Older Women Who Made a Mark on Local History
Posting signs to promote woman suffrage, Washington Equal Suffrage Association, Seattle, 1910. (Photo courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, A. Curtis 19943.)
March is national Women’s History Month, which recognizes the historic contributions that women have made and continue to make in our work force, as community volunteers, and within our families.
Women have been leaders in social change—from voting rights and equal opportunity to the peace movement and environmental protection. For a few local examples, we turned to HistoryLink.org—the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history—and other online sources. We pay particular attention to their activities later in life:
Bertha Knight Landes (1868–1943) became the first woman to lead a major American city when she was elected Mayor of Seattle in 1926. In her 60s and beyond, Landes served as moderator of Washington’s Conference of Congregational and Christian Churches, co-founded the Seattle Soroptimists (later serving as national president), wrote articles that encouraged women to get involved in politics, chaired a garment workers program to support women and children, and led student study group tours to the Far East.
Bertha Pitts Campbell (1889–1990) was a civil rights worker who in her 50s, 60s, and 70s helped found the Christian Friends for Racial Equality, a group that worked to ensure access for people of color and to roll back discriminatory practices in hospitals and rental housing. At age 92, Campbell led 10,000 members of her sorority in a Washington, D.C. march commemorating the suffrage march of 1913.
Hazel Wolf (1898–2000) lived in three centuries as a champion for workers’, women’s and minority rights and environmental protection. Capping off a lifetime of social activism, Wolf was elected secretary of the Seattle Audubon Society at age 67 and held the position for three decades, and helped turn “a bunch of bird watchers into an effective environmental lobby.” In her 90s, Wolf helped found Seattle’s Community Coalition for Environmental Justice to address the exposure of low-income and minority residents to excessive pollution.
Anna Helfgott (1899–1996) was an office worker, fitter, and dressmaker, active in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In her late 70s, 80s and 90s, she organized the Seattle Gray Panthers.
Virginia H. Galloway (1915–2015) was among the first five Black teachers hired by Seattle Public Schools in the late 1940s. She went on to become a principal and administrator. After retiring, Galloway volunteered with Global Volunteers as an English teacher, working in six countries on three continents. At home, she sang in her church choir, led the Seattle Retired Teachers Association, and led the Seattle Central Area Senior Center.
Ruby Chow (1920–2008) was a restauranteur and Chinese community leader who became the first Asian American elected to the King County Council, serving three terms in her 50s and 60s. In retirement, she continued to support her community as a champion for civil rights and equality.
Vivian McLean (1920–2011) was a neighborhood activist who “had a hand in virtually every public effort and improvement in her geographical area over a decades-long history” (Seattle Federation Blogspot). McLean’s involvement in housing and education issues led to the dedication of a branch library in her name. McLean co-founded the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association in her 70s and continued to volunteer in public schools and a large number of community projects into her 90s.
Dorothy Hollingsworth (b. 1920) was the first director of Seattle Public Schools’ Head Start Program and later the first black woman to serve on a school board in Washington state. While on the Seattle School Board, Hollingsworth helped develop the school district’s desegregation plan, which was implemented without a court order and without violence that other cities experienced during that time. In her 60s, she changed careers to help direct the Seattle Department of Human Resources. She served on the State Board of Education in her 60s and 70s.
Nora B. Adams (1928–2004) was one of the first black female principals in Seattle Public Schools. She was a musician and returned to music after retirement, playing piano and guitar and singing in her church choir. She also led Volkssporting walks, bowled, played bridge, and produced sketches. Perhaps most notably, she managed her own investment portfolio that led to estate gifts of $600,000 to the Seattle Public Schools Scholarship Fund and more than $400,000 to cancer and heart research.
These snippets are just the tip of the iceberg. There are amazing older women doing wonderful work in our communities today, including the senior advocates who serve on the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services. The women listed above and the role models that surround us provide inspiration to stay active and involved.
Women can and do make a difference—at every age!
Contributor Irene Stewart is a planner at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for King County, and editor of AgeWise King County. She had the honor of knowing three of the women mentioned in the article. Women and men alike are encouraged to visit Volunteering & Healthy Aging for ideas of ways to get involved and make a difference in our community.