If Pierce County’s historic town of Steilacoom is the “place of firsts,” then a woman born there should be considered its matriarch. Clara Antoinette McCarty was the first graduate of the University of Washington, the first woman to hold an elected office in the territory, the first superintendent of public schools in Pierce County and apparently the first area resident to own a typewriter.
Her story is largely lost to history, but her legacy will live on for generations of college students who have lived in a residence hall that bears her name. Her life also illustrates the pioneering spirit that still defines the region.
McCarty’s parents, Jonathan Warren McCarty and Ruth Jane Kincaid McCarty, were among the first settlers in Sumner and operated a farm there. Along with many other families in the area, they fled their farm to the safer harbors around Fort Steilacoom during the unrest of the Indian War of 1856-1858. She was born at Fort Steilacoom in 1858.
The family returned to their farm only to find it burned to the ground. They rebuilt and lived near the Stuck River until McCarty was 12 years old. The family then moved to Seattle so the children could attend school while their father worked as a shopkeeper.
McCarty then enrolled in the newly founded Territorial University of Washington. Her freshman class had only 17 students, and she was the only one to graduate, making her not only the first woman, but the first graduate of the university. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in June 1876. In later years, she told a reporter:
“The tuition was $30 a year and books were shipped from around the Horn from the east. Even in the ‘70s, about 20 students a year worked their way through. Typewriters and fountain pens were unknown and even notebooks and pen and ink were scarce. Nearly all writing was done with pencil on foolscap paper.”
She then became a teacher in Pierce County before moving to Oakland for post-graduate work at the University of California. She returned to the area to teach in Tacoma and the Puyallup Valley. Public schools were few and far between in those days, but settlers were flooding the area, prompting the need for a unified school system.
McCarty stepped up. She was 22 years old.
In 1880, she was elected to the newly formed position of superintendent of schools in Pierce County, making her the first woman elected to public office in the territory and the first person to ever hold that office. McCarty won the post three years before women in the territory obtained the right to vote in local elections and 40 years before that right was recognized for federal elections. She supervised the schools in Tacoma, Orting, Sumner and Puyallup.
She married John H. Wilt in 1882 and opted out of seeking reelection. McCarty’s service to the region did not stop with the end of her political career, however. She served as the secretary of the YMCA and volunteered for civic, historical and church projects until she died in 1929. She was 71 years old and is buried in Sumner.
A University of Washington dormitory, built during the construction boom of the 1960s, was named in her honor. However, McCarty Hall was torn down in 2015 as part of the university’s $240 million redevelopment plan that also include Madrona and Willow Halls. A new hall bearing her name is under construction and will open to students by 2019.