John O'Brien defeats Julia Butler Hansen to become the majority Democratic caucus choice for Speaker of the state House of Representatives on December 12, 1954.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 12/26/2010
  • Essay 9676

On December 12, 1954, Julia Butler Hansen (1907-1988) falls short in her bid to become the first woman Speaker of the Washington House of Representatives. Democratic legislators, who hold the majority in the state House, choose John L. O'Brien (1911-2007) over Hansen for speaker by a 29 to 21 vote. Ordinarily, a Speaker's official election when the Legislature convenes in January is automatic once the majority caucus makes its choice, but O'Brien's formal ascension to the office will be more dramatic than usual. The Democrats have only a one-vote majority in the House and O'Brien's election on January 10, 1955, will not be assured until a Democratic representative injured in an automobile accident on her way to Olympia is wheeled into the Capitol in a wheelchair as the session opens. O'Brien will wield the Speaker's gavel longer than anyone to that point, and Hansen will go on to serve 14 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. But although women in Washington will win many other high political offices over the years, as of 2010 none will have attained the Speaker's post that Hansen just misses in 1954.

Legislative Leaders

John L. O'Brien and Julia Butler Hansen were two of the most influential legislators in state history. Both began their legislative careers in 1939 as New Deal Democrats, part of the large state and nationwide Democratic majorities led nationally by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). Hansen won a state House of Representatives seat from her home town of Cathlamet in small Wahkiakum County on the lower Columbia River in the 1938 election. O'Brien, a Seattle accountant, was appointed to represent a South Seattle district in 1939 after the incumbent representative died.

By 1954, Hansen and O'Brien were legislative veterans and key members of the Democratic leadership in the state House of Representatives. During the 1953 legislative session, when Republicans held the majority in the House and named Representative R. Mort Frayn (1906-1993) as Speaker, Hansen headed the Democratic caucus and served as House Minority Leader and O'Brien was secretary of the Legislative Council and the Democrats' floor leader.

After the November 1954 election results returned the House majority to the Democrats -- by a slender one-vote margin, 50 seats to 49 -- O'Brien and Hansen each sought the post of Speaker, one of the most powerful in the state, with the authority to appoint House committees and determine what legislation is considered. Pasco Representative Ole H. Olson also indicated his interest in the post, but gained little traction.

No Barriers?

When the House Democratic caucus, consisting of all 50 Democratic representatives, convened in Olympia on December 12, 1954, a close and potentially bitter contest between Hansen and O'Brien was expected. Hansen's candidacy was historic because winning would have made her the first woman Speaker in state history. Hansen said of her supporters that they "place no barriers because of geography or sex" (Hittle, "Julia Hansen..."), suggesting that some other Democrats did see her gender -- and her rural district far from the state's centers of power -- as potential obstacles.

O'Brien and his supporters left little to chance. Anticipating a close vote, Everett Representative Wally Carmichael, an O'Brien backer who was in the hospital being treated for a blood clot in his leg, traveled to Olympia by ambulance and was brought to the caucus on a stretcher. Carmichael's gesture proved unnecessary. O'Brien won the nomination for Speaker on the first ballot by a surprisingly easy 29 to 21 vote, although the ballot did follow "three hours of wrangling, recessing and side caucusing" ("House Demos...").

As is traditional, once the caucus made its choice all 50 members, including Hansen -- who was nominated for the secondary post of Speaker pro tem -- united behind O'Brien. That unity was essential, given the party's tiny one-vote majority. And as it turned out, although unnecessary in the caucus, O'Brien would need the dramatic appearance of an ailing legislator to ensure his victory over Mort Frayn when the full House opened the new legislative session on January 10, 1955, by electing the next Speaker.

"A Gallant Deed"

Two days before the session opened, Representative Margaret Hurley (1909-2015) of Spokane, her husband Joseph (an attorney who had preceded her as the Third District's representative), and their four children were driving to Olympia when a young airman from Fairchild Air Force Base lost control of his car and collided with the Hurleys' auto near Cle Elum. Representative Hurley suffered a serious ankle injury, her husband's jaw was broken, and their 10-year-old son Stephen Michael Hurley (1944-2007), in critical condition with a head injury, was transferred back to Spokane for surgery (he would recover).

With Representative Hurley's presence doubtful, speculation raged that a 49 to 49 tie would stymie Democratic attempts to elect a Speaker. However, despite her son's condition and being confined to a wheelchair herself, Margaret Hurley made it to the State Capitol, where House sergeant-at-arms Charles Johnson wheeled her into the House chamber in time for the vote. With all 50 Democrats present, the outcome was assured, but both sides went through the protocol of formally nominating their respective candidates.

Everett Representative (and later state Senator) August P. Mardesich (1920-2016) nominated John O'Brien and Hansen made one of the seconding speeches. Republican Representative Fred Mast nominated Mort Frayn. Representative Catherine May (1914-2004) of Yakima, who in 1958 would become the first woman elected to Congress from Washington state (preceding Hansen to the other Washington by two years), seconded Frayn's nomination. O'Brien was elected Speaker by the expected vote of 50 to 49; Hansen became Speaker pro tem by the same margin.

O'Brien thanked his colleagues for "the honor of being elected the Speaker" and, not surprisingly, singled out Representative Hurley for special thanks:

"I also appreciate the devotion of our state representative Hurley of Spokane, who, at great personal sacrifice, is with us. I think it is a gallant deed. She has my undying gratitude" (House Journal).

Record-setting Service

An expert parliamentarian and strict leader, O'Brien held the speaker's gavel for four legislative sessions, setting a record only recently surpassed by current (2010) speaker Frank Chopp. O'Brien's eventual unseating in the 1963 session was even more dramatic than his one-vote victory in 1955: O'Brien was again the choice of a majority of the Democratic caucus, but a small number of Democrats upset by O'Brien's leadership turned the expected pro forma vote on the first day of the session into a true contested election, ultimately uniting with Republicans to select Spokane Democrat William S. "Big Daddy" Day as Speaker on the third ballot.

O'Brien never regained the speaker's job, but he remained in the Legislature, serving in a variety of leadership roles, for another three decades. Before O'Brien finally lost his seat in 1992 (after redistricting forced him to run against another Democratic incumbent, Representative Jesse Wineberry), he achieved recognition as the longest-serving state legislator in the entire nation. In his honor the stone building near the Capitol where most House offices are located was named the John L. O'Brien Building.

Other Washington women followed May and Hansen into Congress; since 2005 women have held the state's three highest elective offices -- governor and both U.S. Senate seats; and the U.S. House of Representatives elected a woman -- Representative Nancy Pelosi (b. 1940) of San Francisco -- as its Speaker in 2007. But as of 2010 no woman has accomplished what Julia Butler Hansen nearly did in 1954 and become Speaker of the Washington House of Representatives.


Leroy Hittle, "Julia Hansen, John O'Brien, Ole Olson Seek State Speakership," The Seattle Times, November 11, 1954, p. 22; Ross Cunningham, "Demos Face Delicate Task In Organizing State House," Ibid., November 16, 1954, p. 3; "House Demos Pick O'Brien for Speaker," Ibid., December 13, 1954, p. 4; "Injury to Legislator Threatens Demo Bloc," Ibid., January 9, 1955, p. 1; "State Solon, 9 Others Hurt in 2-Car Crash," Ibid., p. 6; Hittle, "Legislators Convene With New State Taxes As Major Problem," Ibid., January 10, 1955, p. 1; Robert T. Nelson, "A 'Grand Old Man' Performs His Last Hurrah," Ibid., September 17, 1992 (; Ralph Thomas and Amy Martinez, "Lawmaker John O'Brien, 95, Held Record for Longevity," Ibid., April 23, 2007; Neil Modie, "O'Brien Squeaks By, Sees '92 Term," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 28, 1990 (; Gregory Roberts, "John L. O'Brien, 1911-2007: Longtime Legislator and 'First-rate Speaker,'" Ibid., April 22, 2007; House Journal of the Thirty-Fourth Legislature of the State of Washington (Olympia: State Printing Plant, 1955), pp. 5-10; Don Brazier, "History of the Washington Legislature, 1854-1963," Washington State Legislature website accessed December 15, 2010 (, pp. 162-63; "State of Washington Members of the Legislature: 1889-2009," Legislature website accessed December 15, 2010 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Hansen, Julia Carolyn Butler (1907-1988)" (by Frank Chesley) and "Rainier District Pow Wow (1934-1992)" (by Cassandra Tate), (accessed December 15, 2010).
Note: This essay was updated on September 11, 2015, and on February 11, 2016.

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