7 Facts About Bertha Knight Landes, First Female Mayor of a Major American City
Bertha Knight Landes was Seattle’s first and only (so far) female mayor—and the first woman elected mayor of a major American city. Read on for seven facts about this determined, no-nonsense early city leader.
1. A MOTHER AND HOUSEWIFE, SHE FIRST ENTERED THE PUBLIC SPHERE THROUGH WOMEN’S CLUBS.
Born in 1868 as the youngest of nine children, Bertha Knight grew up in Massachusetts. She studied history and political science at the University of Indiana, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1891. After a few years as a teacher, she married a fellow Indiana student, Henry Landes, who became a professor of geology, prompting a move to Seattle when he secured a job at the University of Washington. In Seattle, Bertha Knight Landes gave birth to three children; the oldest, Katherine, died at age nine, while a son, Roger, did not survive infancy. A second son, Kenneth, came along later, and the family also adopted a daughter named Viola.
Landes first entered the civic arena through her involvement in women’s clubs. Popularized in the years following the Civil War, these clubs were initially organized to provide women with avenues for self-improvement and cultural opportunities. By the late 19th century, they had also become centers of political action for women who, otherwise generally kept out of politics, desired a method of civic engagement. Clubs lobbied for temperance, labor regulations, educational reform, improved public health, and other progressive causes.
Landes became heavily involved in club life after moving to Seattle. She was a charter member of a group called the Sunset Club and was actively involved in the Women’s University Club. In 1906, she joined the Women’s Century Club, which had been founded 15 years earlier by prominent suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt. From 1918 to 1920, Landes served as the club’s president, mobilizing its resources and members to assist the war effort after the U.S. entered World War I. She organized five Red Cross auxiliaries and then, feeling she could do more, helped found the Washington Minute Women, a group that raised money to support soldiers and their families.
Landes had, by this point, become a prominent figure in Seattle civic affairs. From 1920 to 1922, she served as president of the Seattle Federation of Women's Clubs, and during that tenure, she planned a week-long economic showcase for Washington manufacturers that would be run by her and staffed by over a thousand clubwomen. The successful Women’s Educational Exhibit for Washington Manufacturers brought Landes to the attention of local businessmen and political leaders, and later in 1921, when Mayor Hugh Caldwell created a five-member commission to tackle Seattle’s unemployment problem, he appointed Landes as the solitary female member.
Landes so impressed her fellow commission members that one suggested she run for city council, insisting, “We need a woman in the city council, a woman of your type.” Landes took him at his word, and in 1922 ran her own campaign for a council seat with the help of four fellow clubwomen. While existing Seattle politicians worked within a political machine that ran on graft and favors, Landes staffed her 1922 campaign entirely with political amateurs and kept to a tight budget, avoiding “entangling alliances” with interest groups. She wanted to maintain “clean hands” amidst rampant political corruption, presenting herself as a reformer who would work to stop illegal gambling and foster a more upright police force. She succeeded, winning 80% of the vote, more than any previous candidate for Seattle’s city council. A second councilor elected in that race was another woman, Kathryn Miracle, and the two became the first women to serve on the Seattle City Council.
2. SHE WANTED CHANGE, BUT SHE WAS A REALIST.
As one of her first acts on city council, Landes presented an ordinance to close Seattle’s taxi dance halls. At such establishments, working-class women called “taxi dancers” would dance with men for money, often while encouraging the men to buy alcohol. (These women occasionally also sold sex.) Bertha Landes looked at dance halls and saw dens of vice, but for many working-class women, they offered the best way to put food on the table. Charging 10 cents a dance, a woman could make $4 or $5 a night at the dance hall, while a week of factory work earned her less than $14. Several taxi dancers met with Landes in her home, explaining that their work in the dance halls was an economic necessity. Their appeal, combined with strong opposition from other members of city council, led Landes to alter her law so that it would regulate the dance halls rather than shutter them.
Passed in 1923, Landes’s ordinance mandated that dance halls obtain licenses, hire female chaperones, not allow indecent acts, and maintain bright lighting [PDF]. Landes was lambasted in public hearings and even received death threats for her crusade against the halls, but managed to push regulation through an unfriendly city council anyway. She was proud of the ordinance, which curbed the worst of dance hall excess while allowing women to keep their jobs.
Landes was a realist, not a radical. She wrote in Collier’s in 1929, “I believe in a sane, wise and reasonable enforcement of any law, including the prohibition law, and in the preservation of public decency.” She was a practical politician, noting the “necessity for compromise in small things in the hope of providing for greater ones.” But while Landes understood that vice would never be entirely banished from Seattle, she had little patience for those who let it run rampant.
3. SHE MADE A SPLASH AS ACTING MAYOR.
In June 1924, Landes was elected president of the city council, and when Seattle’s mayor, Edwin J. Brown, left town later that month to attend the Democratic National Convention in New York City, she became acting mayor. By this time, Seattle was home to a corrupt police force that winked at Prohibition, and was a haven for illegal behavior. Henry A. Chadwick of the Argus newspaper wrote in November 1923 that the town was a legal free-for-all: “Saloons, in the guise of soft drink places, started up on every hand. Lewd women rented apartments and did a big business selling booze … Seattle has become … so rotten that it stinks.” Bertha Landes was not having it.
Shortly before Landes took over as acting mayor, the city’s police chief, William B. Severyns, argued to journalists that lax enforcement of prohibition, gambling, and prostitution laws was not his fault, as he had at least a hundred corrupt officers on his police force and local civil service regulations prevented him from firing them. On June 23, 1924, Acting Mayor Landes called Severyns into her office and handed him a letter demanding he remove all hundred of these apparently crooked policemen within 24 hours—she would handle the Civil Service Commission, if they were really the ones preventing the removal of corrupt officers. Severyns was furious that a woman temporarily in charge would dare give him orders, and he responded with his own letter, pointing to a section of the city charter allowing the mayor to take over the police department in an emergency situation. Landes later characterized his response as a “jeer,” writing that he told her, “Be chief of police yourself, if you don't like the way things are done!”
Landes took him at his word, declaring a state of emergency, firing Severyns, appointing Inspector J.T. Mason as acting chief (before firing him less than 24 hours later), and then assuming control of the police department herself. She appointed a former assistant police chief with a reputation for honesty, Claude G. Bannick, as acting chief, and within hours, he led raids of the city’s most notorious speakeasies, lotteries, and illegal punchboards.
Word soon reached Mayor Brown in New York that Landes had declared war on Seattle’s lawbreakers—and its corrupt cops. He left the DNC early and caught a train home, arriving five days later. Upon returning, Brown immediately reinstated Chief Severyns. The mayor argued that Landes’s actions were unnecessary because “Seattle is as good and clean as any city on the American continent.”
Newspapers around the country covered the incident, often in a mocking tone, with headlines like “Chief of Police Ousted by Woman” and “Cradle-Rocking Hand Rocked Police Department.” Mayor Brown was embarrassed, complaining that the situation had “put Seattle in a bad light all over the country.” But Landes was satisfied. “I do not believe in a Puritanical administration, even if I was born in Ware, Mass,” she told a journalist, “but there should be more rigid law enforcement by our police and I believe there will be henceforth. A score of places where there was gambling two weeks ago, are closed.” Landes hoped that she had shamed Brown into keeping a tighter lid on illegal activity, but he returned Seattle to the status quo. Two years later, Landes campaigned to replace him.
4. SHE ARGUED FOR WOMEN IN POLITICS USING TRADITIONAL GENDER NORMS.
While campaigning for mayor in 1926, Landes described her platform as “municipal housekeeping.” First gaining popularity in the 1890s, the concept of municipal housekeeping justified women’s entrance into the public sphere by imagining the city as a macro version of a home. Using this logic, women’s domestic skills—like keeping to a budget and rearing moral children—could be well-applied to solving civic problems. Landes used this model to retain a traditional feminine role even while entering the masculine domain of politics.
When faced with the argument that “a woman’s place is in the home,” Landes replied that she had spent her life in the home, raising her children and supporting her husband, and only once her children were grown and married did she seek to enter public service. “I suppose some of the politicians believe I should merely stay at home and darn my husband’s socks,” she remarked to The New York Times. “Darning socks for one’s husband is a laudable occupation, no one will deny, but I found that my husband got along very well after I became a member of the City Council.”
Landes argued that since advances in technology had reduced women’s domestic workload, “if [a woman] is not to be a parasite […] she must turn her energies to public service of some kind.” But Landes proposed that only older women whose children were already grown should enter politics, and she spoke of it as a calling more than a job. In fact, she argued that male politicians were corrupt in part because they saw politics as a career, and sought to make money from their positions. Conversely, a woman would depend on her husband for financial stability, Landes assumed, and so would not be concerned about low government salaries or tempted by opportunities for graft. “Women are actually better fitted than men for the post of mayor,” Landes told the Oakland Tribune, “because they are not thinking of future political careers.”
As a candidate in the nonpartisan mayoral election (she had no declared party), Landes pledged to clean up Seattle—enforce Prohibition, shut down illegal gambling houses and brothels, and root out corruption in law enforcement. Seattle found her message appealing; she defeated the incumbent Mayor Brown by about 6000 votes, with a record voter turnout of over 90,000 (in a city of about 350,000).
5. SHE CLEANED UP SEATTLE AND TOOK CHARGE OF THE BUDGET.
Landes was serious about “closing the town” to illegal liquor, and during her tenure as mayor, the number of annual arrests for alcohol violations more than doubled. Speakeasies fled across the Seattle city line into the rest of King County, which retained its lackadaisical Prohibition enforcement. Landes also worked to root out corruption in the police department and shut down illegal gambling and prostitution. “Vice and lawlessness cannot be completely eradicated,” she later wrote, “But open flagrant violations of law should not be tolerated for an instant.”
In addition to campaigning as a moral reformer, Landes had emphasized her commitment to the bottom line. Upon taking office, she inherited a city-owned streetcar system that was hemorrhaging money. Her administration overhauled the system’s budget, cut back on less-used routes, and appealed to Washington state to refinance the entire railway, making Seattle’s streetcars profitable. A supporter of municipally owned utilities, she also cut expenses in the water department and maintained public control of City Light, the local electricity utility, which faced an attempted private takeover.
6. DON’T CALL HER THE MAYORESS.
While Landes recognized the increased pressure she faced as the first woman mayor of an American city—“In politics it commonly takes a superior woman to overcome the handicap of traditional prejudice,” she wrote in Collier’s—she also insisted that she be treated the same as a male politician. During her time on the city council, Landes demanded to be called “councilman,” like her male peers, rather than “councilwoman,” and she later wrote in the magazine Woman Citizen, “I threaten to shoot on sight, without benefit of clergy, anyone calling me the mayoress instead of the mayor.”
During her tenure as mayor, Landes refused to let her gender—and gendered ideas about respectability—stand in her way. She visited the same places and greeted the same visitors as a male city leader would; she opened baseball games, broke ground for new buildings, flew in a Navy hydroplane, and rode in a submarine. When Seattle began construction on a new dam, Landes “put on [her] oldest clothes and tramped with muddy shoes all about the site, to observe conditions at first hand.” To celebrate the opening of a railroad terminal, she drove the first electric locomotive into Seattle. She entertained foreign dignitaries, like the royal family of Romania, and American celebrities, like Charles Lindbergh. “An English woman mayor once asked me: ‘Whom do you have to do the things a woman cannot do and go to the places a woman cannot go?’” she wrote in 1929. “There were no such things, or places, in Seattle when I was mayor.”
7. SHE WAS OUSTED AFTER A SINGLE TERM.
In Landes’s day, Seattle’s mayors served two-year terms, and she faced reelection in 1928. By this point, Prohibition had become increasingly unpopular, and Seattle’s citizens were growing tired of Landes’s reformist ways. Her efforts to remove dishonest officers from the city’s police department had also won her a host of enemies. A local businessman and political unknown named Frank Edwards ran against her, funded by policemen Landes had fired, opponents of her public power plan, and those who yearned for a government that winked at liquor and gambling laws.
Edwards’s campaign spending was unprecedented in Seattle—“variously estimated at from $20,000 to $50,000 for election to a position which pays a salary of $7,500 a year,” wrote The New York Times. He employed hundreds of paid workers, purchased billboard, radio, and newspaper ads, and embarked on a general PR blitz. The campaign was light on policy proposals, and his main message seemed to be that Landes was unsuitable for office because she was a woman.
When Landes challenged him to a series of debates Edwards declined, saying, “Any married man knows the danger of getting into an argument with a woman.” So at the first planned debate Landes spoke alone, with an empty chair onstage to represent the absent Edwards. “Can it be true,” she asked the empty chair, “that a man is afraid of a woman? If we need a man as Mayor of Seattle, why is it that the man who is the nominee for this office is afraid to meet me in debate?” The New York Times wrote, “She laughs as she conducts these one-sided debates and appears to get as much ‘kick’ out of them as her hearers, and the audience is usually in an uproar.” But outside the debate hall, Edwards’s message found an audience. “Seattle is sensitive to its reputation as a he-man city,” Julia N. Budlong wrote in The Nation at the time, “It did not like to be teased about its mayor.”
During her time in politics, Landes had not created a political machine or developed a network of officials and businessmen who depended on her. Her commitment to honest government meant that she was easy to oust. Meanwhile, supporters who backed her 1926 campaign over a desire for reform were less motivated to vote now that Landes had cleaned up the city. Local newspapers including The Seattle Times endorsed Landes for mayor, but come election day, Edwards trounced her by over 19,000 votes.
Despite speculation that she might run again, Landes never reentered politics. During the 1930s, she and her husband led University of Washington students on a series of study trips to Asia. After Henry died in 1936, Landes lived alone in their apartment in Seattle, moving to California in 1941 for health reasons. She died in 1943 at age 75, in her son’s home in Michigan.
Additional Sources: “An Alumna in Politics,” Indiana Alumni Magazine, April 1939; Bertha Knight Landes of Seattle: Big-City Mayor; “Municipal Housekeeping in the American West: Bertha Knight Landes’s Entrance into Politics,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3; “The Origins of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, 1934,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 100, No. 4; “What Happened in Seattle,” The Nation, Aug. 29, 1928.