Wanamaker, Pearl Anderson (1899-1984)

  • By Michael Hood
  • Posted 9/26/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9171
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Pearl Wanamaker was a long-serving Superintendent of Public Instruction (1941-1957), whose years in the non-partisan office addressed World War II educational and vocational demands, and managed the build-up and rural consolidation of the public school system for a swelling World War ll baby boom. She led the state into the modern educational era; state support for education in her tenure increased from 11 percent to more than 50 percent. Her term was marked with progressive programs, modern reforms, and more than a little controversy, She began as a public school teacher in a one-room school house, then turned to public service by winning the office of Island County school superintendent. Wanamaker ran and won three (non-consecutive) terms in the the state House, where she successfully fought for construction of the Deception Pass Bridge. She was appointed to and then re-elected to the Senate. She ran and lost races for the U.S. House and Senate, but found her place in public work by becoming the most powerful Superintendent of Public Instruction in the state's history. With a useful political talent for rallying what were known as the "school forces" -- the education unions, the PTA, and other public school lobbies -- she rarely lost a legislative battle. She is credited with creating such progressive innovations as school nursing programs, community colleges, and programs for handicapped and exceptional children. She served as president of the National Education Association and fought for federal aid to education, a controversial issue in her day. Always a target of conservatives, she was denounced from pulpits and legislative chambers for her strong, progressive views, on education and its funding. An erroneous attack by a national McCarthyite radio broadcaster helped end her 33-year political career in 1956. She married civil engineer Lem Wanamaker and took on the roles of full-time mother and public servant. The couple raised two sons and a daughter. Pearl Wanamaker died in 1984 in Seattle.

Born of Immigrant Pioneers 

Pearl Anderson was born at her family's homestead at Mabana, Camano Island, Washington, on  January 18, 1899. Her parents, Swedish-born Nils Anderson and Johanna Hellman, were pioneers who had emigrated from Finland. Nils, known as "Peg-leg" after losing a leg in a logging accident, made a fortune brokering timber on the Olympic Peninsula and on Whidbey and Camano Islands. The third child, Pearl, had two sisters and a brother.

Nils moved his young family to Seattle to be raised in the Rogers/Seward neighborhood, but held onto their Mabana property for a summer home. In "retirement," after his children were out of high school, he moved back to Mabana where he was to hold such Island County offices as state representative, county engineer, and commissioner and to appear at least once on the same ballot as his daughter Pearl. 

Teacher, Wife, Superintendent, Legislator

Pearl entered the University of Washington at 16, and attended from 1915 to 1917. Answering a call for teachers to replace World War I draftees, she interrupted her education for three years to teach in a rural one-room school in Mabana and to work as an elementary school principal in a two-room school on Whidbey Island,  At times teaching boys older than her 18 years, her duties included keeping a wood stove burning, carrying water, and sweeping floors. During this time, she attended summer school at Bellingham Normal School (now Western Washington University). She  eventually returned to the University of Washington, where she graduated in education in 1922.

After college, Pearl went to Jordan, Montana, as a teacher and dormitory matron, but she had already decided to run for the non-partisan Island County Superintendent of Schools. She returned in 1923 to win that position as the youngest elected county superintendent in the country. She shared the ballot with her father, by then an Island County Commissioner running for state representative. They both won.

Pearl Anderson's job took her to the county's rural schools, many accessible only by ferry or small boat. She shared many hours on these water-craft with the quiet, shy County Engineer, Lemuel A. Wanamaker, They wed in 1927.

Pearl Anderson had run and lost a race for the Legislature in 1926, and Lem made her promise she'd quit teaching and politics to be a homemaker and do the clubby civic duties expected of married women of the time. Within a year, Pearl was bored and with Lem begrudgingly in agreement ("I was pretty well broken in by then," he said), she ran for the 38th District House seat in 1928 (Rosenberg). This time she was successful, running largely on the issue of the proposed Deception Pass Bridge between Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands, which she favored.

A freshman, minority Democrat in the 1929 session, Representative Wanamaker was one of four women in the House. Having run on the the bridge issue and being the daughter and wife of civil engineers, Pearl took great interest in highways and bridges. She helped shepherd the bridge bill through both houses, but it was felled by the busy veto pen of Republican Governor Roland Hartley (1864-1952).

Considering herself a failure after losing a spirited battle to override the veto, Pearl left the Legislature, went back to Camano, taught high school, and had a baby. 

Having Babies, Building Bridges

In three years, Wanamaker had three babies: Robert, in 1932, James in 1933, and Joanna in 1934. Without maternity leave or fuss, she taught school and held public office during her pregnancies. That she was pregnant was not generally known to her professional cohorts. Governor Martin visited the Wanamaker's Coupeville home to ask Pearl to represent him at a Salt Lake City highway conference. He was astonished when told she had just given birth to a baby girl in a Seattle hospital. Wanamaker said, "I never did buy any maternity clothes. The fact that my pregnancies didn't show was due to ... my good posture, my physique, carrying position, a good girdle, and small babies" (Rosenberg-Dishman).

She ran again and was elected to the House in the 1932 Democratic landslide. This time, given a Democratic majority and Governor Clarence D. Martin (1887-1955), she was able to pass the Deception Pass Bridge plan and get it funded without tolls. Pearl Wanamaker presided over its dedication in 1935.

State Senator Armed with "School Forces" 

Wanamaker challenged incumbent 2nd District Congressman Mon Wallgren (1891-1961) in the 1936 Democratic primary and lost badly. A couple of months later, just as she had taken a lobbyist job for the Washington Education Association for the upcoming legislative session, there was a sudden resignation, and Island County Commissioners appointed Wanamaker to a state senate seat. 

As senator, Wanamaker hit her stride as an innovative and adroit solon; she developed her interest and knowledge of education policy and honed her political acumen. She made enemies in the legislative sausage-grind, particularly with conservative Republicans. But she built a power base among her peers and developed a strong, statewide constituency of what was known (sometimes pejoratively) as the "school forces": the public school interests, the PTA, higher education advocates, teacher's unions, and other professional educators' groups.

Julia Butler Hansen (1907-1988), later a force in the House and a durable 3rd District congresswoman, said Pearl was a skillful parliamentarian, who used  "resourcefulness, and forcefulness. I often suspect it was this forcefulness that caused the men to rather shudder at Pearl, but they never failed to come through with the votes when she needed them for education" (Rosenberg-Dishman).  

Wartime Superintendent of Public Instruction 

Wanamaker's predecessor Superintendent of Public Instruction, Stanley Atwood, elected in 1936, was considered by many to be ill-equipped for the job. This dissatisfaction caused educators and others to search for someone to oppose him in the next election. Wanamaker, a teacher and legislative stalwart for education, was a natural choice.

In March 1940, a 50-car caravan of supporters, many of them educators, armed with a 9,000-signature petition, traveled to Wanamaker's Coupeville home to urge her to run. A couple of days later she agreed. In November she won the non-partisan race handily.

In her 16-year tenure as Superintendent of Public Instruction, Wanamaker oversaw deep and sweeping changes in education. Following a national but controversial trend, she began the virtual elimination of one-room multi-grade schools, and the installing of junior and senior high school systems. The old non-system of locally funded and controlled facilities and of narrow, autonomous curricula was fiscally deficient and educationally inadequate to new needs.  

Reorganizing and consolidating local school districts to meet the demands of a wartime nation with a growing population was a massive, costly, and politically painful task that required legislative affirmation and gubernatorial approval. Rural consolidation meant extensive building programs and new taxes. Ruralites saw it as further degeneration of their power and local control. Schools were put into the transportation business with busing, an expensive logistical problem that meant long bus rides, always an emotional issue for parents. The powerful State Grange, fiscal conservatives, and rural legislators opposed Wanamaker and her allies with cries of centralization. Nevertheless, by 1946, the number of independent districts had been reduced from 2,700 to 800.

World War ll could have seen the deterioration of state education, but Wanamaker recognized the need to address the wartime demand for the training of skilled workers. Teachers were in short supply due to loss to the military and schools faced the growing demands of a burgeoning enrollment of war babies. This required such stop-gap measures as emergency certification of teachers with incomplete degrees and rehiring of retirees, but these led to larger-scale re-evaluations and modernizations in certification and teacher-training. Wanamaker completed these reforms between 1944 and 1948.

Wanamaker made headlines by firmly opposing (and winning) the argument against war industry demands that high school students be allowed to work full time. "We must keep our youth in school to prevent a 'lost generation,'" she said (Angelos). 

Named by General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) to the U.S. Education Mission to Japan, she traveled to that country in 1946 and 1950 to study its schools and make recommendations for its demilitarization and post-war reorganization.

Wanamaker championed and got such innovations as community colleges, school nursing, and special education of handicapped children and exceptional children alike. She sponsored the state matching-fund program for local school buildings, and increased teachers' salaries in every budget. Although she always made sure she controlled it, she restructured the State Board of Education from professional educators to lay citizens.  

She began programs for the handicapped, as well as for exceptional children; she pioneered the community college concept, and made enemies in the education community by separating vocational training from other two-year college education. 

'Washington's Fighting Lady' 

All this took lots of state spending and Pearl Wanamaker, sparing no populist tactic, knew how to get the money. Look magazine in 1954 called her a "ruthless fighter" for school budgets, and quoted a legislator fuming, "She drives right into your home town and tells your constituents you're voting against their kids" (Rosenberg-Dishman). She spoke out in effective sound bites guaranteed to make the papers all over the state. When Republican Governor Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) tried to put a freeze on state spending in 1953, Wanamaker, facing a bumper crop of war babies starting school, fought him and Republican legislators, demanding, "Where are you going to put the children, in the deep freeze?" (Post-Intelligencer, March 19, 1953).

Wanamaker had a high national profile, and knew how to use it. She served a hitch as president of the National Education Association (1946-1947), received honorary degrees from colleges and universities all over the country, and made time to appear on many national platforms and in many publications to advocate for progressive education policies.  

A national bogeyman of politics at the time was federal aid to education. Pearl was a fiercely outspoken advocate of it, although she insisted such aid be without government curriculum control. She led the fight to place a federal aid plank in the final report of the 1956 White House Conference on Education. Her activism at the conference got much media attention, and the national notice from conservatives was to play into her eventual political defeat. 

Always controversial, Wanamaker was denounced from pulpits for insisting that the state and federal constitutions forbade parochial school students from using public-school buses. The courts backed this view, but Seattle Catholics and Lynden's Dutch Reformed alike bitterly blamed her.  

At the height of her power, (1952-1956) Pearl Wanamaker fended off several attempts to curb her clout, and punished those who tried. Her budgets and policies were seldom defeated, but her enemies piled up over the years: legislators in both parties, taxpayer's groups, the Grange, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Catholics, the Republican Party, vocational educators, Governor Langlie, and others. 

A McCarthy-Era Episode

After the White House Conference on Education, Fulton Lewis Jr. (1903-1966), a national  right-wing radio commentator and supporter of anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957), criticized the very high-profile part Wanamaker took at the conference, and went after how she conducted her Superintendent of Public Instruction job. Among other things, he railed against her handling of Margaret Jean Schuddakopf, a Tacoma school social worker accused of Communist activities by the notorious 1954 House Un-American Activities Committee. In the televised hearings, chaired in Seattle by U.S. Representative Harold Velde, Schuddakopf had, as had all other local witnesses, taken her Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer whether she was or ever had been a member of the Communist Party.

The Tacoma School Board ruled that Schuddakopf had satisfied the legal employment requirements by signing a loyalty oath. The Pierce County Superintendent, however, bowed to the intense pressure brought by the American Legion and others at raucous public meetings and suspended her. Schuddakopf's appeal landed on Wanamaker's desk and she upheld the school board's original ruling. This made banner headlines, and editorial page comment in the super-heated atmospherics of the McCarthy era. Wanamaker and her office and family were flooded with abusive mail and calls.

Lewis, in a January 6, 1956, broadcast over the Mutual Broadcasting Network, confused Wanamaker with Schuddakopf, and claimed her brother had fled behind the Iron Curtain and renounced his American citizenship. Apprised of his error, Lewis expressed his horror, apologized on air and in a telegram, but Wanamaker was not appeased. She filed suits in state and federal courts throughout the country. A Washington D.C., jury gave her $145,000 and Lewis countersued. This was to drag on for years in courts around the country and never ceased to get media attention. 

The Tough 1956 Campaign

The Lewis broadcast and the rehashing of the Schuddakopf affair happened during the year of Wanamaker's run for a fifth term (1956), and put a sensational edge on what was becoming a perfect storm of Wanamaker's critics, political enemies, and voters with change on their minds.    

Opposition united around Spokane State Senator Lloyd J. Andrews, a fruit rancher with one year as a teacher for educational experience, but who conducted an effective campaign on change. Wanamaker ran her customary arch campaign flying high above her opponent, rarely acknowledging his existence. Using age-old Republican memes, Andrews said the Superintendent of Public Instruction office needed to be run on sound business principles and fiscal accountability. He campaigned with a finger to the anti-Communist winds buffeting Wanamaker, calling for a return to teaching history and civics in "the American Way," and put flags and patriotic symbols in his ads.

He charged that Wanamaker was out of the state too much and that he could deliver more for less of the taxpayers' money. She'd been accused of running a political "machine" and being a "dictator" since her first Superintendent of Public Instruction  election in 1940. Reports of her sharp tongue and "strong-arm tactics" were repeated. In November, the totality of these messages fell on fertile ground. A bitter campaign, it was never really close.  Pearl Wanamaker, 57, lost her fifth term race by 164,845 votes, a substantial margin (Ensberg).

Last Years

After losing her office, she was active in national education circles, speaking all over the country. She worked for Scholastic magazines and served on the Washington State Arts Commission and on many other state and national boards and committees.

Pearl Wanamaker outlived Lem by 20 years. She died in 1984 at the age of 85.  


David N. Ensberg, Pearl A. Wanamaker: Washington Education's Gallant Lady (Ph.D. Diss, University of Washington, 1984); Marie Borovic Rosenberg-Dishman, "Pearl Anderson Wanamaker: Politician," typescript, student paper, University of Washington, 1964, in Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library; "Former State Schools Chief Dies at 85," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 7, 1984, p. B-4; Constantine Angelos, "Pearl Wanamaker, States' First Lady of Education," The Seattle Times, December 7, 1984, p. D-24; "Fighting Lady," Time, February 6, 1956, p. 60; "Education's Number One Saleswoman," Look, October 1954; HistoryLink.org, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Rogers Playground on Eastlake" (by Jules James) http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed September 2009).
Note: This essay was corrected on November 28, 2009.

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