Ruby and Shirley

Before Hillary, there were Ruby Chow and Shirley Bridge, here fondly remembered by a woman inspired by their early examples of setting a high bar for civic leadership.
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Ping and Ruby Chow. (OCA)

Before Hillary, there were Ruby Chow and Shirley Bridge, here fondly remembered by a woman inspired by their early examples of setting a high bar for civic leadership.

In many ways, last week marked the passing of an era. Many of us listened with sadness as Sen. Hillary Clinton, first serious woman presidential candidate, suspended her campaign. Her announcement, coincidentally, followed closely on the news that two amazing Seattle women, Shirley Bridge and Ruby Chow, had died within days of each other.

Before Hillary, there was Shirley and there was Ruby.

Shirley and Ruby had very different career paths, but both rose to prominence, setting the bar high for civic leadership. They never saw a glass ceiling they couldn't shatter. I count myself unbelievably fortunate to have known both and to have had an opportunity to write about their remarkable legacies.

I will never forget my first acquaintance with Shirley Bridge. At the time, I was a 20-something volunteer working at the League of Women Voters of Seattle, sending out meeting notices and press releases and writing for the League's newsletter. I kept encountering Shirley at the League office. She was there so often that I thought she must be a paid staffer. But, like me, she was an eager volunteer. No task was too mundane for Shirley; no cause too daunting. Yet the League was only one chapter in Shirley's civic career.

Earlier she had defied convention to earn a degree in pharmacy, becoming one of this state's first women pharmacists. She worked in the profession for 40 years and never stopped using her medical knowledge to help others. It assisted her in what would be her own 53-year battle with one primary cancer after another.

At Shirley's memorial service at Temple De Hirsch Sinai last week, Betsy Lieberman, executive director of Building Changes, recalled Shirley's work helping people with AIDS. Said Lieberman, "She'd look over their medications and say, 'I wouldn't take that one if I were you — too many side effects.'"

Shirley forged a second career as a volunteer, working on social issues dealing with women's rights, human rights, health care, and Jewish charities. The list of groups she spurred to great deeds is long. So are the recognitions and awards she received for her philanthropy, including the naming of the Shirley Bridge Bungalows for families and single adults with AIDS.

It would be easy to feel remote from this gulf of greatness, were it not for a few human foibles. When son Jon Bridge spoke at Shirley's service, he recalled that his mother hadn't excelled at driving or cooking. So challenged were her automotive skills that she customarily left the driving to Metro. Of her cooking, he said (and I paraphrase), "I grew up thinking vegetables and fruits grew in cans."

Ruby Chow, like Shirley Bridge, was very much a woman before her time. Born on a Seattle fishing dock, the eldest daughter in a family of 10, she dropped out of high school to help support her family. It's awesome to think that some years later she would break her glass ceiling by becoming the first Asian American on the King County Council. Elected in 1973, she served three terms before retiring in 1985.

I first met Ruby when she and her husband. Ping Chow, were the owners of Ruby Chow's Restaurant on Broadway at Jefferson Street. For years, the distinctive, red-painted establishment was a fashionable hangout for politicians, business moguls, and journalists. To receive an invitation to celebrate Chinese New Year at Ruby's was the sign you had arrived.

Her success as a restaurateur established Ruby's leadership and underscored her role in advocating for Chinese immigrants. She went on to become the first woman elected president of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association. In 1952, Ruby founded the Chinese Community Girls Drill Team, which today is directed by Seattle School Board Chair Cheryl Chow, Ruby's only daughter — the middle child of five. The drill team has trained generations of girls who — like Cheryl — have grown into womanhood with the belief that the sky's no limit to their achievements.

Ruby's activism on behalf of her South Seattle district is legendary. Her advocacy for quality bilingual education in Seattle Schools put that goal on the map. Her work on behalf of immigrants and refugees gave rise to many others who would take up the charge. In the 1960s, she helped the late Wing Luke become the first Asian American to win a seat on the Seattle City Council, and later she worked to elect Gov. Gary Locke and King County Executive Ron Sims.

One of Ruby's endearing qualities was her sense of humor. As a columnist for Seattle dailies, I kidded Ruby about her signature hairstyle. High and sculptured, Ruby's hairdo may have added as much as eight to 10 inches to her diminutive stature. Once I wrote that, along with other Seattle icons, the city ought to preserve a can of Ruby's "industrial strength hairspray." Other politicos would have complained. Ruby laughed.

Some years later, when I ran for Seattle City Council, Ruby was one of my early and ardent supporters. She insisted I show up at her home for Chinese New Year (good for budding politicians) and attend Chinatown dinners, where she made sure we met lots of supporters. When I wanted to leave one of Ruby's events, she demanded I accept an escort to take me — a seasoned reporter — safely to my car. She not only was a strong-willed activist and irresistible political force, but she was a matriarchal model to all.

It is incredible that Ruby Chow would leave us the same week as Shirley Bridge — two Seattle women who showed us there are no barriers that cannot be surmounted. They helped put women at every table where decisions and policies are being made. Women of all ages can take inspiration from the lives of these two amazing women who made their own way, loved life to its fullest, always gave back to the community, and kept their families loved and close at hand.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.