Gender & Employment

The Rights of Employment Between the Sexes

Women discovered that different rules applied to them than to men. Whereas the marital status of men was not a factor in whether or not they kept their jobs, women could lose their employee status if they married. In some cases, they were ineligible for jobs if they were female.

City Light Sales Room
City Light Sales Room, 1934
Seattle Municipal Archives Image 8828

Rules could be bent, however, and during wartime in the city at large, women were hired for some male jobs by necessity. The 1919 Annual Report of the Labor Commissioner stated, ". . . as war conditions necessarily demanded replacement of men by women workers on certain factory work, the transition was welcomed by latter as it incidentally offered more freedom from restraint usually imposed by duties and environment of domestic employment. .. " As men returned they wanted their jobs back. "While the services of women were very satisfactory in connection with their employment as elevator operators, factory workers and kitchen and dining room workers in mill and camp commissaries, there is a growing sentiment in alignment with the present unemployment status which will undoubtedly serve to hasten adjustment . . . in the conflict of rights of employment between the sexes."

Some positions were simply not open to women. Civil Service Commission minutes record some of the appeals by women regarding their classifications. In 1936, Gertrude Gillmer filed an objection with the Commission because she was unable to secure employment as an Electrical Appliance Salesman with Seattle City Light. Before coming to the Commission she spoke with City Light Superintendent J.D. Ross and the City Light sales manager, P.C. Spowart, but was unable to change their views. Spowart testified in September at the Commission hearing, stating that women did not have the necessary knowledge, could not do heavy work and that there were no women's restrooms in the branch offices. Spowart stated:

"While women workers in general are often more efficient in the technique of a certain task then men, it has been demonstrated over and over again in the industry that they do not get the broad over-all knowledge of the system so necessary in earning the respect of the public through service contracts . . . Years of experience have proved that men employed as appliance salesmen give the department many advantages that the use of women does not afford. Men are more versatile and flexible for utility sales work . . . it is our opinion that men should be selected whenever possible in order that the best interest of the customers of City Light shall stand above those of the job-holder. After all, we are the servants of the people."

In October, the Commission denied Gillmer's request, stating that City Light's decision was "not arbitrary nor capricious, [and] that no personal element had entered into the matter."

City Light Steno Pool
City Light Steno Pool, 1954
Seattle Municipal Archives Image 26932

In other positions, permission was given to request females. In December, 1936 the Civil Service Commission "approved the specification of sex in connection with request of the Lighting Department for one female Clerk-Stenographer for temporary work in the general office; and also, in the case of request of Engineering Department for six female Typists for work at the Testing Station."

Summer positions as lifeguards at beaches in the City were traditionally held by males. Describing lifeguards in 1919, the superintendent of the Parks Department stated, "For guards we employ young men whose ages range from twenty to about thirty years. The only requirements are a good character, first class swimming and ability to handle a boat."

During World War II, the Parks Department was short of lifeguards. Three women applied for lifeguard jobs in 1941. The first to apply was Alice Powell, the daughter of City Council member Mildred Powell. She was a lifeguard at the Campfire summer camp Camp Sealth and was a lifeguard at the Whitman College pool where she was in school. Powell said, "I think women are just as capable as men at handling this sort of a job. A well-trained woman lifeguard is just as good at rescue work and when it comes to handling children and beach patrol, women are more conscientious and probably can do the job a little better." A Seattle Post-Intelligencer article dated August 2, 1941 was titled "Women Seek Lifeguard Posts Despite Park Board Coolness." This coolness was despite Seattle's own Helene Madison having won three gold medals in swimming in the previous decade, proving that women could be quite capable in the water.

Theresa Follette, another interested applicant stated, "Rescue work is not a question of strength but rather of swimming skill and life-saving training." None of the women who applied were hired. In August 1941, Theresa Follette filed a protest with the Board of Park Commissioners "about discrimination against women lifeguards." The matter was referred to the Recreation Director for a reply; no reply is found in the records. Grace Wahlborg and Helen Michel applied for lifeguard positions in 1942. A Parks Department list of those employed at beaches and pools 17 years later listed no women in lifeguard positions.

Advertisement for lifeguards
Advertisement for lifeguards, 1945
Ben Evans Recreation Program History Collection (5801-02),
Seattle Municipal Archives
Women Seek Lifeguard Posts Despite Park Board Coolness
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 2, 1941
Civil Service Scrapbooks (6000-09), Seattle Municipal Archives

Women and the Trades

Heidi Durham
Heidi Durham, circa 1974
Seattle Municipal Archives Image 194194

The 1964 federal Civil Rights Act prohibited employment discrimination based on either race or gender. The legislation allowed women to work in traditionally male jobs, but women found it difficult to be accepted in those jobs. Translating legislation to action meant that many women had to work in unfriendly environments, blazing the way for women who came after them.

City Light first established an apprenticeship program for linemen in 1957, and standards for the program were approved. These positions required a higher degree of training and offered higher pay than some of the other trades jobs. In part because of this, the linemen positions were especially difficult for women to break into.

In 1972, Mayor Uhlman issued an executive order establishing an Affirmative Action Program for City employment. In this context, Clara Fraser was hired by Seattle City Light in 1973 as an education coordinator. An Electrical Trades Trainee (ETT) program had been established in 1972, but in 1973 a new program was introduced for women which Fraser was to plan and implement.

CERCL flyer
CERCL flyer
Box 42, Folder 25, City Light
Superintendent Records (1200-13),
Seattle Municipal Archives

By 1974, ten women had begun as ETTs: Angel Arrasmith, Teri Bach, Megan Cornish, Heidi Durham, Jennifer Gordon, Daisy Jones, Letha Neal, Jody Olvera, Margie Wakenight, and Patty Wong. The women started June 24, 1974. On August 5, 1974, a complaint was filed collectively by six of the trainees citing unfair employment practices and discrimination based on sex. The trainees were laid off in 1975. In July 1976 the women won their case and were awarded back pay, damages, reinstatement and retroactive promotion to electrical helper positions. In October 1974 Durham, Bach and Cornish began working as line worker apprentices. Teri Bach was the only one to graduate from the line worker apprentice program.

In June 1977, Durham fell while scaling power poles, breaking her back and leaving her permanently disabled. Bach also suffered a serious accident in 1979, breaking her neck while working during a windstorm. She returned to work after a year in recovery.

Fraser was removed as the program’s coordinator and laid off less than two years after she was hired. She filed a complaint charging political and sex discrimination, also in August 1974. In August 1982, Fraser’s case was heard in King County Superior Court; she won damages and reinstatement. She worked until 1986; when she retired City Light Superintendent Randall Hardy called her the utility’s "institutionalized conscience."

Nettie Dokes
Line Worker Nettie Dokes, 1992
Seattle Municipal Archives Image 194192

The Committee for Equal Rights at City Light (CERCL) was formed in 1983 following a complaint filed by the Director of the Human Rights Department on behalf of women in the electrical trades. CERCL submitted ten proposals to help resolve issues of race, sex, and political ideology discrimination at the utility.

Of the original ten women who entered the ETT program in 1974, seven were still with City Light fifteen years later but problems continued. In 1986, as a result of a complaint filed by line worker Sherrie Holmes that a male co-worker unhooked her safety strap and tried to pull her from the top of a 30-foot pole, a journey-level line worker was fired and another suspended.

Holmes was hired as a line worker apprentice in 1984. Megan Cornish, Heidi Durham and Teri Bach retired from City Light in 2004.

Under the direction of Superintendent Randy Hardy, City Light started a pre-apprentice line workers program in 1988. A six-month program first attended by six women and six men, it was designed to prepare workers for the apprenticeship program.

Three of the six women who attended are still with City Light. One of them, Nettie Dokes, became the first African American woman in the country to graduate as a journeyman level line worker in 1992. She became manager of the apprenticeship program for the City in 1997. As of 2004 she was on the Executive Board for the national organization Tradeswomen, Now and Tomorrow and was treasurer for Washington Women in Trades. She settled a lawsuit charging City Light with a racist and sexist work environment in 2017.

In 2017, Silence Breakers was started by City Light employees Denise Krownbell and Beth Rocha to address employees’ discrimination and sexual harassment complaints. In response, Mayor Durkan formed the Anti-Harassment Interdepartmental Team (IDT) with the support of Councilmember Mosqueda. Based on the work of the IDT, an independent Office of the Employee Ombud was established in 2018, beginning work in 2019. Its purpose is to assist employees in the City’s processes relating to harassment or discrimination and to provide recommendations to the Mayor and City Council on policies and procedures relating to harassment, discrimination, and creating an inclusive workplace environment. A new centralized Investigations Unit was also established in 2019 within the Department of Human Resources.

Women in Trades
Women in Trades brochure, 1990
Box 23, Folder 23, Office for Women's Rights
Subject Files (8401-01), Seattle Municipal Archives
IDT report
Anti-Harassment Interdepartmental
Team Report, 2018
Seattle Municipal Archives

Equality for All?

The 1960s was an era of consciousness-raising across the nation, and equality issues for women were in the forefront. At the federal level, the Equal Pay Act (1963) provided for equal pay for men and women in jobs requiring equal skill, responsibility, and effort. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting employment discrimination based on race or sex.

Seattle Women's Commission, 1971
Seattle Women's Commission, 1971
Seattle Municipal Archives Image 195213

In Seattle, similar laws were initiated, although not until the next decade. The Affirmative Action ordinance was passed in 1972 providing for the implementation of programs in departments to achieve equality of City employment opportunities for minorities, women and people over age 40. The Fair Employment Ordinance was passed in 1973, requiring employers within the City of Seattle to give equal pay for equal work and to hire and promote women and minorities in a non-discriminatory manner. The Open Housing Ordinance was broadened in 1975, to prohibit discrimination against women and minorities in buying or renting apartments or houses, and in providing financing or credit information.

In 1980, the Women and Minority Business Enterprise (WMBE) ordinance was passed in an attempt to ensure the equitable use of minority- and women-owned businesses in the City's contracting process. A goal of 3% participation for women's businesses in the City's contracting process was met in 1981. This ordinance followed an executive policy recommendation issued in 1977, which established a policy of using WMBEs but had no numerical goals or certification process. A Perkins Coie disparity study completed in 1994 demonstrated that the contracting process was not making equitable use of women- and minority-owned businesses. City Council members Sherry Harris and Jane Noland were instrumental in getting an amendment to the WMBE ordinance passed in 1994, providing for:

  • Setting aside a percentage of City contracts for women and minorities
  • Encouraging use of women- and minority-owned businesses in purchasing and non-professional services
  • Setting targets for the overall level of participation by women- and minority-owned businesses on City contacts in a given year

In 1998, however, voters passed Washington State Initiative 200, prohibiting the imposition of goals, quotas, and set-asides in government hiring and contracting as well as university admissions. WMBE utilization declined by about a third as a result. The Mayor and City Council countered with a series of initiatives designed to increase WMBE participation in City contracting projects, despite I-200.

Jeanette Williams, April 1973
Jeanette Williams, April 1973
Seattle Municipal Archives Image 51273

One person who worked on behalf of women was City Council member Jeanette Williams. Williams served from 1970 until 1989, and was on Council during the strife at City Light. She was a tireless advocate for women's rights, and was responsible for establishing the Women's Commission in 1971. On her election to City Council, she found that of the 10,228 city employees, only 1,565 were women and of these, just 26 were employed in a professional capacity. The Women's Commission worked to increase the number of women in professional positions and opened up Civil Service Commission testing and hiring for women in previously male-only positions.

Many ordinances relating to women were sponsored by the Human Resources and Judicial Committee which Williams chaired from 1970 to 1977. Williams worked on rape, abuse, and child care legislation and explored comparable worth issues. In Williams' speeches throughout the city, she urged women to become active because women need power to make changes. Her definition of power was "the ability to accomplish in your life what you want to get done."

In 1978 the Battered Women's Project was established, one of the nation's first programs to address domestic violence. City Attorney Doug Jewett initiated the program. Staff acted as advocates for abused women, making recommendations to the City prosecutor to file or not to file charges in specific cases. In the first two years of the program, 2500 domestic violence cases were handled. In 1984 a new State law mandated arrest of the batterer. This mandate was expanded in 1985 to include child abuse and the name was changed to the Family Violence Project. A 1989 study found that the program was severely underfunded; seven family violence advocates were assigned 6,943 cases in 1988.

Jane Noland and Tina Podlodowski also worked hard on solutions for domestic violence issues during their tenures on City Council. The City provided support and funding for domestic violence shelters and transition housing. Lesbian and gay issues were also addressed in the 1990s, partially through work done by the City's Commission on Lesbians and Gays, established in December 1989. In the early 1990s, the focus in domestic violence programs shifted to prevention and outreach programs and the City began working towards a regional plan with others in King County. A Domestic Violence Task Force was formed in 1993 to expand the City's efforts to implement comprehensive policies for intervention in domestic violence. 

Many gains continue to be made for women throughout the City. In 2019 Councilmember Debora Juarez sponsored a resolution that passed unanimously addressing the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Seattle. The resolution held City departments accountable for engaging with Seattle's Indian community and changing how data was collected. The workplace remains a focus for improvement, despite affirmative action plans and comparable worth studies. The numbers of women working in the City do not necessarily reflect how hard women fought to find their place or what gains were made by women in the workplace in the past 100 years. But they give clues about work yet to be done to give women their full place in the City workforce.

Women Working in Seattle City Government

  1938 1944 1950 1965 1985 1995 2004 2017
Total employees 5,343 4,655 6,806 8,527 9,232 9,924 9,713 12,821
Women employees 277 682 642 1,211 3,402 3,895 3,691 4,949
Percentage of total 5% 15% 9% 14% 37% 39% 38% 38.6%

Sources: Civil Service Commission, Personnel Department, Budget Office reports


Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
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The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.