Emma Taylor Harman: A Political Citizen

Washington Talking Book & Braille Library Centenarian


"I never felt that either the men or the women that I talked to ever felt that women couldn’t do that."
- Emma Taylor Harman on being elected to the Washington State Legislature

In 1941, at the age of 29, an exceptional individual gained a seat on the Washington state legislature. No stranger to the political realm, this stalwart citizen had been attending community meetings and grange functions regularly, starting at a young age and, after working with the left-leaning Washington Commonwealth Federation, went on to establish, organize, and manage a winning political campaign with the help of family, friends, and supporters. The most impressive detail? This progressive politician was a woman, Emma Taylor Harman, born only eight years before the female population gained the right to vote nationally. Hearing Emma’s story for the first time, one’s tempted to remark on feminist theory and toss out a few “You go, girl!”s for good measure, but this is a woman who wants to be recognized for her political strategy, not her gender. Celebrating Emma’s femininity overshadows her more important accomplishment: effectively running a campaign for the people and establishing a cooperative political vision.

When we’d first talked on the phone, Emma had expressed some hesitation as to whether she would be a worthy subject for an oral history; she doubted she would be able to recall and narrate events from her past compellingly and accurately. With the help of Emma’s daughter, Jane, who was visiting from Los Angeles, I set up an interview. On a day in early September, with the first signs of Seattle’s damp autumn weather creeping in, I arrived in Emma’s West Seattle neighborhood. Passing bright houses with flowering gardens on my way, I arrived at the door of a mint green, 50’s-style cottage. I knocked and Jane answered the door, welcoming me in and leading me towards the couch where a slight, white-haired woman was sitting. I introduced myself to Emma, and though she didn’t exactly grin, I sensed a spark in her.

Washington Roots

Emma’s dedication to the Evergreen State is founded in decades-worth of family history. She was born on May 5th, 1912 in Napavine, Washington to Lily Tutt Taylor and Albert Taylor. Lily and her parents had settled in Washington in 1888. When Emma was two-years-old, the family relocated to Newcastle, a coal mining community, where her mother had lived before. With the company of three sisters, Ada, Juanita, and Ida, and four brothers, James, Claude, Ralph, and John, Emma’s childhood was spent on the family farm. The children were hard workers and contributed to the farm duties, but they also had the benefit of spending their childhoods surrounded by open land, farm animals, and fresh food. “We did some farming, small farming,” Emma recalls. “[My father] raised chickens, we raised quite a few chickens, and we had strawberries we sold, and those were the two main things, otherwise we just farmed for our own purpose.” When the Depression hit in 1929, the Taylors were grateful for their resources. By selling produce and meat, they were able to keep afloat in a time of great economic distress. “We picked berries,” Emma explains, noting that the Taylor children were always expected to help. “We’d go down and pick strawberries in the strawberry fields or raspberries in the raspberry fields, or wild blackberries. That was a three-week project ever year. And we’d sell those door-to-door.” Emma’s grandmother (WHAT’S HER NAME?) raised turkeys and sold them for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Emma spent most of her time with her family, but she describes a strong sense of community when talking about Newcastle. “We didn’t have many neighbors, [but] you knew your neighbors there better than you know your neighbors here,” she explains. Since the area was so spread out, the people of Newcastle had to rely on each other. Emma recalls carpooling with classmates to and from school, with parents switching off driving duties. The variety of ethnic backgrounds represented in Newcastle allowed Emma to realize from a young age that differences often bind groups together. “I was raised in a mixed community, this is one of the things that I think was best about my life. If you’re raised with everybody being exactly like you, it doesn’t make a good country, cause we’re a lot of different people,” Emma explains. “The people in my neighborhood, lots of them were born in Italy, Sweden, and Finland. They didn’t speak English as we speak English, you had to think about what they were telling you.You had to listen!” Thanks to her childhood in Newcastle, Emma has always been an active listener, and continues to value the power of conversation to this day.

Growing up Political

Though removed from the bustle of Seattle, Emma grew up well aware of the local and national political climate, thanks to her parents. A member of the Taylor family always seemed to be serving as a precinct committeeperson, whether it was Emma’s grandfather, uncle, or mother. Emma and her siblings were never excluded from the political discussions that took place on the farm or around the fire. “We always had a newspaper,” Emma remembers, “and we knew there were political things happening. I always knew there was a President of the United States, we always knew when there was an election on.” Though the Taylor children were nestled in their beds when the news that WWI had ended was broadcast on the evening of November 11, 1918, they were woken to share in the merriment with the rest of the family. And though Emma’s mother, Lily, didn’t gain the right to vote nationally until 1920, when Emma was in third grade, she was always just as involved politically as the male members of the family. With such a strong female role model, it’s no wonder that Emma never felt threatened or discriminated because of her gender when she ran for the Legislature years later. She has always understood the political realm as open and welcoming to all, regardless of race, gender, or age.

Political activities, such as meetings and rallies, offered Newcastle residents a chance to socialize with neighbors they rarely saw. From a young age Emma came to identify the Grange meetings she attended with her parents as exciting community endeavors. “I was 16 and going to those meetings. I wouldn’t miss a meeting, it was social life and I was also interested in what was going on,” Emma explains. This interest led to Emma’s involvement with a number of community political groups in Newcastle, where she helped with neighborhood and city issues, such as petitioning for road signs on dangerous areas of highway. Aside from meetings, school was the other opportunity for Newcastle children to socialize. Emma genuinely enjoyed her classes and was enthralled by history and economics, with plans to pursue a career in teaching when she graduated. But coming up on her last year of high school the Great Depression hit, Emma was forced to rethink her plans for the future. “The last year of my high school was really hard. Nobody worked. I mean that. It wasn’t only the people in the coal mines, it was people in everything. No one was working.” Thankfully the Taylors were able to support themselves with resources from the farm and make a meager amount of money by selling the leftovers, but supporting Emma through college to get a teaching degree was out of the question. “You come to this point where it’s not available to you, you’re either gonna be unhappy or you’re gonna find something else,” Emma explains. Emma found something else.

Looking for Work

In every city and town across the country, people were scrambling to pick up any work they could find. Lily Taylor cleaned the local schoolhouse, often bringing Emma and her siblings along to help. Emma remembers her grandmother, a widow, constantly working to support herself and her family. “She washed clothes and took care of sick people and sewed a little bit. Minimal wages, just very little money. But she got by with it.” Once she gained her political platform, the memory of her grandmother working tirelessly spurred Emma to petition for pensions for elderly people. And, when there was nothing left to do, the women of Newcastle sewed quilts, because sometimes what people need most of all is a distraction. “No matter if you had any use for [them], at least you had something to do with your time,” Emma explains.

“I walked everywhere looking for a job,” Emma remembers. “I went in every store in the city of Seattle and put in an application for work and there wasn’t one single reply.” An ad calling for part-time office assistants with the Washington Commonwealth Federation caught Emma’s eye, and, along with a neighbor, she took the bus into Seattle to begin what would be her next venture in politics. Emma hadn’t studied any commercial subjects, such as typing and shorthand, in school. After her first day at the WCF she came home and started teaching herself, set on excelling at her position.

Washington Commonwealth Federation

Often regarded as a communist collective, the Washington Commonwealth Federation was an Independent political party. Emma never observed communist activity within the WCF walls, but was aware of the party’s reputation, explaining, “You knew it was, might be happening, there was communist activity everywhere.” Emma’s administrative position with the WCF was more than a way to make money; it allowed her to continue exploring her interest in politics and community involvement. When she started with them, the WCF was pursuing an old age pension program. They later founded the Old Age Pension Union in 1937, renamed the Washington Pension Union in 1944. Emma was excited to align herself with the pension cause. Having watched her widowed grandmother work to support herself, Emma wanted more than anything to find a way to provide for her, and others in her situation, with some sort of government aid. The proposal was a humble $30 a month, but it was better than nothing. Emma remembers discussing the potential pension with her grandmother. “She used to say, ‘If I get my $30, that will be my money. You know, I’ll be able to buy things I think we need.’ Every money they got was going toward my uncle, to pay the rent and buy groceries.” When she ran for the Legislature, the old age pension was one of her main running points.

Though Emma’s time with the Newcastle Community Club had provided her with extensive experience addressing individual political concerns, doing so while working at a bustling Seattle office was markedly different. Volumes of people filed through the WCF office daily, requesting advice and guidance on pensions, taxes, and the paperwork associated with each. Emma was working with a populous that had many grievances. “That was my first activity, talking to people about problems,” she explains, and it was an activity that made quite an impression on the recent graduate. Emma realized that the only way she was going to really address the concerns of the Seattle citizenry was to run for the Legislature. With the hope of a broader platform, Emma set her sights for a seat on the 1941 Legislature.

Legislature Bound

From the beginning, Emma and her supporters depended on grassroots campaigning methods to promote her messages. The campaign “was really more down to earth than we see today. We went door to door. We also had groups of people who got together and went door to door,” Emma remembers. Connecting with people had always been Emma’s strong suit, and so she put her conversation skills to use in order to amass supporters. Talking one-on-one also gave Emma the opportunity to collect citizen concerns and bolster her political aspirations with the hopes of a community. “Having a political campaign by the people, a group of people, is better than just one person running for office,” Emma says. “You represent more ideas, and you do more work, and you’re more available to the citizenry. They can tell you their thoughts, too.” When Emma was elected as one of eight women in 1941, it was to the cheers and congratulations of many voices. The victory was that of a community.

“I never had a feeling that I was discriminated against as a woman,” Emma explains. “And I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I came from an active political family.” Her immunity to discrimination may have also had to do with the fact that she was steadfast in her dedication to reaching the Legislature, and didn’t allow anything to block her path. She presented herself first and foremost as a politician, and didn’t allow her gender to dictate her campaign strategies. “I had the support of the people, and it wasn’t just the men, it was the women. I talked to the women, too. I would go out and knock on the doors and talk to women as well as men,” Emma says. By turning a blind eye to what could have been gender-induced roadblocks and establishing a public political presence, she managed to bypass any possible negative responses. And while there were always other women serving on the Legislature, Emma seems to have approached her position with a different outlook. In a Seattle Daily Times article from January of 1943 detailing the twelve female members of the Legislature, Emma is described as “an organizer for the Old Age Pension Union,” while her fellow female legislators list occupations such as housewife and homemaker. It’s clear that politics was more than a side project for Emma.

Having gained a platform, Emma went about promoting her three main causes: aid for elderly citizens (which eventually went into effect after her grandmother passed away), aid for women with dependent children (which never passed), and an income tax to generate money for education programs (which, to this day, continues to be voted against). Emma’s liberal politics had everything to do with concrete issues, and nothing to do with labels. Growing up in rural farming communities and experiencing first hand how political neglect depletes a citizenry, Emma campaigned for what she knew and what she felt passionate about. Near the end of her first session, Emma met Elmer Harman, a fellow political activist who must have been impressed with Emma’s tenacity and intellect. “He’d drop into the Democratic Party office or the Commonwealth Office once in a while and that’s where I met him. I knew him, but then a friend of ours said, ‘Why don’t you go out with him, he’s a nice guy.’ You know that, they encourage you,” Emma laughs. The encouragement was for the best, and the two married at the end of Emma’s first session, in February of 1942, embarking on what would be a 54-year marriage. After her first session ended, Emma decided to run again. This time she headed into the Legislature as a married woman.

WWII: To San Diego and Back Again

Emma and Elmer’s marital bliss didn’t last long. In February, soon after they were married, Elmer’s draft number was called. He was instructed to be ready for further instructions concerning his service, and to stay in the area because he could be shipped out any day. The newlyweds were on the edge of their seats. Six months later, Elmer was sent to San Diego for boot camp and basic training. When Emma’s second session came to an end in 1944 and Elmer had made it through his training, she moved down to be with him until he was shipped out. Emma supplemented their meager income by working as a typist at an aircraft company and prepared their home for the birth of their first child, Thomas, who came in June of 1944. When Elmer was shipped out in January of 1945, Emma and Thomas returned to Seattle to live with her parents until the war was over. “Literally every girl I knew that had children, that’s what she did. Just came back to their homeland and stayed there until their husbands came back.” And, like all the other women anxious to start their family lives, Emma waited. Returning to Seattle in October of 1945, Elmer was greeted by a jobless city. “When the war ended there [were] 1,000,000 people out of the service that were all out there looking for work. And there was nothing for them. You were supposed to come back to your job, but both my husband and my brother, [Claude], didn’t have a job,” Emma explains. “They were both discharged on the last day of the month, and the next morning they didn’t have a salary or a job at all.” Elmer and Emma had discussed the logistics of their financial situation and decided that it made the most sense for one of them to work while the other stayed at home with Tom. Agreeing that Elmer would likely be able to make more money than what she could bring in while in the Legislature, Emma volunteered to stay at home. In 1948, the Harmans were thrilled to add another member to their family when their daughter, Jane, was born.

Presented with no other alternative, Elmer realized he was going to have to make work for himself in order to support his family, and so he did what he was good at: building houses. Elmer’s father had been a carpenter, so he’d been surrounded by the craft from a young age. He’d also studied carpentry briefly in high school. Elmer started with the Harman family home and kept going. “We built this house as far as we could go on what money we could raise. And then he started building a house across the street. And then we bought and sold that one, and he built 17 houses,” she explains. Emma did her part too, buying plots of land and helping to prepare the houses for sale. To this day, Emma still lives in the house Elmer built for them in 1946, and five of her neighbors also live in Harman originals. “If I moved away from here, I would feel lost because I’ve lived here all these years,” she explains. “I can recognize every tree.” Though he didn’t know it at the time, Elmer was preparing a strong, supportive community; the community that Emma credits for her prolonged health and vigor.

Since trading in her legislative duties for those of a stay-at-home parent, Emma has never ceased to immerse herself in local, national, and global politics. Since 1944, Emma has served as a precinct committeeperson and has worked closely with the Fauntleroy Environmental Association to address concerns regarding the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal, which she can see from her front door. Thanks to her efforts, parking restrictions have been enforced, ensuring that ferry-goers do not leave their cars parked in the cozy streets Emma and her neighbors call home. Never one to shy away from the political realm, Emma has campaigned for a number of Seattle senators, often bringing the family along to aid in the effort. “My mom and her friend would want to get people elected that were from the Peace and Freedom Party,” Jane explains. “We would be going around, knocking on doors and passing out literature.” Including Jane and Tom in her political activities was a regular occurrence and the reason they both grew up to be politically-informed and active individuals. When the Vietnam War rolled around and everyone had a neighbor or a friend or a relative who was drafted, the Taylor children were prepared to stand up for their beliefs by attending rallies and demonstrations.

Community from Tragedy

“I was raised in a family where we coped with whatever came along,” Emma says, citing the memory of her mother’s cheerful attitude in the face of tragedy. “She’d say, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but we gotta do something.’” When Elmer, in his later years, developed Parkinson’s disease, Emma drew on her mother’s inspiration to help her husband as best she could. In the beginning, Emma took it upon herself to care for him. “That’s a responsibility that came to me, and I did it. That’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to take care of him, I wanted to keep him at home,” she explains. “But it’s a lot of work. Not only do you take care of them physically, but you’ve gotta provide some kind of a stimulation.” When his condition worsened and Emma realized she could no longer care for him, she checked Elmer into a nursing home where she visited him every day, except for two when snowy weather kept her off the roads. In 1996, he passed away, leaving Emma alone in their family home. Not one to wallow, Emma prepared for the rest of her life. The coffee shop up the hill from her house had long been a favorite spot, so she began frequenting there. “I used to go up there and sit along by myself, and people [kept] coming in and we finally got a good group together.” What began as a few people gathering to chat has become a weekly meeting where a regular group discusses a little bit of everything, from the cost of a new car to America’s debt crisis.

The “Coffee Club” as they’ve been dubbed, is comprised of anywhere from six to ten people, depending on the Tuesday. “Everybody can say what they want, and bring up whatever subject they want, and we have some real differences of opinion, that’s the truth,” Emma laughs. “I have lots of opinions about what’s going on, and [I am] sometimes very unhappy about the way things are going, but I have never missed the need to get together with people, because I always do it,” Emma explains, citing a conversation she had on the bus with an older woman about the American presence in Afghanistan. This is the prime example of Emma’s use of conversation and community: there will always be something that upsets us, whether it’s a foreign war, the price of gasoline, artistic failure, or the passing away of a loved one. What’s important is that we have people to talk with about these things.

Emma will be the first to tell you that people are more notably divorced from their political needs than when she was active in the Legislature. She attributes this change to the lack of conversation and community. “I don’t know if there’s too much people talking to each other about anything really, I don’t know,” Emma confesses, adding that young people “have too many gadgets. They’re always listening to something and they don’t really, I don’t even know if they talk to each other.” The only way to change this? Provide the younger generations with some background. “I think that the way to get them involved in government is taking History in school. I think History makes you a [well-rounded] person for your lifetime. It gives you a base for understanding where we came from.” From a young age, Emma’s been obsessed with history and, even at 100-years-old, she’ll be the first to tell you that she’s still learning.

The interview goes so smoothly and Emma offers such an array of insightful ideas that when I check the time I find it hard to believe we’ve been talking straight for three hours. Though she was hesitant when the subject of an oral history was first broached, I realize that Emma Taylor Harman was made for this. What better way to present an individual set on reviving the art of conversation than by having a conversation with her? “Any sort of community is important,” Emma states, quoting what can only be described as her mantra. Surrounding oneself with people that not only comfort you, but also provide intellectual inspiration and stimulation, is, in Emma’s opinion, a necessary ingredient for a healthy and fulfilling life. This reverence for personal connections and community involvement is what made Emma a strong, dedicated politician, and what continues to make her an engaged and politically-aware citizen.

Anna Samuels, The Legacy Project, 2012

View Emma Taylor Harman's oral history transcript