Flynn's Harp: Centennial of women's suffrage in Washington (9-8-10)
Posted on 9/9/2010 by Mike Flynn
In the 100 years since women gained the right to vote in Washington State, they’ve left their mark on business, education, community and elective office. So in celebration of the Centennial of suffrage, 100 women past and present will be acknowledged for achieving “firsts” with a special dinner event Nov. 6 at the Seattle Sheraton.
The celebratory event is called “Women Unbound: Celebrate the Legacy” and will serve as both a fund-raising opportunity for the Women’s Center at the University of Washington and as a reminder of the impact women have had in Washington since they gained the vote.
“We’ll honor the suffragettes who fought for and won the vote 100 years ago and celebrate the progress women have made since then,” said Edie Hilliard, member of the UW Women’s Center board and of the committee putting the event together. She explained the celebration of “firsts” as “women who have been first in their field or first to achieve high honor in our state.”
Eileen Concannon, a Seattle attorney who has chaired the board of the UW Women’s Center for 10 years, said the hope is that “recognizing the accomplishments of all these 100 will create a realization on the part of women across the state that a lot of groundbreaking has gone on, and is still going on.”
It’s interesting to read a bit of the history of women’s suffrage efforts in Washington State and to learn that the state has been a leader over the years, both in the effort to bring women the right to vote and in the leading-edge roles women have played since then.
The 1910 victory in Washington women’s campaign for the right to vote made this the fifth state in the nation to permanently grant women that right. It was also the first state to take that step in the 20th century, 14 years since the last previous state had done so and thus, it is said, Washington’s action reanimated the national suffrage movement, leading ultimately to the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.
There’s undoubtedly a temptation on the part of men today to say: “Wait a minute. We’re at a time when we have a woman governor, two women senators, women CEOs of major companies across the state, women leaders in every facet of business and community. Aren’t we past the point of singling out and celebrating accomplishments with a focus on gender?”
And when the Women’s Center in 2009 faced a 50 percent cut in the funds the UW provides, there were those in the University administration who made the point that since women made up more than half of the student population at UW, they really didn’t need a gender-focused center any longer.
Hilliard, who built a national reputation in the broadcasting, took on both of those questions.
To those who suggest it’s time to move on from focusing on gender in recognizing accomplishments, Hilliard responds: “we have 14 percent of members of Congress and 8 percent of the country’s corporate-board positions. And women still need reinforcement by holding up examples of what they can hope to accomplish.”
And she addressed the value of the Women’s Center in an impassioned plea to the UW board of regents in spring of 2009, stressing the fact that gender issues remained a part of the reality facing women students, and women in the community.
Perhaps in part due to Hilliard’s driving home the value of the Women’s Center programs, in addition to making the point that Washington State University’s women’s center receives “more than twice the funding at a university half the size,” the Regents restored most of the money slated to be cut from the center’s budget.
Hilliard is not among the 100 being honored. But well she might be, having been singled out in 2000 as the nation’s number one woman in radio broadcasting at a time when she was head of Jones Radio Network, having already built her own successful national radio syndication company.
Women in elective office, including the governor, two U.S. senators, the chief justice of the State Supreme Court and a third of the legislature, will be among those recognized at the event. And they have some important figures whose footsteps they are following.
The first woman to win elective office in Washington State was Bertha Landis Knight in 1926 as she became Seattle’s mayor, the first women mayor of a major U.S. city, running on a platform of “municipal housecleaning,” a fitting slogan for a woman vowing to clean up city government.
In 1959, Republican Catherine May became the first woman member of Congress from Washington State, followed soon by Democrat Julia Butler Hansen, both achieving higher office before the women’s movement really had gathered momentum.
But in reality, with the noteworthy exception of Landis, May and Hansen it was almost half a century after they gained the right to vote nationally alongside men that women began to advance toward full equality in Washington, as elsewhere in the country.
It seemed to me, on reflection, that the movement reached an important plateau with the arrival of the song “I am woman” as a top-of-charts hit in 1973.
From its opening lines, “I am woman, hear me roar in numbers too big to ignore;” through its various verses, that song seemed to give words to the vague sense of arrival that the women’s movement itself had engendered.
I went onto YouTube this week and typed in the name of singer Helen Reddy to bring up the song, and renew the sense I felt at the time of the impact the song had on the commitment of women not just to be equal but to surpass.
It was a good reminder (a satisfying one for those of us with daughters and granddaughters, in addition to spouses) of the steps that led to the emergence of women as equal players in the Washington State of today.
Sally Jewell, first woman bank president in Washington State, guiding West One Bank before its merger into Security Pacific in the early 1990s. Now CEO of global outdoor-recreation company REI.
Dixie Lee Ray, first woman chair of the Atomic Energy Commission and first woman governor of Washington State, elected in 1976. Her defeat by Republican John Spellman as she sought a second term….
Paula Reynolds, chair and CEO of Safeco Corp.
Mother Joseph…Josephine nordoff, the bon…tugboat annie
Assunta Eng, founder of Seattle Chinese Post and Northwest Asian Weekly, first woman Chinese member of Rotary anywhere in the world.