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Friday, November 13, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Century Of The Woman -- Predictors Of Progress: This Year's Empowerment Is No Surprise To The Woman's Century Club

To the club women lunching on pinwheel sandwiches in the velvet-curtained parlor of the old brick building on Capitol Hill, the empowering results of this political year are no particular news.

Their founders predicted as much a century ago.

The exact year was 1891. And as women were doing across the United States, they formed a club to try to civilize the "sordid atmosphere" of their rapidly developing city. They called themselves "The Woman's Century Club" because, as one founder wrote, "The present is indeed women's century."

Ironically, the prophecy came true and, eventually, contributed to their decline.

"They wanted women to come to the fore and be full people in their own right, not shadows of their husbands," says financial secretary Leontine (Lee) Wilson, 75, who served with the Army Corps of Nurses during World War II.

But, nowadays, "Women don't want to volunteer. They want to be paid for what they do. I can't blame them."

Indeed, fewer than 40 names are on the club's active membership roster. All are well over 50 years old. A number are nearing 80. And a very few are almost as old as the club.

"Our women come from everywhere. But, my dear, it has dwindled," laments current president Sherry Swett Raatz, 59, who for this meeting dressed in jade georgette with a Phi Beta Kappa key on a gold chain around her neck. Raatz, an entertainer during World War II and an early TV actress and model, still sings, dances and composes.

In its heyday, this was a powerful group, 350 volunteers with "juniors" in training. They helped found the Seattle Public Library, paid part of the first librarian's salary and persuaded the Board of Education to start the first kindergarten. They helped start the Martha Washington School for Girls (who needed help or were orphaned), as well as Traveler's Aid, for women with children new to the city with no place to stay.

Newspaper stories credit them with pushing through Seattle's 1907 law banning public spitting, repealed in 1979 as archaic and unnecessary.

The club's founder was Carrie Chapman Catt, a world-famous leader of the international suffrage movement. Among its 10 listed charter members were Mrs. Alice Jordan Blake, first female graduate in law from Yale College; Mrs. Julia C. Kennedy, first woman school superintendent in Seattle; Mrs. Sarah Kendall, M.D.; and Mrs. Celeste Slausson, founder and director of Seattle Conservatory of Arts.

Bertha K. Landes, president of the club from 1918 to 1920, was later elected mayor of Seattle, the first female mayor in the United States.

"We have a beautiful history and I think it deserves being hung on to and preserved," says financial secretary Wilson.

Today's members refer to one another as "dolls," "lovely persons," "nice ladies" and "honeys." These niceties don't mean they are without pithy remarks about the modern scene.

"You'll find our level of reading is past the Madonna book," comments Janet Clark, 67, first vice president.

And as for this Year of the Woman?

"Ahhhhh. I'm kind of bored with that," says Clark, a retired contract negotiator for Boeing who ran for state senator 30 years ago and lost.

"I think we were just as capable of doing this 30 years ago as we are now. We're not smarter. We were always smart."

Ruth Priest, 72, adds a few truisms learned growing up in the Catskill Mountains of New York state.

"Root, hog. Or die," just about sums up her philosophy. Translated for the younger urban generation: God helps those who help themselves. She certainly did. And she thinks other women have done a pretty good job of it, too; changing with the times as they have, though they may be going a little too far these days, not taking care of the children as they should. She doesn't remember that it was ever so awful for homemakers, at least not where she was brought up. People were simply supposed to respect each other for what they did.

Career jaunts took Priest to Europe and Africa, including Casablanca, where at age 26 she met her husband in a hotel lobby. She was the first female studio control engineer in New York City during World War II for CBS, NBC and the Office of War Information. Later, she edited a small weekly paper in Eastern Washington.

Trim and tailored, Priest doesn't expect women politicians to be much different from men.

"People are people. Once they get the bit in their teeth, you don't know where they'll go." But she wishes them well.

Priest lives around the corner "in one of those old Anhalts," only blocks from the passing parade on Broadway.

"Those girls with the green hair, I just adore them. You just know their grandmothers had blue hair."

Her location also is quite convenient to The Woman's Century Club, which always holds meetings on the first and third Fridays of the month in the dignified building at the corner of Harvard Avenue East and East Roy Street.

Now known as the Harvard Exit movie theater, The Woman's Century Club built it as an elegant clubhouse in 1925. Its theater, library, committee rooms, fully equipped kitchen, and parlor with tall, arched windows and grand piano made it an elite spot to rent out for fine social and business occasions, high-school proms and wedding receptions.

Gradually, newer facilities with better parking began to compete. Unable to maintain the facility, The Woman's Century Club sold the building in 1968, with the provision that it be allowed to keep meeting there.

The earnings from the invested profits of that sale enable today's club to give away $4,000 each year in donations and scholarships to such groups as the University of Washington Medical School, Seattle Youth Symphony, Woodland Park Zoo, Search & Rescue and local missions.

Meetings today proceed at an unhurried pace. There's a lovely lunch with linen table cloths, silver and sparkling glassware; a speaker on some up-to-the-minute subject, from the endangered snow leopard to gangs and drugs; the Pledge of Allegiance; and club business matters with Eugenia Sheldon, recording secretary and head of the Sunshine committee, standing to read the minutes with great care.

The members of The Woman's Century Club then vote according to Roberts Rules of Order on what groups deserve their support.

"They're an amiable bunch, not fighting causes as a rule. . . . As one gets older, you don't need to be hit over the head too hard," says Priest.

Since they are in the midst of a membership drive, club members are reminded before adjournment to each bring a friend to the next meeting. Less than a handful of new members have joined in the last few years.

One of them is Capitola (Capi) Rockwell, 80, who found the programs and members "so interesting."

Also, the club does things "very nicely" with teas and beautiful table settings - "things that are passe in this particular age," she remarks.

For 25 years, Rockwell did clerical work for the buyer in the book shop at Frederick & Nelson - "It was such a blow to have them close."

In those days, Frederick's expected its employees to meet the highest standards of taste in their dress, standards Rockwell hasn't forgotten. Last week, she wore a brown jersey two-piece suit - a dressmaker suit, not off the rack - belted at the waist with collar and buttons in a leopardlike print. She left the suit's matching leopard hat at home. "Hat's are so passe, too," she says. "You just don't wear the things we used to."

It's hard for Capitola, named so by her father after a favorite heroine in a turn-of-the-century novel, to even comprehend some of younger women's thoughts. For one thing, it's very disturbing that some are willing to live with men before marriage. And she is very chagrined by the language a lot of younger women use.Then, too, more are into "real active sports . . . running and lifting."

"They just don't seem to fit the feminine category. Although we know that our great grandparents had to do a lot of hard physical work just to survive."

However, she's a real champion of women's achievements in politics. Rockwell can remember how excited her mother was over winning the right to vote.

"She thought it was the most wonderful thing. . . . She always impressed on me how important it was . . . because women had waited so long."

And so Rockwell believes: "It's just marvelous that women can make their mark in a man's world," as long as they don't lose their manners and femininity.

As Capitola once was, guests are welcome at any meeting of The Woman's Century Club. "There are lots of women sitting around home wondering what to do. They could become part of us and make a contribution to society," says Lee Wilson, also president of the Seattle District Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs.

The annual May breakfast, at least 60 years old and one of the nicest affairs of the year, would be a good time to come, she says.

"Things are very well-planned, and we're very particular about our menu."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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