Julia Butler Hansen was one of the most powerful female legislators in Washington state history, amassing a long list of "firsts." She served nine years on the Cathlamet, Washington, Town Council, 21 years in the state House of Representatives, 14 years in the United States House of Representatives, and five years on the Washington State Highway Commission. She came from tough, self-reliant pioneer, suffragist stock and was imbued by her grandmother and mother with self-assurance and a deep social conscience. She was known in the state Legislature as "Madam Queen," then "The Lady of Cathlamet," and "The Little Old Lady in Logging Boots" the latter tag attributed to Henry Gay (1926-1999), iconoclastic editor-publisher of The Shelton-Mason County Journal. She relished the "rough and tumble" of creating legislation and enjoyed outstanding success in hitherto traditional male bastions. While functioning well in the halls of power, however, she strengthened her family's deep bonds, called Cathlamet home, and was "old-fashioned" about her house and her domestic skills. She was married for 42 years to Henry Hansen, a logging blacksmith 24 years her senior, and the Hansens had one son, David. Julia Butler Hansen died in 1988 in Cathlamet.
Daughter of Strong-Minded Women
Julia Carolyn Butler was born on June 14, 1907, in a Portland, Oregon, hospital to Don Carlos and Maude Kimball Butler, residents of Cathlamet, Washington, a logging and fishing town on the Columbia River.
Julia’s maternal grandparents, James Freeman Kimball and Julia Ann Blood Kimball, had immigrated to the Pacific Northwest from New Hampshire in 1877, settling in Wahkiakum County in 1882. James Kimball was a logging company superintendent and Julia Ann kept the company books, a rare job for a woman at the time. They bought a house in 1885, supplemented their income by taking in boarders, and four generations of Butlers and Hansens would call it home.
Julia Ann Kimball was “strong-minded” (Kilgannon), with a deep social conscience and ardent encouragement for education. ... She didn’t like the West’s survivalist life, but adapted to the frontier. Julia Butler Hansen later said, “[M]y grandmother was an excellent shot” (Meyers). She also was an outspoken suffragist, at a time when women in the Washington Territory briefly had the right to vote (1883), lost it (1887), and didn’t regain it until 1910.
The Kimballs’ only child, Maude, was born in 1880, in Portland, and Julia Ann passed on her self-reliance, educational expectations, and the inalienability of women’s rights. According to Julia Butler Hansen, “My grandmother never, never considered that she hadn't the right to talk and do and say what she pleased on the subject. That was the way my mother was, too” (Meyers).
A Mother in Politics
Maude Butler blossomed, passed her state teacher’s exam at age 16, and taught school at Skamokawa (pronounced “ska-MOK-away"), a smaller village about seven miles downriver from Cathlamet, at Eagle Cliff, a cannery about nine miles upriver, and ultimately in Cathlamet. Maude, however, was not some backwoods schoolmarm. At 23, with her mother’s encouragement, she ran for Wahkiakum County School Superintendent -- though she couldn’t vote -- and became the first woman to hold the post. She later won re-election. She also was the Cathlamet correspondent for three newspapers, a talented artist, and she was superintendent of the Congregational Church Sunday School. She was a member of Eastern Star and the Daughters of the American Revolution as well.
In 1905, when she was 25, Maude married Don Carlos Butler, a 40-year-old Kentuckian and Spanish American war veteran who had worked his way across the country learning the carpentry trade. He had been one of Julia Ann’s boarders and she had known him before she began her educational travels. Butler had won the contract to build the new county courthouse and later served as Wahkiakum County sheriff.
A year later, Maude became pregnant with Julia, but holding public office while pregnant was not considered proper and she was asked to resign. She refused and finished both terms. Julia, born in 1907, was followed by two brothers, James and Donald, born in 1908 and 1911.
Brought Up To Serve
Julia's father, Don Carlos Butler, died in 1916, at age 50, after a long illness. Julia was 8. Three years later, her brother Donald was hit by a delivery truck outside his home and subsequently died, the first auto fatality in Wahkiakum County. The tragedy turned Maude to Christian Science and Hansen would become “a devout Scientist” as well, her son David said.
In 1920, Maude took a teaching job in Orting, Washington, and then, for 12 years, served as principal of Wickersham Grade School in nearby Buckley. Julia was home-schooled through age 9 but graduated from Buckley High School in 1924. She had a sharp tongue, a sense of humor and, her mother said, “She was always very good in English” (Emery). She edited the high school paper and considered a career in journalism.
She was hefty, like her mother and grandmother, athletic, and played baseball and football with the boys on the block. Hansen was close to her mother and she was raised “with an obligation to serve in some way ... your country or your community or something, and it was just something that was implicit in my childhood” (Hinsch).
“Average American Girl”
She attended Oregon State University and the University of Washington, twice each, seeking a comfortable social milieu, again considered journalism as well as law for a career, but settled on home economics. She envisioned managing a restaurant or tearoom. To help support herself, she taught swimming, worked as a family helper and summers as a Girl Scout camp dietitian. ”I was just a carefree, average American girl that sometimes liked to study and sometimes didn't, that enjoyed sports, enjoyed everything” (Hinsch).
She graduated in 1930, as the country was sinking into the Great Depression, and briefly operated a tearoom in Bellingham, but all the town’s sawmills shut down two weeks after she was hired. The experience reinforced her belief in the government’s responsibility to provide a social and educational safety net. “We were very close to a revolution in those early thirties. ... I saw the bread lines. I saw unemployment ... five and six blocks of people after one or two jobs in Seattle” (Hinsch).
James also would graduate from college and go on to become head of the drama department at the University of Southern California.
Julia returned to Orting and in 1932 and 1933, with no jobs to be had, she wrote a historical novel for children about the early Columbia River fur trade called Singing Paddles, which won a Julia Ellsworth Ford Foundation award for children's literature in 1935.
Becoming a Young Democrat
Political gabfests were part of the Butler dinner-table fare and they must have piqued Julia. At age 9 she had precociously supported the re-election of President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), which angered grandmother Julia Ann, a devout Republican. (Maude also voted Republican, until 1932.) Hansen worked on the ill-fated 1928 presidential campaign of progressive New York Governor Al Smith (1873-1944), and in the 1932 campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). In the winter of 1933, with nothing better to do, she talked a friend into visiting the state Legislature in Olympia. Absorbing the proceedings from the gallery, she recalled saying, "You know, I think I'll sit here someday" (Hinsch).
The family moved back to Cathlamet in 1935 and reclaimed the house that had been rented during the Orting-Buckley sojourn.
Julia joined the Young Democrats and was elected county chairman -- in a small county with less than 3,000 population and not many Democrats. Democratic Party officials quickly recognized her political potential and persuaded her to work in the state Legislature to gain more experience. She worked briefly in the stenographers’ pool at the 1935 Legislature and was quickly promoted to the bill-writing room.
From Citizen to Public Servant
In 1937, Julia Butler, displeased with the town’s roads, sewage system, and schools, ran for the Cathlamet Town Council, and was the first woman elected to that body, where she served until 1946. She also was elected vice president of the state Young Democrats in 1937. In 1938, she was encouraged to run for the District 18 legislative seat, which included Wahkiakum and Cowlitz counties. Initially reluctant, virtually broke and fretting about finances, she nonetheless used shoe leather and persistence to campaign. A journal keeper, she began a new diary during the campaign and with sometimes-poetic insight, revealed the concerns that also motivated her: “shanties, broken gates, weary looking women” (Ring Anderson). She received 1,039 votes, defeating J. K. Van Buskirk, a Democrat with 585 votes, and Wendell H. Judd, a Republican with 538 votes. Thus she launched a history-making, 22-year career in the state House of Representatives.
In July 1939, following her first legislative session, Julia eloped -- to Vancouver -- to marry Henry Hansen, a recent widower and a logging company blacksmith. She was 32, he was 56. Henry Hansen was born in the nearby Elochoman Valley and was a longtime family friend. Henry's father, Chris Hansen, had worked for Julia's grandfather, James Kimball, in the 1880s. They had come from different social strata, but Henry strongly supported his wife's political involvement and they were devoted to each other.
Their only child, David, was born in 1946. With mother Maude helping to care for David, Hansen was able to continue her political career. “I was very close to my grandmother,” David said. “She gave me an interest in history.” (David earned his bachelor of arts degree at The Principia, a college for Christian Scientists, in Elsah, Illinois. He would go on to earn a master’s degree in history from the University of Washington and for 30 years served as curator of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.)
The Rough and Tumble of Politics
The state was still suffering from the Depression, Democratic Governor Clarence Martin (1887-1955) had been re-elected, and the Democrats controlled both legislative houses with large majorities. Of the 99 House of Representatives members, four were women, but it was still a male world in style and substance, still an era of the “little lady” and “honey.” But Julia Butler -- who was the true offspring of frontierswomen Julia Ann and Maude, who was raised to the sounds of logging-camp lingo, who played football with the boys on the block, who was already immersed in Cathlamet politics -- had little trouble adjusting to Olympia.
The 60-day session paid $5 a day and although some legislators accepted “help” from lobbyists, Julia Butler Hansen scorned the practice. The town council position paid nothing, and to help support herself and the family, she worked in the Wahkiakum County Engineer's Office -- where she was also schooling herself in the down-home basics of politics and highways. At one point, she shared an apartment with Catherine May (1914-2004), a Republican representative from Yakima with whom she would later share a seat in the United States Congress. In 1956, she took a freshman Republican representative from Seattle under her wing -- future Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925).
She moved easily into the House power structure, tending to her Democratic party duties and socializing. “Her sharp tongue, good sense of humor and her willingness to join in a late night drink ... all contributed to her effectiveness.” She once said, “I have a knack for legislation and I like the rough and tumble of legislation” (Ring Anderson). She made her presence felt throughout the House, but enjoyed history-making roles in education and transportation issues. Her devotion to education had been inculcated by her grandmother and mother and her devotion to transportation also early roots. Cathlamet and environs didn’t have a road until 1930 and when Julia was growing up, the only way in and out of town was by steamboat. She also acknowledged the added effect of her brother’s traffic death.
She was a member of the Education Committee from 1939 to 1960 and chairman four times. During most of Hansen’s tenure, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction was Pearl Wanamaker (1899-1983), a former teacher, state Representative, and state Senator, and equally strong voice for public education. The pair forged a synergistic, powerful alliance. “To many observers, this was considered the ‘Golden Age’ of Washington education” (Ring Anderson). Among their accomplishments: the junior college (later community college) system, a minimum wage and other improved conditions for teachers, nursery schools and kindergartens, summer camps, and school lunch programs, and improved state funding for education.
A Stellar Résumé
Education may have been considered a suitable area of interest for a female legislator at the time, but highways were not. Hansen, however, soon found a seat on the Roads and Bridges Committee (renamed Highways in 1955) and by 1949 became its first female chairman. (She scorned the politically correct “chair” and everyone called her “Julia.”) By the time she left the House in 1959, she had:
Reformed a highly formed politicized, corrupt highway funding system and created a bipartisan state Highway Commission;
Shepherded creation of the highway system that would become the Interstate 5 corridor, as well as the secondary road system and several major bridges, including the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge across Lake Washington;
Oversaw establishment of Washington State Ferries in 1951 when the state Toll Bridge Authority took over the Black Ball Line, for $6.8 million.
She maneuvered one of her major goals -- a bridge across Puget Sound -- through the House but the plan died in the Senate, by one vote.
Hansen served on the Legislature’s Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Highways, Streets and Bridges and served as chairman from 1947 to 1959. She also was the first female chairman of the 11-state Western Interstate Committee on Highway Policy, 1951-1960.
“‘Mrs. Hansen did as much for transportation in Washington as anyone in this state's history,’ Gov. Booth Gardner said” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 5, 1988).
Home and Career Both
She briefly considered quitting the Legislature when David was born, but her “understanding” doctor said, "You know, you're never going to be happy just staying home, and besides your son will be better off if you don't make him the center of your life and treat him as a possession" (Hinsch). But she was hard on David, along with everyone else. “I was terrified of Mother,” David recalled. “She was a strict disciplinarian.” However, David also remembered: “Every Sunday morning in her room she would tell amazing animal stories. Make them up.” And although she was devoted to her legislative career, “she was also known to excel at traditional feminine skills. She was an exceptional hostess, cook, and interior decorator” (Ring Anderson, P. 135). She described herself as “very old fashioned” about her house (Meyers).
Hansen had come from a line of full-figured women and a lard-laden diet, but also had gained considerable weight during her pregnancy. The doctor ordered her on a diet and when she returned to the Legislature her slimmed-down figure was the news of the day.
Hansen kept busy on other issues beyond public education and highways:
As chairman of the Elections and Privileges Committee, she sponsored legislation that ensured women's equal participation on county and state central party committees;
She wangled an assignment to the powerful, policy-making Rules and Order Committee;
In 1953 she was Democratic Minority leader of the House and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus;
She challenged Seattle Representative John O'Brien for the House Speakership in 1955, another first for a woman, and was narrowly defeated;
But she was rewarded with an appointment as speaker pro tempore of the House -- yet another first for a woman -- where she served three terms.
Hot and To the Point
Through it all, Julia Butler Hansen was by turns tough, compassionate, and occasionally ruthless. “Presiding over a hearing, she was hot and to the point -- unmerciful if the witness was unprepared, late or seemed stupid” (Carter).
In the 1950s, when Representative Art Avey of Kettle Falls took issue with some highway budget procedures, Hansen snarled, “Somebody ought to tell that son of a bitch Avey to buy lots of road graders because they’re not going to have any paved roads in his district” (Ferguson).
“Julia was a shrewd politician,” said Mitchell Doumit, a longtime family friend and onetime challenger. “She’s always known how to campaign and get votes. I don’t know where she learned it. ... She doesn’t make wasted motions” (Barovic-Rosenberg).
Hansen remained chairman of the Wahkiakum County Democratic Party Democratic Central Committee and active in state Democratic politics. She supported the family for a time as manager of a title and casualty insurance business.
After peaking on possibilities after 19 years in the state Legislature, Hansen decided to run for the 3rd Congressional District seat held by Russell V. Mack (1891-1960), but in March 1958, after her 78-year-old mother suffered a heart attack, withdrew.
Two years later, Mack died suddenly, on the floor of the House, and Hansen ran again for a seat in the 86th and 87th Congresses. She defeated Republican State Senator Dale M. Norquist of Centralia, 76,930 to 67,060, and would go on to win re-election six times. The seat in the 86th Congress would bestow some all-important seniority and the 3rd District became “a virtual political fiefdom” (Prochnau).
John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected president that year, defeating Richard Nixon (1913-1994), and Hansen became an ardent supporter of Kennedy’s New Frontier. She moved the family -- Maude, now 80; Henry, now crippled, and David, a high school freshman -- to a townhouse in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. David remembered “culture shock, to go from a small town on the Columbia River to Washington, D.C. It was tough.”
Hansen became the second female congresswoman from Washington state, following her old Olympia roommate, Catherine May from Yakima, who was elected in 1958 in the 4th District.
Hansen’s congressional tenure spanned one of the most tumultuous periods in modern American history -- from the emerging civil rights and environmental movements, Medicare and the other “Great Society” initiatives of President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973), the assassinations of John Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy (1925-1968), and the Rev. Martin Luther King (1929-1968), to the Vietnam War and the anti-war demonstrations, several major Cold War crises, Watergate and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).
But Hansen adapted quickly. Alan Thompson, a onetime aide and later a Washington state senator, said, “She knew what it took to get others interested through ‘obligation, fear, or inspiration.’” While attending a cocktail party for new members of Congress, for example, she introduced herself to Louisiana Representative Hale Boggs (1914-1972), the Democratic whip, learned that Boggs’s daughter-in-law was looking for a job “and Julia hired her on the spot” (Ring Anderson, p. 129).
Hard Work and Patience
Given her highways expertise, she sought a seat on the Public Works Committee, but was assigned to the Veterans Affairs, Education and Labor, and the Interior and Insular Affairs committees. She again bided her time and took care of business, for the House leadership and for her constituents. “Vacations” were visits to community meetings back home. “A lot of members didn’t do that,” David Hansen said. “That’s what defeated Maggie [Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989)] in 1980.” (After 43 years in Congress, Magnuson lost his Senate seat to Slade Gorton in the Ronald Reagan-Republican landslide.)
In 1963, a seat opened on the Appropriations Committee, somewhat ironically, when Representative Don Magnuson --Washington state’s 7th District Representative for 10 years -- lost his re-election bid. A few congressmen objected to a woman on this purse-string committee, one of the most powerful in the House. But Speaker John McCormack (1891-1980) did not, and Committee Chairman Clarence Cannon (1879-1964) (D-MO) testified that “the time ‘was long overdue’ for feminine representation on his committee” (Johnson).
She became only the second woman on the committee, following Florence Kahn (1866-1948) of San Francisco, the first Jewish woman in Congress, who served from 1925 to 1937. The Appropriations appointment also gave Hansen seats on the subcommittees on Foreign Operations, Transportation, and Interior and Related Agencies.
Maude Butler died on December 9, 1963, at age 83.
A House Power
Hansen was named chairman of the Interior subcommittee in 1967 and would devote most her remaining Congressional career to those responsibilities. Her panel oversaw the budgets of the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, fisheries management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Trust Territories, Virgin Islands, Guam and Samoa, and the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities.
Hansen's biennial campaign literature, usually a simple, mimeographed, black-and-white “Fact Sheet,” catalogued all the millions of federal dollars that flowed to the 3rd Congressional District and the Pacific Northwest with her help. Despite the importance of logging and log exports in her district, she opposed the exporting of logs from federal lands, a controversial issue at the time. On foreign policy, she opposed growing arms sales in the Third World and supported President Kennedy's Alliance for Progress in Latin America.
Unlike some of the more junket-prone members of Congress, Julia made only two foreign trips, to South America -- a social-services fact-finding trip in 1965 and a presidential inauguration ceremony in Colombia in 1966. Like most members in Congress, she initially supported the Vietnam War but became progressively more disenchanted. “There wasn’t any end. It was like getting into a swamp” (Tanzer, p. 7).
In 1968, Hensen offered another proposal for an Equal Rights Amendment -- an annual effort in Congress since 1920. It went nowhere, as had such submissions before and since.
In 1970, Hansen was named chairman of the Democratic Committee on Organization, Study and Review -- the “Reform Committee.” It was spawned by the liberal Democratic Study Group and charged with overhauling the House’s antiquated power structure -- decentralizing a system long-dominated by a conservative old guard. The committee included some of the most powerful names in the House -- Phillip Landrum of Georgia, Olin Teague of Texas, Phil Burton of California, Frank Annunzio of Illinois -- but Hansen was a moderate with a reputation for fairness and an ability to work with the conservatives on the panel. Iowa Representative Neal Smith said, “Her real contribution was her ability to keep conversations going and to orchestrate the proposals being made” (Dilger). Over the next three years, the committee thrashed out a series of reforms which decentralized the committee and seniority power structure and eliminated some of the secrecy, though not enough for liberal legislators and groups such as Common Cause.
The aerospace race had spawned international competition for a supersonic transport (SST) and Congress in 1966 had awarded a contract for the United States entry to the Boeing Airplane Company. Congress poured more than $1 billion into Boeing’s SST, which was competing with the French-British Concorde and Russian Tupolev Tu144. But critics called it a white elephant, environmental concerns mounted, and the U.S. Senate narrowly killed further funding in March 1971.
The SST vote prompted a letter from Hansen to Seattle Post-Intelligencer publisher Dan Starr shortly thereafter, and it was published as an op-ed piece. Her wide-ranging, meandering discourse saw the SST vote as “only the beginning of a wide-ranging assault on the Northwest,” with the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, oil refineries and tanker traffic, the energy industry, and timber harvesting also in jeopardy (Hansen).
The Watergate scandal consumed the country during the early 1970s and Hansen had been among those calling for President Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. When Gerald Ford (1913-2006) -- an old friend and respected House colleague -- became president and pardoned Nixon a month later, Hansen sent Ford a letter saying, “I admire your courage and your forthrightness in pardoning President Nixon” (Julia Butler Hansen Archives). The archives contain an exchange of letters on the issue and Hansen agreed with the nation’s need for closure on the issue.
Hansen was known to be tough on her staff and “she joked about this reputation by sharing an anecdote. Her son David asked (aide) Joe Carter if he had seen (the 1970 movie) Patton. ‘No,’ replied Joe, ‘but I work for her'” (Ring Anderson, P. 141).
Hansen was also a member of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, 1970-1974, and wrote a bicentennial play for Cathlamet during that period.
Shortly thereafter, Hansen announced her retirement from Congress. She was 67. Henry was 91 and ailing, needed more care, and wanted to spend his last years at home. Her “retirement,” however, didn’t last long. Before she left Washington, D.C., Governor Dan Evans, her old legislative cohort from the 1950s, appointed her to an open Democratic seat on the Washington State Toll Bridge Authority and State Transportation Commission -- the commission she had created.
She served as Transportation Commission chairman in 1979-1980 and two major catastrophes hit during her watch: the collapse of the Hood Canal Bridge on February 13, 1979, and the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980. The controversy over completion of coast-to-coast Interstate 90 across Mercer Island with a new floating bridge across Lake Washington also was resolved during her tenure. The state’s transportation priorities had changed since the 1950s, when Hansen “was the Queen Bee of the bulldozer-asphalt complex ... .” but so had Hansen. She now was a champion of a more balanced system that included more public transportation, and favored a study of a monorail from Seattle to Olympia. (Layton).
Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) was elected governor in 1976 and she appointed Hansen to the Petroleum Energy Allocation Board.
Hansen retired from her various public responsibilities for good in 1980, at age 73. Henry was crippled, almost totally blind, bed-ridden the last two years of his life, and needing constant care. Henry Hansen died on December 16, 1981, at age 98.
In one of a series of retrospective and prescient interviews with Kathryn Hinsch in 1980 and 1981, Hansen said: “I think probably one of your worst problems in government today is the lack of participation by the average person. Also, the management by television of the government, the affairs, the people, the average person sees a news broadcast and television has the ability to make you either look good or bad on television, and they dominate ... ”
She has been honored by the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge for the Columbian White-tail Deer, the Julia Butler Hansen Elementary School in Olympia, and the Julia Butler Hansen Bridge connecting Cathlamet and Puget Island in the Columbia River. She also has been honored for her efforts on behalf of The National Foundation for the Arts, and actor Gregory Peck (1916-2003) in 1968 attended an appreciation dinner for Hansen in Longview, to say thanks. She received several other awards during her long career, especially for her efforts on behalf of Native Americans and the environment.
In her retirement years, Hansen wrote children’s stories, was working on a novel, puttered in her beloved garden, cooked, baked, and kept at her needlepoint. She died on May 3, 1988, in Cathlamet.