14 Trailblazing Women Who Transformed Seattle

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You don’t have to look too far in Seattle to find an impressive list of ambitious, intelligent and accomplished women. We figured there’s no better time to celebrate a few of these inspiring leaders and innovators than during Women’s History Month. So gather your go-get-’em kids, and get to know these unbelievable women who have made their mark on Seattle throughout the years.

famous women seattle trailblazers
Burke Museum/Timothy Kenney

Dr. Gabriela Chavarria

Just this month, the Burke Museum welcomed a new Executive Director, Dr. Gabriela Chavarria. Born in Mexico City, this leader in the field of natural sciences got her start at an early age. She studied biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and then went on to Harvard where she earned her PhD in organismic and evolutionary biology. One of the things that drew Chavarria to the Burke is the way the museum showcases its collections, inviting visitors to take a look behind the scenes. As she takes the helm, Chavarria hopes to expand this Inside-Out approach, engaging more people in the important work going on at the Burke. In fact, you may just see Chavarria sharing her own research and work about native pollinators and the importance of bees and landscapes in the coming weeks. A great reason to buzz on over to this area favorite.

via instagram

Tracy Rector

Future filmmakers can turn their lens to Tracy Rector, a self-described “mixed race filmmaker, curator and community organizer.” Rector is the co-founder of Longhouse Media, a non-profit Indigenous media arts organization based in Seattle that nurtures and showcases Native artists and has been celebrated for its youth program, Native Lens. It’s possible you’ve seen her work on Independent Lens, ImagineNative or National Geographic. Her talents have been tapped by the likes of SAM, where Rector served as a curriculum advisor, helping to expand the museum’s Native American wing.

famous women seattle trailblazers
ijeomaoluo.com

Ijeoma Oluo

The written word has unspeakable power. Ijeoma Oluo, a Nigerian-American writer and editor, who was named one of the most influential women in Seattle, gives a voice to issues such as racism, misogynoir, harassment, feminism and social justice. She started out in tech and marketing, but then turned towards blogging and subsequently writing her best-seller, So You Want To Talk About Race, that was released in 2018. It was met with rave reviews and has become a significant guidebook for conversations around American racism. As one of Seattle’s most well known conversationalists about race issues and the invisibility of Black women’s voices, Oluo is here to fight for these important issues and have wit when she does. 

famous women seattle trailblazers
UW Special Collections

Kikisoblu

Our city’s grandaddy, Chief Seattle, along with Doc Maynard, paved the way for the birth of our town through their peaceful friendship and support of each other. Chief Seattle’s oldest daughter, Kikisoblu (a.k.a Princess Angeline) kept that legacy alive for years when she remained in Seattle, even when her beloved Duwamish people were treaty-forced onto reservations. She stayed in her home near what’s now Pike Place Market and became a mainstay around the city. Streets around the area are named after her, as is a shelter for the YWCA that provides support for women experiencing homelessness. She was the last direct descendant of Chief Seattle and is known for her kindness, acceptance and friendship with the early settlers who built up the city.

Insider tip: On Saturday, April 23, the Duwamish Longhouse is hosting a Kikisoblu Princess Angeline tea, featuring traditional Coast Salish tea, food and live Native flute music.

famous women seattle, influential women seattle
Wikimedia Commons

Bonnie Dunbar

This lady is out of this world. Literally! Bonnie Dunbar, aerospace engineer and retired NASA astronaut, flew on five Space Shuttle missions in the ’80s and ’90s. She has logged more than 1,208 hours, or 50-plus days, in space. Following her formal education at the University of Washington, and her first stint at Boeing, Dunbar became a flight controller at NASA and finally an astronaut in 1981. On her space missions, she served as mission specialist and Payload Commander, and has since proved that any little girl has the power to break through that aeronautic glass ceiling if she puts her mind to it. Dunbar also served our community as the President and CEO of The Museum of Flight until April 2010. If anyone has wings to soar, it’s Bonnie.

famous women seattle, influential women seattle
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives/12285

Bertha Landes

This adventurous lady was not only the first female mayor of Seattle, but also the first female mayor of a major American city. She served on the Seattle City Council in 1922 (she and Katheryn Miracle were the first women ever elected to the council), became council president in 1924 and mayor in 1926. Landes was highly active in women’s organizations including the Women’s Century Club, the Women’s University Club and the League of Women Voters. She also served as madame president of the Seattle Federation of Women’s Clubs, representing thousands of women, and even launched a conference that helped establish Seattle as a sophisticated, modern metropolis. During her mayoral term, she appointed experienced professionals to head up city departments, improved public transportation and parks and put the city’s finances in order. The Seattle Opera House is one of her many accomplishments.

famous women from Seattle, influential seattle women
Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons

Sue Bird

Sue Bird, our very own Israeli-American basketball player for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, is certainly a b-baller force to be reckoned with, a mighty Miss amping up the level of women’s sports. Bird was first drafted by the Storm in 2002 as the overall draft pick and has since won four WNBA championships, four Olympic gold medals, two NCAA championships and four FIBA World Cups. She is only one of 11 women to ever attain all four accolades. She has also been honored as one of the WNBA’s top 15 players of all time. In fact, she is the first player in all of WNBA history to win championships in three different decades. She reminds all the little ladies out there to not fade away from the hoop dreams.

famous seattle women influential trailblazer
Eddie Bauer

Melissa Arnot

Can you imagine climbing Mt. Rainier? Now, imagine climbing Mt. Everest. It’s quite the unbelievable feat that only a tiny percentage of people will ever do successfully. Unless you are Melissa Arnot and have climbed Everest no less than six times. As a young climber, she first climbed Mt. Rainier in 2001, only later to become a guide in 2004 and a lead guide in 2006. After years of honing her skills, and a few thwarted attempts at climbing the world’s tallest mountain, she became the first American woman to summit and survive the decent of Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen. She is currently sponsored by Eddie Bauer and is a participant in the development of their First Ascent brand. She has not only made herself an international climbing expert, but a savvy businesswoman and contributor for this popular Seattle-based outdoor gear company.

famous seattle women innovator
Seattle Urban League, UW Special Collections

Thelma Dewitty

We all know how important it was to fight for educational equality, so who better to mention than Thelma Dewitty, the first African American educator ever hired by the Seattle Public School system. In 1947, Dewitty started at Cooper Elementary. Although there was one request for a different teacher, she ultimately won over all her students and their parents. Throughout her prolific career, Dewitty worked at numerous Seattle schools, where she fought against strict school traditions and carved the road for her future African American and women colleagues to follow. Dewitty also worked with the NAACP, the Washington State Board Against Discrimination and the Board of Theater Supervisors for Seattle and King County.

famous seattle women influential trailblazer
Mark Stone/University of Washington

Ana Mari Cauce

We can’t talk about progress of the education system without mentioning Ana Mari Cause. She is an American psychologist, college administrator and the current president of the University of Washington. Born in Havana, Cuba, she relocated to Miami, Florida and then to the Seattle area in 1986. She has grown from being an Assistant Professor to become the first permanent woman president of the institution, as well as the first gay and ethnic minority president at the university. Prior to her appointment as president in 2015, she served as the chair of the American Ethnic Studies Department, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and helped launch The Husky Promise, a tuition-funding initiative at UW. What a testament to barrier breaking if we ever had one.

famous seattle women business influential
olgasagan.com

Olga Sagan

Pike Place Market is the quintessential place to visit in Seattle for locals and visitors alike. As we all know, there are a few places that garner a bit more attention than others, recognizable by the long lines that extend out of the door at all hours of the day. One of those places that people just can’t get enough of is the nationally renowned Piroshky Piroshky bakery. A mainstay at the historic market since 1992, Olga Sagan (sole owner since 2017) has been offering hand-made savory and sweet pastry pies ever since. As an immigrant from Russia, she had to overcome a handful of obstacles, but her determination and her pastry prowess has built a Seattle bakery dynasty. Now with four locations, a food truck and relationships with other well-known Seattle foodie operations, she is on a path to take over the city, one pie at a time.

seattle women inspiring trailblazers
Wikimedia Commons

Megan Rapinoe

One of our favorite locals, Megan Rapinoe has catapulted women’s sports into a whole new sphere. Rapinoe is a professional soccer player who currently captains the OL Reign as well as the US National Team. She is a gold medalist in the 2012 London Summer Olympics, the 2015 FIFA’s Women’s World Cup and the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and finished second in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. She is well known for her play and her activism in many LGBTQ+ and BLM issues. In the past, she has also played with the Seattle Sounders Women in 2012 in preparation for the Olympics. Attendance of those games skyrocketed during her time there. She signed with OL Reign in 2013 and quickly became their leading scorer, garnered her first professional hat trick and was recognized as a Reign FC Legend in September 2019, solidifying herself as a femme footballer and powerhouse who has made her name in not only Seattle sports but women’s sports the world over. 

trailblazing seattle women
Les Talusan Photography

Maiko Winkler-Chin

If there was the perfect voice for our city’s International District, it would come straight from Maiko Winkler-Chin. Winkler-Chin is the Executive Director at the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority. She has been instrumental in keeping up the vibrancy and the ethnicity of this unique area. Chin brings in over 20 years of experience in the community economic development arena and aims to find areas of business growth and revitalization to the ID. Her goals include bringing in business that fits with the cultural character of the area, making sure community members are hired in new positions and influencing projects that may otherwise overtake small shops and local homes. She has also recently been appointed to the Mayor’s task force to help set up a plan for a $100 million set of investments allocated for communities of color.

famous seattle women trailblazers
courtesy Mary-Claire King

Marie-Claire King

Without Mary-Claire King, we might not have the insight into the intricacies of breast cancer and its susceptibility that we have now. King, an American geneticist, was the very first to show that breast cancer can be inherited in some families due to mutations in the BRCA1 gene. If it wasn’t for her and her team’s efforts and research on linkage analysis to prove the existence of this major gene, the race to finally clone the BCRA1 gene (used to repair mutations) would never have happened. Currently, King’s primary focus includes breast cancer, ovarian cancer and schizophrenia; she is also interested in discovering genes that cause common disorders. It’s no wonder she is recognized as one of the 50 most important women in science.

Good to know: Learn about even more local change-makers online, and see how the city celebrates the many strong women who live and lead in Seattle.

—Allison Sutcliffe & Alaina Weimer

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