom of their era, which libeled highly educated women as “unfit” for matrimony, he appreciated her strength and individuality. The pair were wed in January 1894 and the next year moved to Seattle, a town that by then had already survived fire and fiscal disaster and seemed stubbornly on its way to success. Henry joined the faculty at the University of Washington, recently moved from downtown to a single building (Denny Hall) on the north shore of Union Bay. Bertha slipped comfortably into motherhood. She bore three children, the two oldest of whom died early, and then adopted a 9-year-old girl. The family built a two-story University District home, at the corner of Northeast 45th Street and Brooklyn Avenue (a site now occupied by a hotel), where they fended away cows loping up from the Green Lake farmlands and engaged impoverished students in debate over copious helpings of Bertha’s Boston baked beans. (She later joked that her beans won her a good thousand votes from appreciative UW alumni in the city.)
(Left) Henry Landes
Careerwise, Henry rode a fast track, being named dean of the new College of Science and very nearly the UW’s president. His wife had family duties to think about, but as their children grew, Bertha indulged other interests. “[S]he had to keep busy,” her adopted daughter, Viola, told an interviewer in 1965. “She wasn’t aggressive, but if she wasn’t engaged in planning something or other, she was bored to tears.” The future mayor volunteered for work at the University Congregational Church and the Red Cross, and she seemed ubiquitous in women’s clubs.
Today, clubwork seems a quaint avocation. But for middle-class ladies of Bertha Landes’ time, it offered unique chances to discuss community and world issues, as well as a friendly forum in which they could amass the self-confidence necessary to secure more influential roles in male-dominated society. It was through her leadership of several clubs that Landes first attracted the favorable notice of local business and government archons. In 1921, after she’d organized a major three-day exhibit of the latest home-related products, Mayor Hugh Caldwell gave her his personal stamp of approval by tapping her as the only woman member of an ad hoc commission charged with suggesting remedies for the city’s intractable unemployment problems.
* * *More important than what this commission accomplished (very little) was that it broadened Bertha Landes’ name familiarity. By 1922, women’s organizations—and even a few men who’d come to respect her management abilities—urged her to try for a city council seat, along with another woman, boardinghouse operator Kathryn Miracle.
The odds weighed heavily against Bertha. Washington women had earned the right to vote in 1910 (a full decade before enfranchisement was extended nationwide), but many of them continued to eschew the polls. Although a female school teacher had been elected to the Kirkland City Council in 1911, Seattle’s Republican plutocracy believed that women in public office would be unacceptably bad for business. Candidate Landes had to present herself in such a way as to not threaten men (who might be offended by political ambition and anti-vice zealotry in a woman) or offend more traditional women (who saw their place in the home, not on the stump). Yet she also had to prove she was decisive and knowledgeable enough to fully represent the moral and welfare concerns of Seattle’s distaff element (40 percent of the population). The contradictions involved made many of her speeches sound like apologies for running. But thanks to the passionate assistance of clubwomen in her campaign, when votes were tallied in May 1922, Bertha Landes had won a landslide victory and pulled Kathryn Miracle onto the council aboard her coattails.
At just over five feet tall, Bertha Landes was not physically intimidating. Nor was she a fiery orator. Police Chief Severyns once joked that “Compared with Mrs. Landes, ‘Silent’ Cal Coolidge is a circus spieler.” However, she possessed what the New York World described as “calm tenacity.” Marshalling this alongside her probity and felicitous demeanor, the new councilwoman was unexpectedly able to get things done. In her four years on the council, she could take principal credit for establishing a city planning commission, supporting public utilities, and stiffening regulations on allegedly salacious dance halls.
Downtown Seattle in the mid-1920s
If anything blocked more systemic change, Landes believed, it was Mayor Brown. He preferred a laissez-faire approach to governance, especially when it came to taming prostitution, drinking, and Seattle’s other vivid vices. While Landes “realizes that a seaport cannot be run like a Sunday school,” as one pro-labor newspaper phrased it, she and Brown often butted heads over matters of “civic decency.” On most occasions he prevailed; but she notched up her triumphs, too, including her legendary 1924 reform spree as acting mayor.
Landes finally pulled out her heavy guns against Doc Brown when she proposed eliminating the office of mayor altogether. As other metropolises had done, she pushed to substitute a professional city manager in Seattle, someone beholden to the council who would run the town like a big business. It was a bold proposition, too bold for many voters. But Bertha refused to abandon it—even if it meant she would have to run for mayor herself in 1926 and defeat Brown in order to blunt his opposition to the plan.
“I filed for Mayor much against my own personal inclinations,” Landes would insist repeatedly. She didn’t, though, do so without careful calculation. By her figuring, she could win Doc Brown’s seat and at the same time convince voters to sign off on the city manager plan. Although this would mean she’d never actually assume the mayor’s mantle, as president of the city council she’d still have gained the power necessary to overhaul municipal government. Furthermore, Landes told the newspapers (most of which eventually endorsed her candidacy) that if the city manager proposal lost but she unseated Brown, she would run the mayor’s office “as nearly like a city manager as the laws will permit.”
It was a hard-fought campaign. Doc’s backers spread rumors that, as mayor, “bluenose Bertha” would curtail Seattleites’ personal liberties. Bertha struck back with allegations that under Brown, “general police and criminal conditions here are intolerable.” This seemed to be confirmed by the phenomenal success of local rumrunner Roy Olmstead, whose trial for violating the Prohibition Act was concurrent with the Landes-Brown race. Bertha didn’t have to run as the women’s candidate for mayor, the way she had for the council. Instead, she cast herself as an anti-politician, someone free from the ties of finance and favor that held Mayor Brown in check.
The city manager idea earned a resounding “no” from voters. But 57-year-old Landes triumphed, if by fewer than 6,000 votes. And one of her first official acts was to fire William Severyns—the police chief Brown had reinstated after Bertha’s 10-day coup.
* * *“Big Bertha,” as Seattle’s criminal contingent came to call her—with equal measures of derision and respect—began her days at 9 a.m., when a chauffeur picked her up at the Wilsonian Apartments on University Avenue (where she and Henry Landes had moved to enjoy their maturity), and they usually continued into a nighttime schedule of speechmaking. She proved to be a chief exec with an uncommonly strong social conscience and popular ideals. “Play the game fairly,” she once declared. “Meet life honestly—never whine and play the coward, but take life as it comes. ... Don’t be a shirker but do be a worker. Above all, so conduct yourself that you can look your own soul in the face. You cannot be true to yourself without being true to everyone else.”
Almost from the hour of her inauguration, there was speculation that she might be the woman man enough to become governor of Washington or even take control of the White House. Male observers periodically remarked how her mind worked more like a man’s than like a woman’s. “Was that a compliment, or was it not?” Landes once mused. “I never did decide one way or the other.”
Bertha pursued her goals with a diligence and effectiveness that was often referred to as “civic housekeeping.” She worked to keep down Lake Washington pollution and to put up a new public hospital. She made wide-ranging improvements in City Light, expanded the parks system, installed qualified pros at the helm of Seattle’s public works departments, saved the street railway system from immediate financial collapse, and was way ahead of the curve in advocating a merger of city and King County governments. She settled petty disputes between local law-enforcement agencies in order to win their unified support in curbing bootlegging and reducing traffic accidents. (By 1930, Seattle had one car for every four residents and more than its share of roadway mishaps.) Aside from the ruckuses she caused by trying to lower the wages of older city workers and enlist “stool pigeons” to augment police protections, her administration was remarkably without scandal.
As the late newspaper columnist Emmett Watson put it in his book Once Upon a Time in Seattle, Landes “had no agenda beyond being the best mayor Seattle ever had.”
(Right) Frank Edwards
Yet only two years after she entered city hall, Seattle voters booted her out in favor of Frank Edwards, a poseur Progressive and the shady proprietor of several second-rate movie houses. “Old boy” politics was partly to blame. Edwards had twice as much money as Bertha in his campaign war chest, much of it collected from businesses that feared Bertha’s civic-minded intrusions into their affairs. Rather than debate Landes in public, he ran a steadily negative media campaign, during which he convinced Seattleites—against all the facts—that their city had suffered under Landes. Edwards even used Bertha’s storied legislative acumen and snowdrift of newspaper endorsements against her, painting her as too mired in “the system” to recognize its failures. And he wasn’t above shaming Seattle for obeisance to “petticoat politics.” “Elect Frank Edwards,” read his pointedly sexist campaign slogan, “the Man You’ll Be Proud to Call Mayor.” (After Landes lost, the Portland Oregonian ridiculed Seattle for wanting to be a “he-man’s town” and suggested that, at Edwards’ inauguration, a pair of masculine breeches might fittingly be flown from the city hall flagpole.)
But Bertha had to bear some credit for her defeat. She’d offended civil service employees by encouraging her departments to lay off workers based on their efficiency, rather than just seniority. She had failed in six years of elected service to reach out sufficiently to the working class, and still left the impression of being a well-to-do bluenose. As Sandra Haarsager stated in a recent biography, Bertha Knight Landes of Seattle: Big City Mayor, Her Honor may also have erred by currying favor with business rather than continuing to capitalize on her identity as “the woman’s candidate.” At age 59, her career as an elected official was over. Landes relocated to the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she died in 1943—12 years after voters recalled Frank Edwards from office for refusing to enforce anti-vice laws.
Ironically, Bertha’s success as a manager may ultimately have doomed her as a lawmaker. For a city accustomed to at least half-venal mayors, men such as Hiram Gill and Doc Brown, she may simply have charted too even and sane a course. As The Nation noted after her 1928 defeat, “in American cities today good-housekeeping is not good politics, shameful as it is to admit it.”
READ MORE: “7 Facts About Bertha Knight Landes, First Female Mayor of a Major American City,” by Jocelyn Sears (Mental Floss); “Seattle’s Female Mayors Have More in Common Than You’d Think,”
by Knute Berger (Crosscut).