In 1891, a group of prominent Seattle women founded the Woman's Century Club, a club designed for the cultural and intellectual development of its members and for social service. The club's name referred to the nineteenth century, which many women active in the suffrage movement called the Woman's Century because during that century women had made such great strides.
Members participated in one or more of eight departments, which were (in 1911), Literature and Travel, Music, Art, French, German, Social Service, Parliamentary Law, and Child Study.
Among charter members were:
- President Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947), who was to gain international prominence in the suffrage movement;
- Alice Jordan Blake, the first female graduate in law from Yale University;
- Julia C. Kennedy, Seattle's first and only female superintendent of schools;
- Sarah Kendall, M.D., and Marmora DeVoe Moody, M.D., two of the first women to graduate from medical school; and
- Celeste Slausson, founder and director of the Seattle Conservatory of Arts.
The women met in their departments "fortnightly" and each department contributed an annual afternoon program for the entire membership. These events were reported in women's newspapers and in the society sections of Seattle's dailies.
For example, in 1912 the Western Women's Outlook reported that a Mrs. Vincent, chair of the Music Department was "beloved and admired by all her co-workers, she being able to get the very best work from each ... ." That year Music Department members had studied German and Italian opera. The program given for the entire club was a reading of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "Enoch Arden" accompanied by piano. "Nothing more beautiful has every been given at the club house. This followed by a tea with its attendant hospitality is something long to be remembered" (Western Women's World Vol. 28).
The Social Service Department studied issues concerning women and children. They then devised action plans to change laws, provide needed services, and bring about improvements.
The club paid the salary of the city's first librarian, helped found the Martha Washington School for Girls (a reform school), led the fight to raise the age of consent from 12 to 18; and, in 1907, successfully lobbied the city council to pass a law prohibiting spitting in public.
In 1896, the club hosted Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, who conducted two days of workshops and public lectures. The club's political activism peaked in the mid-1920s when its 350 members helped elect a former president, Bertha Knight Landes (1868-1943), as Seattle's first and only woman mayor.
In 1925, the Century Club built its stately brick clubhouse at Harvard Avenue and Roy Street on Capitol Hill in a neighborhood that was a center for women's activities. Cornish School, founded by Nellie Cornish (1876-1956), sat cattycorner from the building, and the Daughters of the American Revolution House was under construction across the street. Prior to raising funds for its own building, the Century Club had helped fund a new clubhouse for the State Federation of Women's Clubs, located three blocks south on Harvard Avenue. (This building no longer exists.)
From its heyday as a bastion of women's social and cultural life, the Century Club gradually fell victim to its own success. As women gained access to government and to the workplace, it no longer served as their primary power base. Faced with a declining membership and increasing maintenance costs, members voted to sell their building in 1968 with the provision that they could continue to use it for meetings. A clause in the new owner's contract requires maintenance of the parlor in its original state as a meeting place for the club. Members continued to meet bi-monthly in the velvet-curtained parlor of the former clubhouse that is now home to Harvard Exit movie theater. These leisurely meetings were reminiscent of a bygone era, complete with luncheons served on delicate bone china.
Today (2011) a new generation of club members meets monthly in the parlor. The still vital and now revitalized club presents programs devoted to history, the arts, and community service, awards a scholarship to an outstanding female student each year, fosters ways for members to engage in community service together, and maintains the club's 120-year archives and its website.