Williams, Jeanette (1914-2008)

  • By Jean Godden
  • Posted 7/20/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9087
Alice Jeanette Williams had a long and productive career as a political force in Seattle. She was the first woman chair of the King County Democrats and a 20-year member of the Seattle City Council (1969-1989). Politically savvy and determined, she was known for her passionate dedication to human rights, women's rights, and equality.  She worked on behalf of open housing, low-income housing, parks, transportation, and light rail. When the freighter Chavez rammed the West Seattle Bridge on June 11, 1978, it was Williams who enlisted the help of Senator Warren Magnuson (1905-1989) and managed to raise $60 million in federal funds for the new high-level bridge that now connects that neighborhood to downtown Seattle. In 2009 the City of Seattle renamed the bridge (as a secondary designation) for Jeanette Williams.

Early Years in Music

Alice Jeanette Klemptner was born in Seattle on June 11, 1914, the daughter of Russian immigrants. Her father, Dr. Louis Klemptner, was an eye-ear-nose-and-throat specialist. She went by "Jeanette" although her first name was Alice. She was named -- prophetically -- for a famous woman suffragist, Alice Paul. 

She attended Mercer Grade School and Queen Anne High School. Jeanette Klemptner was precocious, entering Cornish School at 16 and later earning graduate degrees as a violin major at the University of Washington and at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. She was an accomplished violinist who played with the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra and who turned a stuffy string quartet into a band of young women -- the Swingin' Strings -- who toured the country, playing blues and jazz. 

During her travels, she met and married David Williams (1912-1993). In fact, she married him twice, the second time after a divorce that led David to return to school and complete his engineering degree. The couple eventually settled in Northeast Seattle with their two children, George ("Rusty") and Patty (later Kraniotis).

Entering Politics

Politics became Williams’s passion. She served as a precinct committee officer and in 1962 went on to chair the King County Democrats -- the first woman to head that organization or any major metropolitan party. As chair, Williams overturned sexist rules that barred a woman’s vote in caucus without backing from a male precinct committeeman.

She entered politics as a full-time career in the late 1960s, winning election to the Seattle City Council in 1969. She won four subsequent elections to the council during the next 20 years, typically taking 80 percent of the vote. She lost a sixth election in 1989 by a handful of votes to Cheryl Chow (1946-2013), daughter of her one-time ally, King County Councilmember Ruby Chow (1920-2008). 

Seattle City Councilmember 

The list of Williams's accomplishments as a 20-year councilmember is a long one and includes her work in demanding equal pay for equal work in city government. When she joined the council in 1969, there were no women in the fire department and only three in the police department. She focused on changing that.

Seattle Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, who served as her legislative aide for three of her five terms in office, remembers that working for Williams was “scary but fun.” He reports, “She was very demanding and had high expectations of everyone“ (Jean Godden interview). 

Nancy Helen Fischer, one of the state leaders in the women’s movement, often spoke of Jeanette’s pioneering work against discrimination in housing, recalling that she was instrumental in passing an open housing initiative that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or sexual orientation.  Rasmussen noted her commitment to equal rights for gays and lesbians: ""She fought for women's rights and the rights of gay and lesbian people long before it was acceptable, when it was a very courageous and risky thing to do" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). 

Williams, once quoted as saying, “but I AM standing up,” stood 5 foot 1 inch and sported a signature upswept hairstyle, tended by a “Miss Irene.” Her staff,  Rasmussen and Lori Mayfield, once conspired to update her look. They arranged a visit with a new stylist who pruned Williams’ beehive. “When she came back, she wasn’t looking happy,” Rasmussen recalls. “We thought we would be fired” (Godden interview). 

Rasmussen says that his boss was  “unstoppable,” not afraid to take on anyone, adding, “She never met a mayor she trusted.” When Charles Royer  (b. 1939),  was Seattle's mayor, Williams felt that the perennial tug-of-war over policymaking was getting out of hand. So, during budget deliberations, she sponsored a move to cut key positions in the Office of Policy Planning, the mayor’s policymaking arm.  And, as often happened, she was successful at reasserting the council’s role.

Royer never one to harbor a grudge, emceed William's memorial service. He called her “a pioneering political servant," recalling that sometimes “she used to scare me.”  He credited her ability to push through important projects, such as creation of the Seattle Women’s Commission and preservation of the surplus Sand Point Naval Air Station, now Magnuson Park, in the face of private pilots who wanted to turn it over to general aviation.  

Royer recalls that even when he and Williams weren’t seeing eye-to-eye they might meet at her home where, to Royer’s surprise, he discovered that it wasn’t coffee in the pot, it was bourbon.  Throughout City Hall she was famous for her “twackles,” a characteristic explosion that was part twinkle and part laugh.

Kubota Garden 

If there was one word that many have used to describe Jeanette Williams, it was “energetic.” Among her triumphs on the council was the purchase of Kubota Garden, a family-owned Japanese nursery garden in Southeast Seattle. The magnificent 20 acres were for sale, but the city, going through some difficult years, didn’t have money for the purchase.  A developer bought the land, intending to turn it into condominiums.

When Williams heard through a source that the condo deal had fallen through, she  resolved to persuade the City to acquire the exquisite garden. Mayor Royer hesitated, concerned over finding the money -- $1 million – during a tight budget year. But Williams persevered and managed to convince fellow council members to appropriate the funds. Today the garden is a priceless Seattle treasure.  

A Courageous Risk-Taker 

Jeanette Williams was known as a risk taker. She was not only politically, but physically courageous.  In her 70s, she traveled to China, leading a delegation to sister city Chongqing. On a side trip to Tibet, Williams, who never gave up her smoking habit, quickly adjusted to the 12,000-foot altitude and outpaced delegates half her age.  

Although out of office since 1989, she never retired from civic life. She continued to plan for her vision of Magnuson Park as a great people place. Seldom did one attend a community gathering on park grounds but that Williams was there. And, when hearings were held at City Hall on the future of park buildings, she was in the audience, first to speak out in support of her park plans. 

In her final days, suffering from arterial failure, she nevertheless managed to pin a “Barack Obama” pin to her hospital gown. Jeanette Williams died on Friday, October 24, 2008. She was 94 years old.

At her memorial service, held in a packed Town Hall, the mood was upbeat, and the service included a recounting of her many breakthroughs. Son Rusty led the New Orleans-style march to the tune of “The Saints Go Marching In.” He said that it was just the way Jeanette Williams would have wanted it.

Sources: Hector Castro, Jeanette Williams, 1914-2008: Former Seattle Councilwoman," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 25, 2008 (http://www.seattlepi.com/local/385025_williams26.html); Susan Gilmore, "Ex-City Councilmember Jeanette Williams, 94, Dies; Served on Seattle Council for 20 Years," The Seattle Times, October 28, 2008 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); "Jeanette Williams: the Passing of a Seattle Pioneer," Editorial, The Seattle Times, October 30, 2008 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Jean Godden telephone interview with Tom Rasmussen, June 2009; Jean Godden personal attendence at Jeanette Williams's memorial service, Seattle.

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