On April 6, 1971, Seattle City Council's Personnel Committee names 14 city residents to serve on the new Women's Commission, an advisory body that Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) created the year before. The commission is part of the Uhlman administration's new Office of Human Resources, and its role is relatively straightforward: to “promote full and equal participation of women in affairs of the city, to develop efforts and programs within the community for equal opportunities for women" (The Seattle Times, April 4, 1971). All 14 of the first commissioners are volunteers, and very few are women's-rights activists. Most have gained their political experience in labor unions, local precincts, and community groups.
Members of the Commission
The members of the first Seattle Women’s Commission were:
- Jody Aliesan, a feminist activist who worked for the Associated Students’ Women’s Commission at the University of Washington
- Alice Beals, an official at the all-female Waitress Union
- Shirley Bridge (1922-2008), a pharmacist and Democratic precinct committee member
- Shirley Caldwell, an advertising artist and Democratic precinct committee member
- Esther Clarke, secretary to an official at the Aerospace Union and a board member of the Office and Professional Employees Union
- Carver Gayton (b. 1938), special assistant to the executive vice president of the University of Washington and director of the University’s equal-opportunity office
- Alan Graban, a vice-president at the Pacific National Bank
- Elinor Hunsinger, a retired real-estate broker and landlord
- Barbara Laners, a law student who had worked for Seattle’s Model Cities program
- Ruth McCloy, a public-relations director for a hotel chain
- Kay Regan, a homemaker and Republican activist
- Helen Sommers, president of the Seattle chapter of the National Organization for Women
- Louisa Torrez, a Chicano activist and coordinator at the Active Mexicanos Center
- Rosalind Woodhouse, a social worker at the Seattle Housing Authority
The mayor appointed seven of these commissioners; the City Council appointed the other seven. (Eventually, the commission itself named a 15th member, June Shimokawa.) In July 1971, Mildred E. Henry, an official at the Seattle-King County Economic Opportunity Board and a former state legislator, became the director of the Women’s Division at the Office of Human Resources. Though she was not technically a member of the Women’s Commission, Ms. Henry was responsible for putting the panel’s recommendations into practice, and the Commission’s $25,000 budget paid her $16,368 salary.
Priorities and Controversies
But it was not easy for the Commission to agree on its priorities. It named several committees right away -- on equal opportunity, employment, children’s services and day care, public information, and public appointments -- but procedural complications, low rates of meeting attendance and participation by some of the commissioners, and increasingly bitter political disagreements got in the way of the panel’s work.
For example, shortly after the city named the first group of commissioners, many feminist groups began to argue that in the future the agency’s members should be chosen from a list of women “submitted by individuals and/or groups conscious of the discrimination against and oppression of women in this society and who are working to eliminate these injustices” (The Seattle Times, January 16, 1973). This pre-selection was necessary, the activists insisted, because for the Women’s Commission to be a “training ground” for “persons who are unaware that women have any problems” was a waste of everyone’s time (The Seattle Times, March 15, 1973). This proposal did not go over terribly well with many of the other members of the panel, most of whom were not affiliated with feminist groups. In 1973, likewise, the group voted to censure commissioner Kay Regan because she had traveled to Olympia to testify against ratification of the federal Equal Rights Amendment.
Still, the Women’s Commission managed to accomplish a great deal in the first few years of its existence. It lobbied for an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution and for a bill that gave married women equal access to credit and community property. It undertook a study of rape and investigated ways to prevent violence against women. In March 1974, City Councilman Tim Hill proposed that the city eliminate the agency, but the commissioners fought back: they pointed to their achievements -- such as an executive order requiring fair employment practices in city government; an ordinance prohibiting gender bias in newspaper want ads; a city affirmative-action plan that explicitly protected women and gay people; and a Fair Employment Practices Ordinance passed in 1973 that prohibited sex discrimination in public and private employment -- to show that, indeed, their panel was valuable and effective.
Today, the Seattle Women’s Commission is a volunteer group with 20 members. It works with the mayor, the City Council, and the Office for Civil Rights to address political, legislative, and budgetary issues that affect women of all ages in Seattle. The present commission focuses most of its work on five areas: Economic Opportunity, Advancement, and Security; Health and Human Services; Race and Social Justice; Violence Against Women; and Summit Planning. Any Seattle resident may apply to serve on the commission.