Bertha Knight Landes. Photo courtesy of  University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection, UW 23834z

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 9-year-old Viola.

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.