This is an edited excerpt from “Tea at the Ladies’ Club.” Originally published in the January 22, 1998, issue of The Stranger.
The Woman’s Century Club was founded in July, 1891, by 10 prominent Seattle women to address the important issues of what those founders believed would be “the century of the woman.” The club’s founding president was suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt, a woman who got things done. The founder not only of the Woman’s Century Club, but of the League of Women Voters, Catt was also president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1920, the year the 19th amendment was ratified. Though her name, like that of her arch-rival Alice Paul, is overshadowed in casual memory of early/proto-feminism by the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Catt was a shrewd activist. Her courting of the Wilson administration’s approval—through tactics like encouraging women to volunteer for the Red Cross when WWI broke out—proved crucial to the suffrage movement’s eventual success. (Alice Paul’s strategy was more radical—burning “Kaiser” Wilson in effigy on the White House lawn, organizing workhouse hunger strikes, and so on.) Catt literally wrote the book on suffrage—Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement—in 1923 (with co-author Nettie Rogers Shuler), the same year the the Woman’s Century Club bought the parcel of Capitol Hill land on which its clubhouse would eventually be built.
These days that clubhouse is known as the Harvard Exit Theatre. Constructed in 1925, the building was owned and maintained by the WCC for 43 years. It was one of the most elegant and well-appointed spaces in early industrial Seattle, with a theater, library, meeting rooms, kitchen, and parlor. Despite its founders’ political ideals, the club’s stated purpose was for “quality women of good will” to promote “intellectual culture, original research, and the solution of the altruistic problems of the day.” Its reputation as a meeting place for “the social set” is confirmed in newspaper society pages dating back to the year of its opening. Rentals of the property helped the club to thrive financially, and sponsor lectures, concerts, and other performances. They also threw great parties—a current member tells me the guests included “Clark Gable et cetera” then cautions me that was only hearsay, and she wasn’t there so she cant say for sure; another rumor has Eleanor Roosevelt paying a visit.
Though the club’s outward concern was to civilize “the sordid atmosphere of a rapidly developing western city,” its prime Capitol Hill location, smack in the middle of Seattle’s first posh neighborhood, made it an ideal headquarters for the upper crust—names we know today because of all the streets named after them (David Denny, Sarah Yesler, John Leary). The Harvard-Belmont district was where the money lived, and the Century Clubhouse was where they stepped out. The club members were wives and daughters of the merchants and industrialists who built this city.
However elite its membership, the WCC was community minded. The passage of a 1907 city ordinance that banned public spitting (repealed in 1979) was credited in large part to the club’s actions, as was the establishment of the city’s first public library, the first salaries paid to librarians, the first kindergarten in the city, and the establishment of Traveler’s Aid, a charitable organization for women with children who were new to the city and had no place to go. The club gave generously to relief organizations and established a scholarship for medical students. At its peak, the WCC was 350 members strong, with an additional junior branch for daughters.
By the mid-‘60s, however, modern convenience had collided with the Woman’s Century Club’s financial prosperity. New buildings with better parking began to draw the rentals, and the club—whose membership had dropped to roughly 100 (owing to societal factors much larger than just parking access)—could no longer afford to maintain its beloved HQ. The club sold its building to movie theater entrepreneurs James O’Steen and Arthur Bernstein in 1968 for $75,000, on one condition: That the Woman’s Century Club be allowed to meet there twice a month. The sale still rankles some club members; the building is worth millions today. But the WCC still owns all the furnishings in the lobby, including the grand piano, the deco fixtures, plush sofas, straight-backed chairs, and muted oil landscapes.
Bereft of an income source beyond membership dues ($10 per year today, less in 1968) and interest from the profit on the building’s sale, the club began to fade, kept alive on the diligence and will of its current membership, which numbers around 30. The club’s activities today are limited to twice-monthly meetings to discuss issues and hear lectures, and the administration of charitable donations. These include two annual $1,000 scholarships to medical students specializing in gerontology—the science of aging—and small donations to educational organizations and memorial funds. The club’s low dues and small membership mean substantially less charitable power. They now give in $10 increments.