Bertha Knight Landes
First Mayor of a major U.S. city
“Since politics — until recently —
has been a man’s world,
men, as a whole are
responsible for its corruption.”
- Bertha Knight Landes
When Progressive Bertha Knight Landes took the reins as the first woman mayor of
a major U.S. city in 1926, she tightened the budget, raised standards,
and pushed to clean up the town. It was bold reform in a time of widespread corruption
in Seattle and a male-dominated workforce.
Born October 19, 1868, in Ware, Massachusetts, Bertha Ethel Knight grew up with
strong, influential parents. With dark hair, black eyes and olive skin, Landes was
the youngest of nine children. Eventually, she enrolled at Indiana University and
upon graduation, taught school.
Just after the New Year in 1894, Bertha E. Knight married Henry M. Landes, who had
earned a master’s degree at Harvard University. One year later, the couple moved
to Washington State; Henry Landes had accepted a teaching position at the University
of Washington. (He was later promoted to Dean of the College of Sciences.)
The Landes’ marriage survived the unimaginable. Their second child Robert died in
infancy. Their oldest daughter Katherine, “a beautiful and talented child,” had
surgery at only 9 years old to “reduce the size of ‘her’ tonsils” – but she was
given chloroform as an anesthetic and never regained consciousness. Only their youngest
son Kenneth lived. A couple of years after Katherine’s death, the Landes’ adopted
In 1922, Landes launched a political career on the Seattle City Council. She served
four years in all—two of them as Council President.
In 1924, Landes became acting mayor and famously fired the police chief for allowing
a wide open town and ignoring prohibition.
When she ran for the post in 1926, she made history as the first and only woman
mayor to preside over the city. She continued a city-wide cleanup of what was widely
viewed as one of the most corrupt towns on the West Coast.
That historic election made big news. The New York Times reported on March, 1926:
“She does not wear short skirts, bob her hair or smoke cigarettes.” Therefore, the
paper concluded, Landes did not represent the “new woman” of the time period.
Landes opted to run for a second term. When the campaign for re-election launched,
opponent Frank Edwards, a former theater operator, dodged a debate. According to
The New York Times, the move prompted Landes to sit on a platform accompanied by
an empty chair and pose a question to the audience: “Can it be true that a man is
afraid of a woman?”
She lost reelection as the city’s executive by roughly 19,000 votes. Ultimately,
historians believe it was Landes’ support for public power and municipal utilities
that caused her defeat.