Women in a Local Election

The State of Washington held a primary election a week ago and, although the results are not finalized, there are some things we do know about an unusual race in Seattle. Although we live across the lake from Seattle and cannot vote in Seattle, we follow their news and are encouraged by this past election. It is a harbinger of changing times, an optimistic demonstration of the power of women.

The Seattle election was a bit of a mishmash as the current mayor announced he would not run for re-election very late in the race. As a result, there were 21 entries in the race, including another former mayor. Six were women and four of those women were the top four vote-getters. The woman in the lead, Jenny Durkan, won over 30% of the vote, in spite of the large field, and the top four women combined received 73% of the vote.

Since the top two in the primary go forward for the general election, we know that the next mayor of Seattle will be a woman. She will not be the First Woman mayor of Seattle, however. The last, and first, was in 1926, almost a century ago.

The best word to describe Bertha Landes, the First Woman mayor of a major city in the United States, is “colorful.” Seattle still had the feel of a frontier town when Bertha Landes’ impressive success in hosting a conference for Washington manufacturers led to praise from the president of the Chamber of Commerce and appointment by the mayor to a commission to study unemployment. The only woman on the commission, she received enough notice to win election to the City Council. During two of her four years, she was Council President. When Seattle’s mayor traveled to the Democratic National Convention, Landes became acting mayor. She immediately fired the police chief for corruption in his department, insubordination to her, and failure to enforce prohibition. Notified by telegram, the elected mayor returned early and reinstated the police chief.

Encouraged by those in the community who wanted to clean up the town, Landes was persuaded to run for Mayor of Seattle. She promised “municipal housekeeping,” her term for cleaning up city government, and she beat the incumbent. During her term, she worked to eliminate bootlegging and widespread corruption in the city. She ran a scandal-free administration, appointed professionals to head city departments, and made appointments based on merit. She improved public transportation, parks, and traffic safety. She converted the street railway system to a profitable enterprise and straightened out the finances of the city.

When she ran for re-election, a dark horse candidate beat her, largely by campaigning that a frontier town needed male leadership. Seattle is no longer a frontier town but one of the fastest-growing and technologically-sophisticated cities in the country. The two leading candidates for mayor this year are an attorney and an urban planner, both with a better sense of what is possible and reasonable than Mayor Landes. Hopefully though, Landes’ ability to accomplish her agenda will inspire the winner to push through the complications of democratic governance in Seattle and, with visionary leadership, accomplish great things. Bertha Landes will be a good model.

Women in Business: Good News and Bad

Within the last week, the Seattle Times included two articles about First Women in business. They highlight for me the importance of celebrating women’s achievements while placing their accomplishments in perspective.

Laurie Stewart was the First Woman to lead a local financial institution here in the Seattle area. She is currently President of Sound Financial Bancorp, and has been for 28 years. She was actually the second choice of the bank’s board, but the man who was first choice turned down the offer.

Stewart believes moving up the ladder should be a “simple progression,” with women rising naturally to the upper levels. But it is not. “It’s still a tough, tough glass ceiling,” she said.

Irene Rosenfeld is another First Woman who garnered attention in the newspaper last week. She is CEO of Mondelez International, a multinational company with an annual revenue of around $30 billion. With sites in 165 countries, Rosenfeld is responsible for 107,000 employees.

Mondelez’ products include chocolate, biscuits, gum, confections, and powdered beverages. Although the company name is not a household word, many of its products are. Some of the most popular are: Oreo, Chips Ahoy!, Triscuit, Toblerone, Sour Patch Kids, Cadbury, Chiclets, Halls, and Tang. I wonder if Rosenfeld gives out free samples.

So, I celebrate these women, and other CEOs, but am sobered by the realization that only 6% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies last year were women. There are probably many reasons. One is the lack of diversity on public company boards. Of the people who hire CEOs, only one in five is a woman. Also, women tend to be hired in human resources and marketing in public companies and most CEOs often have financial and operating officer positions.

There is still much work to be accomplished in the business arena, but there has been progress. In 1995, just 22 years ago, there was not a single female CEO among the Fortune 500 companies. Unfortunately, progress for women in business still moves at a sluggish pace.

First Women at the Movies

          Patty Jenkins is the First Woman to direct a superhero movie for a major studio. In May, 2017 her film Wonder Woman opened to the biggest weekend box office for a woman director in the history of cinema.

Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s civilian identity, had a long road from Themyscira, where she is princess, to the big screen. First the film had difficulty finding a studio. Then the movie was predicted that it would fail. Because Catwoman and Elektra had flopped, studio executive assumed the same would be true of Wonder Woman. Did studio executives not consider quality when making decisions. Just look at the rankings for the movies: Rotten Tomatoes gave Catwoman only 9% and Elektra 10%, whereas Wonder Woman received a 95% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes.

Forgive my snide aside here, but both Catwoman and Elektra were directed by men. Perhaps it takes a woman to appreciate the complexity of a woman superhero and produce a quality film about her. That, of course, is not be fair. Male directors succeeded with both Rogue One and The Hunger Games, successful films about strong warrior women. Perhaps the studio executives didn’t watch those films when they decided Wonder Woman could not succeed.

The large box office numbers are great, but the best part of the Wonder Woman is the reaction of young girls around the country. They are captivated by this character and emulating her costume as well as her strength and high morals.

Awards at Festival de Cannes

          In May, 2017, Sofia Coppola also won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. Her movie The Beguiled, based on a book by Thomas Cullinan, is the story of an injured Union soldier who is cared for in a boarding house of Confederate women during the Civil War. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning star along with Colin Farrell.

Coppola is actually the second woman to win the award but it has been a half century since the First Woman won Best Director recognition. In 1961 Soviet director Yuliya Solntseva won the Best Director prize for her film about World War II, The Story of the Flaming Years.

The most prestigious award at the Cannes Festival is the Palme d’Or. In the seventy-year history of the Festival, the Palme d’Or has been presented under various names, but only once has it been awarded to a woman. In 1993 Jane Campion received the prize for her film The Piano, but she shared it with Chinese film director Chen Kaige and his film Farewell my Concubine.

Closing Credits

The most promising thing about these achievements by Coppola and Jenkins might be the fact that the characters they portrayed were created by men. Women’s stories written by men and interpreted by women. It seems to be a winning combination, a true reflection of the meaning of feminism.

Sylvia Trent-Adams – First Nurse Surgeon General

        Sylvia Trent-Adams is a nurse, and the first non-physician to serve as Surgeon General of the United States (assuming the one veterinarian who held the position is counted as a physician). The position of Surgeon General was created in 1871 under President Grant’s administration, and the first five physicians to serve as Surgeons General were or had been soldiers. All Surgeons General hold the rank of Vice Admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (one of the seven U.S. uniformed services). Since the creation of the post, thirty-one people have served as Surgeons General, but twelve of them filled the position only as Acting Surgeons General. Four with the “Acting” title served 18 months or longer.

Five women have served at Surgeon General. Antonia Novello, a Hispanic, was the First Woman Surgeon General, appointed by George H.W. Bush in 1990. In 1993 Bill Clinton appointed Jocelyn Elders, who focused on AIDS. She was fired by the President after sixteen months and replaced by another woman, Audrey F. Manley, who was never given the full title even though she served for 3½ years. Manley had been the First African-American Woman appointed as chief resident at Cook County Children’s Hospital and the First African-American Woman to reach the rank of Assistant Surgeon General. Barack Obama appointed Regina Benjamin to the post in 2009, and she was confirmed.

Donald Trump has now appointed Sylvia Trent-Adams, although only in an Acting position as of now. Trent-Adams is not the only nurse to serve. In fairness, Richard Carmona, Surgeon General from 2002-2006, was a nurse, but also a physician (and had been a police officer and public health administrator as well). Trent-Adams does hold the distinction of being the first and only Surgeon General who spent her entire career in nursing. She had previously been a nurse officer in the U.S. Army and then served in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Bringing not only the perspective of a woman, but the added insights from nursing to the position, might shift its focus to children and family. One can hope!

The Grimke Sisters in “The Invention of Wings”

One of the many beauties of Sue Monk Kidd’s fiction is her expression of the hearts of women, through their own words. This is accomplished with language that paints pictures in the reader’s mind and both tickles and challenges the reader’s soul. So, it was with delight that I read The Invention of Wings a second time, when my book group selected this historical novel.

The book is based on the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, both First Women. It is told through the eyes of the older sister Sarah and Handful (Hetty), the slave given to her on her eleventh birthday. It is a dramatic indictment of slavery, the cause for which Sarah and Angelina fought, told in a way that sends chills down one’s arms and roils one’s stomach.

Sarah and Angelina both witnessed slavery first hand in their home in Charleston, South Carolina and spread their message in the North. Because they spoke out fearlessly about the evils of slavery, they were invited to attend the American Anti-Slavery Society’s two-week training for anti-slavery agents. They were the first and only women in the group. They were castigated widely as they had the audacity to speak to “promiscuous audiences,” that is, mixed audiences of women and men.

In addition to speaking, they wrote in fierce prose, even daring to address unreceptive audiences. In 1836 Sarah, the more religious of the two, wrote and published Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States and in the same year Angelina wrote and published An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South.

Sarah chafed at the restrictions put upon her in her Quaker meeting and became more of a feminist than an abolitionist. It is believed she wrote the first treatise on feminism. It is known that the leaders of the suffrage movement leaned on her work.

Angelina was the First Woman to speak before a legislative body in this country when she spoke before a legislative committee in Massachusetts in 1838. She spoke against slavery and the need for abolition of the inhuman and immoral practice of slavery. For good measure, she threw in a few words on women’s rights.

The two women were lifelong companions, champions whose names do not often appear in history books. It is through art that they have been revived. Sue Monk Kidd has fictionalized their daring, but they were also commemorated in an art installation in 1979 by Judy Chicago called The Dinner Party. Chicago created a triangular table with 39 distinct settings celebrating 39 women from throughout the course of history. On the floor below were the names 999 other women of note. Both Sarah Grimke and Angelina Grimke’s names appear on what is aptly named the Heritage Floor, the basis for the rights we have won and still must fight to protect.