Meeting Celebrates Contributions From Great Women in the Northwest

Speaker Nancy Alarcon is reflected in the portraits of two “Great Women of the Pacific Northwest,” the title of her recent speech to Maple Valley Historical Society (MVHS). Photo by D’Ann Tedford
Speaker Nancy Alarcon is reflected in the portraits of two “Great Women of the Pacific Northwest,” the title of her recent speech to Maple Valley Historical Society (MVHS). Photo by D’Ann Tedford

“We want to appreciate those who have gone before us; those who helped shape the Northwest. We will celebrate meaningful contributions of women. Then we’ll do a bit of reminiscing,” said the guest speaker.

‘Socializing’ was also on Maple Valley Historical Society’s agenda but the history of unprecedented, dedicated Northwest women from the mid-1800’s to the late 20thcentury led to more reminiscing than socializing among the two-dozen men and women in attendance.

MVHS held its yearly Hobart meeting by inviting speaker Professor Nancy Alarcon, a Principal Lecturer and Director of the UW Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences. Alarcon has a personal fascination with the innovative and dedicated women who were passionate about changing cultural norms. The Pacific Northwest was a beneficiary of the resilience of those women.

Ironically, Professor Alarcon’s presentation opened with reference to three men. The first, a Methodist minister in Washington Territory, was John Blaine who had ventured to the Northwest with his wife, Catharine. Before their marriage in 1853, Catharine Paine’s signature, at age 18, is on the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a document signed in 1848 at the nation’s first women’s rights convention in New York. The Sentiments she signed were called “a bold statement for education, equality, and service.”

Washington Territory in 1860 was described by Professor Alarcon in terms of population, culture and income: total 11,594 population with 11,138 white, 426 Indian, and 30 ‘free’ coloreds. Farmers and farm laborers were top two of the top ten leading occupations while 76 blacksmiths were at the bottom. In 1860 day laborers earned $11.20 a week while women, as domestic laborers, were paid $6.62 per week.

In her slight asideto jobs and culture, a second prominent man mentioned by Alarcon was determined California businessman, John Pinnel, who in 1860 sought opportunity in Washington Territory. He brought in women of ill repute, she said, and opened a brothel, Illahee.

Asa Mercer was opposite of Pinnel on the cultural spectrum. In Massachusetts, 1864, Mercer sought high-minded women, like teachers, who would “exert an elevating influence” and alleviate the lack of women in Puget Sound. His goal was to transform the culture of an area where men were ten to one in man/woman ratio. Mercer traveled west near the conclusion of the Civil War and its economic ruin for towns large and small and for any who sought employment. The newly relocated women, as young as age 19, were eventually called “The Mercer Girls” who were revered for their role as historic role models in education and impact on the cultural trend – smart, creative women working together towards change.

Other “Great Women of the Pacific Northwest” in the MVHS presentation were: Mary Lou Sinclair, Snohomish educator who set precedent by initiating education of teachers and musicians. She is most noted for learning the languages of many Indian tribes, thus bridging community gaps; Sarah Yesler, Seattle’s first librarian (1869) who began her career by opening a loan library, the future Seattle Public Library. Prior to the library, a limited alternative for social life in pioneer towns was a church or saloon; Mary Olney Brown, Oregon Trail pioneer in 1852, was an early Washington suffragist. She attempted to vote in 1869 and was part of a network of renegade women who went from town to Northwest town speaking and writing on behalf of women’s right to vote. American women were guaranteed the right to vote by the 19thamendment in 1920; Clara McCartyin 1876 was the very first graduate from the University of Washington. While 17 students enrolled the same year as she had, she was the only one to finish; Alice Lord, a 23-year old waitress changed Seattle policy as an advocate for labor unions and safety rules. She and 64 other women founded Seattle Waitresses Union Local 240, now called Dining Employees Local No. 2. Her philosophy, “Even horses get to rest one day a week.”

Bertha Knight Landes, Seattle mayor from 1926-1928, transformed Seattle during the prohibition era when rum running, prostitution and police on-the-take were prolific. She challenged the police chief, “You need to take care of this or you’ll lose your job.” She then followed through. (At this point, MVHS President Dick Peacock inserted a joke about Bertha, Seattle’s tunnel drilling machine). “Bertha the mayor did not break down,” he said. Due to her innovative spirit, Seattle’s moral and ethical health skyrocketed during the short stint with Landes as the first female mayor in a major American city.

Dixie Lee Ray was the state’s 17thand first female governor, 1976-1981. Ray was a marine biologist familiar on a weekly TV hit show and associate professor at the UW. As the new-hire director of a science museum that was nearly bankrupt, Dixie Lee Ray totally overhauled Seattle’s hoary old museum, the Pacific Science Center. Ray was born in 1914 and was elected as a governor who had no political experience. Her common joke, “I was much too old to start at the bottom so I decided to start at the top.”  As state governor, Ray audited state salaries and programs and she balanced the state budget while also ensuring the first full funding of basic education.

Dorothy Stimson Bullittpurchased a small radio station in 1947 that became King Broadcasting Company, the 13thlargest consortium radio market in the U.S. and “one of the finest broadcasting empires in the nation.” She was the first woman in the country to buy and manage a television station. A profoundly philanthropic and civically oriented woman with education, leadership, and politics, Bullitt was born at her wealthy family’s home in Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill. Her biographies are titled “An Uncommon Life” and “Giving It All Away.” She inherited her mother’s Berkshire Hathaway stock shares in 1996 and gave away more than $100 million in grants through “The Sunshine Lady Foundation” that supports women and children in need.

Maple Valley Historical Society holds three annual meetings throughout the area: April’s Hobart meeting at the Hobart Church, February’s Maple Valley meeting at the MVHS museum on Witte Road, and September’s meeting in Ravensdale (location to be determined). Further information and offers of volunteer service can be directed to MVHS President Dick Peacock, 425-432-0141.