Bertha Knight Landes

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Bertha Knight Landes
Seattle Mayor Bertha Knight Landes, circa 1926.gif
Bertha Knight Landes c. 1926
38th Mayor of Seattle
In office
Preceded byEdwin J. Brown
Succeeded byFrank E. Edwards
Personal details
Born(1868-10-19)October 19, 1868
Ware, Massachusetts
DiedNovember 29, 1943(1943-11-29) (aged 75)
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Spouse(s)Henry M. Landes
Alma materIndiana University
ProfessionMayor, City Council Member, City Council President, Teacher

Bertha Ethel Knight Landes (October 19, 1868 – November 29, 1943) was the first female mayor of a major American city, serving as mayor of Seattle, Washington from 1926 to 1928.[1] After years of civic activism, primarily with women's organizations, she was elected to the Seattle City Council in 1922 and became council president in 1924.

Early years[edit]

Landes was born in Ware, Massachusetts to Charles Sanford Knight and Cordelia Cutter. Her father, a veteran of the Union Army, moved the family to Worcester in 1873. She attended Indiana University, where she received a degree in history and political science in 1891.

After three years of teaching at the Classical High School in Worcester, Massachusetts, she married geologist Henry Landes, whom she had met as a student at Indiana University. The couple had three children, one of whom was adopted. Landes moved to Seattle in 1895 when her husband Henry became a member of the University of Washington faculty. He would later become Dean of the College of Sciences there.[2]

Civic activism[edit]

In Seattle, Landes was active in women's organizations, including the Women's University Club, the Women's Century Club, and the Women's Auxiliary of University Congregational Church.[2] She was president of the Washington State chapter of the League of Women Voters.[3]

In 1921, as president of the Seattle Federation of Women's Clubs, she orchestrated a weeklong Women's Educational Exhibit for Washington Manufacturers. Staffed by more than 1,000 clubwomen, it bolstered the spirits of the business community during a period of severe recession. That year, Landes was appointed by the city mayor to serve on a commission studying unemployment,[3] the only woman on the five-member commission.[2]

In 1922, Landes organized "The Women's Civic League" (renamed the "Women's City Club" in 1923). The purpose of the club was to educate women about local, state, national and world politics, and in cooperation with other organizations, to work towards securing the welfare of the city and improving civic conditions. Within a year it had more than 500 members.[4]

Political career[edit]

Mary Davenport Engberg, Bertha Knight Landes, Esther Stark Maltby, Mary J. Elmendorf, Esther Shepard, Alice D. Engley Beek, Ruth Karr McKee

Landes and Kathryn Miracle were the first women to serve on the Seattle City Council; both were elected in 1922. Landes became council president after her reelection in 1924. She became acting mayor in 1924 when Mayor Edwin J. "Doc" Brown left town in June to attend the 1924 Democratic National Convention. Angry at what she saw as police corruption and lawless activity, Landes fired Police Chief William B. Severyns. She began her own law and order campaign, closing down illegal activities throughout the city, including lotteries, punchboards and speakeasies. Upon his return, Brown reinstated the police chief.[3]

When Brown ran for another two-year term in 1926, Landes ran against him, on the platform that "municipal housecleaning" was needed in the Seattle government. Landes easily won the election in March, by more than 6,000 votes.[5]

During her term, she advocated municipal ownership of utilities such as Seattle City Light and street railways. She also fought hard against bootleggers and reckless drivers, and strictly enforced regulations for dance halls and cabarets. The Civic Auditorium, later renovated as the Seattle Opera House, is one of her accomplishments.[5] She appointed qualified professionals to head city departments, improve public transportation and parks, and put the city's finances in order.[2]

Landes ran for a second term in 1928. Although endorsed by newspapers, the Central Labor Council, the Prohibition Party, and women's organizations, Landes was easily defeated by Frank Edwards, a political unknown,[5] by a vote of 59,000 to 40,000, in a record turnout.[6]

Later years[edit]

Landes became the first woman to serve as Moderator of Washington's Conference of Congregational and Christian Churches and was also elected national president of the Soroptimists, a professional women's organization. She wrote many articles for national publications, often urging women to enter politics, their "natural sphere."[5]

During the 1930s, Landes was chair of the Sewing Room Work for the Women's Division of the Mayor's Commission for Improved Employment. She oversaw 673 women who sewed garments for women and children to "help improve the unemployment situation."[3]

From 1933 to 1936, Landes and her husband led student groups, sponsored by the University of Washington, to the Far East. Following his death, she agreed to lead the tour alone for another summer. Then, in failing health, she curbed her public activities, but continued to live independently at the Wilsonian Hotel in Seattle's University District until 1941, when she moved to Pacific Palisades, California. She died at her son's home in Ann Arbor, Michigan on November 29, 1943, at the age of 75.[2] She was interred at Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park in Seattle.


Today, the largest meeting room at Seattle City Hall is named in her honor. The tunnel boring machine used to construct the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel under downtown Seattle was nicknamed "Bertha" after her.[7]

A wing of Read Residence Center at Indiana University is named for her.

Marie Dressler plays a character based on her in Politics (MGM 1931) set in the fictional Lake City.


  1. ^ Seattle City Council Members, 1869-Present Chronological Listing, Seattle City Archives. Accessed online 19 July 2008.
  2. ^ a b c d e Mildred Andrews (March 2, 2003). "Landes, Bertha Knight (1868-1943)". HistoryLink. Retrieved 2012-09-24.
  3. ^ a b c d "Mayor Bertha Knight Landes". Seattle Municipal Archives. Retrieved 2012-09-24.
  4. ^ Esther Benson (2008). "Guide to the Women's City Club Records1922-1973". University of Washington. Retrieved 2012-09-24.
  5. ^ "Seattle Elects Edwards Mayor". Spokesman-Review. Associated Press. March 14, 1928.
  6. ^ Swenson, Ty (December 11, 2012). "Meet Bertha, the world's largest tunnel boring machine set to transform Seattle's waterfront". West Seattle Herald.

Further reading[edit]

  • Mildred Tanner Andrews, Woman's Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), p. 132-134
  • Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1921-1940: From Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992)
  • Sandra Haarsager, Bertha Knight Landes: Big-City Mayor (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994)
  • Doris H. Pieroth, "Bertha Knight Landes: The Woman Who Was Mayor," in Women in Pacific Northwest History: an Anthology, ed. by Karen J. Blair (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 83-106.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Edwin J. Brown
Mayor of Seattle
Succeeded by
Frank E. Edwards