WHC Biographical Profile
Julia Butler Hansen
by Anne Kilgannon, Oral History Project Manager
Washington State Oral History Program
Julia Butler Hansen was born in Portland, Oregon June 14, 1907. She was the oldest child of Maude Kimball Butler and Don Carlos Butler of Cathlamet, Washington. She had two younger brothers, James and Donald, born in 1908 and 1911 respectively.
Julia was very proud of her American ancestry. On her mother's side of the family she came from a long line of New England stalwarts who first came to Washington Territory in 1877. James Freeman Kimball and Julia Ann (Blood) Kimball, Julia's maternal grandparents, first settled near Tumwater and then moved to Wahkiakum County in 1882. James ran an early logging camp while Julia Ann did the bookkeeping, one of the first women to do so in the Territory. Their only daughter Maude was born in 1880.
Julia Ann was a strong-minded woman who cherished her right to vote during the brief period in territorial history when Washington women were granted that right. She raised her daughter Maude to be active in the community and independent in spirit. Maude was early encouraged to develop her artistic talents, a passion she enjoyed throughout her life. She became a teacher at age seventeen and was elected Superintendent of Schools for the county in 1903 and then re-elected for a second term. She worked for safer school buildings, rural school consolidation, hot lunches, and other issues of the day.
Maude married Don Carlos Butler in 1905. He had arrived in Cathlamet in 1891 from his home state of Kentucky after working his way across the country as a carpenter. He bid and won the contract to build the new Wahkiakum County courthouse next door to the Kimball home where he boarded. Later, he continued his work as a contractor and carpenter and served as Wahkiakum County sheriff. He died in 1916 after years of illness, leaving Maude with three children.
In 1919, the youngest child Donald was killed in a road accident. Maude left Cathlamet in 1920 to rebuild a life for herself and remaining two children in the Orting-Buckley area where she took a teaching job to support her family. The family remained there until the mid-1930s when they returned to their home in Cathlamet. Julia and James went to school in Buckley, and then Julia attended the Oregon State College and the University of Washington from which she graduated in 1930 with a degree in Home Economics, specializing in institutional management. She worked in various positions and briefly operated a tearoom in Bellingham but the hardships of the Depression era circumscribed her opportunities and forced her return home to Orting. In 1935 the family returned to Cathlamet to rescue the house from renters and re-establish themselves in the community.
Julia evidenced an early interest in politics as a child and developed her commitment to the Democratic Party, first in Pierce County and then in Cathlamet. Her family had been Republican but Julia was early won over to the party of Woodrow Wilson, and especially Franklin Roosevelt. She joined the Young Democrats and worked for the re-election of FDR in 1936. She was active in her county and also began to make contacts and a name for herself statewide and beyond. She helped support the family in the late 1930s to mid 1940s by working as the office assistant to the Wahkiakum County Engineer, where she absorbed valuable lessons in the politics and management of road systems. Later, beginning in 1958, Julia worked as the office manager for the G. Henry Hanigan Title and Insurance Agency.
Besides political work, Julia immersed herself in local history and wrote Singing Paddles, a historical novel for children describing the early fur trade era along the Columbia River. She won the Julia Ellsworth Ford Foundation award for her book in 1935, validation of her talent and a spur to a lifelong dream of authoring more works of fiction. She continued to write plays, poems and stories when her busy schedule allowed.
Julia married Henry Hansen in 1939. He was a blacksmith and logger in Cathlamet. Henry was always very supportive of his wife's activities and political involvement. He shared her ideal of serving the community. Their only child, David, was born in 1946. With the help of her mother, Julia was able to continue her political career.
Julia began her career as an elected official in 1937 serving on the Cathlamet city council for eight years, the first woman. She was concerned about development in the area and the need for more services. Cathlamet received its first road in 1930 connecting it to areas outside the community other than by boat. There is a story that Julia visited the State Legislature with friends, and sitting in the gallery, predicted that one day she would find herself there. Through her party connections, Julia did get a position during the 1937 Session of the Legislature. She began as a clerk-typist but rose to work in the bill drafting room, an excellent school for learning the legislative process. She also rose in the party ranks, being elected vice president of the Washington State Young Democrats in 1937.
In 1938, Julia was persuaded to run for a legislative seat in District Eighteen. She won and went to Olympia to serve in the 1939 Session. The state was still slowly recovering from the Depression and was mired in economic troubles but the resurgent Democratic Party was strong. Clarence Martin was governor and both the Senate and House had huge Democratic majorities. As well as several other assignments, she served on the Education Committee and Roads and Bridges, beginning her long association with two of the most important committees in her legislative career.
By the following session of 1941 Julia was chairman of the Education Committee and deeply involved in education issues with her strong partner Pearl Wanamaker, state senator and then Superintendent of Public Instruction. She again chaired the Committee in 1943 and 1945, losing the chairmanship in 1947 when the Republicans won the majority. Although Julia began to pour her energies into the Roads and Bridges Committee by the late 1940s, she continued to serve on the Education Committee and be a powerful voice for education her entire career in the House of Representatives. Like her mother, Julia championed school lunch programs, better teacher contract laws, retirement systems, and promoted community colleges. She was involved in reorganizing funding for schools and was a sponsor of a new State Library building.
Julia first chaired the Roads and Bridges Committee in 1949. The system of roads in the state had suffered from underdevelopment since the time of the Depression and War. Julia developed a program of building that envisioned a coordinated and complete system to link the communities of the state with modern limited access highways and bridges. Except for the 1953 session, again under Republican majority rule, Julia chaired the Committee, renamed Highways in 1955, until she left the House in 1960 to serve in Congress.
During her Highways Committee tenure, Julia was instrumental in the passage of the 1951 bond issue that initiated the building of the north/south highway system that became Interstate-5. She pushed through the creation of the State Highway Commission that same year, depoliticizing the highway program and greatly augmenting resources for building projects. She was also involved in the creation of a state ferry service and the construction of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, White Pass highway and the main east-west highway, Interstate-90. Bridges constructed under her supervision included the Second Tacoma Narrows; Agate Pass; Columbia River bridges at Wenatchee, Bridgeport, Pasco-Kennewick and Vancouver-Portland; Aberdeen; Hood Canal; and the Evergreen Point Floating bridge over Lake Washington. She promoted a cross-Sound bridge but was not able to win that legislative battle.
Julia served on and then chaired the Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Highways, Streets and Bridges from 1947 until 1959. She also chaired the Eleven Western States Committee on Highway Policy from 1951 until 1960.
As chairman of the Elections and Privileges Committee, Julia was the prime sponsor of legislation that ensured women's equal participation on county and state central party committees.
Julia was a recognized leader in the House Democratic caucus. She served as caucus chair in 1953. In 1955, Julia challenged John O'Brien for the Speakership of the House. No woman had yet held such a high position of leadership in the House. She was narrowly defeated by O'Brien who went on to hold the Speakership for a record four terms. Julia served instead as Speaker Pro Tempore for three terms and wielded power within the caucus in other ways, primarily as chair of the Highways Committee.
In 1960, when Russell Mack, the Representative from the Third Congressional District, died, Julia ran for the seat and was elected. She proudly attended the inauguration of John F. Kennedy and was an ardent supporter of the new president. Julia served during four presidencies: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford.
Julia served on the Education and Labor Committee, Veterans Affairs, Interior and Insular Affairs Committees. She was the first woman to chair a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in 1967, in charge of Interior and Related Agencies. As such, she reviewed the budgets for twenty-eight different agencies, federal road systems, energy programs, administration of public lands, national parks, timber and mineral lands, and programs for Native Americans as well as the Trust Territories. She was especially noted for her interest in and care for the needs of Native Americans, and for projects that impacted western development. She also warmly supported funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. She was a powerful chairman and adroit fighter for causes important to her and her district.
In foreign affairs, Julia supported President Kennedy's Alliance for Progress in Latin America. She opposed the proliferation of arms sales in the Third World and supported the cut-off of funds for the incursion of military activity in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. She was among the petitioners calling for UN action to end the Vietnam War, but was a strong supporter of services to veterans of that conflict.
In 1970, Julia was named as chairman of the Democratic Committee on Organization, Study and Review which examined the entrenched committee structure, rule by seniority and other rules. Her committee pushed through new rules which transformed the operations of Congress and opened up positions for younger members. She also served on the Democratic Steering Committee.
Julia retired from Congress in 1974, intending to return home to Cathlamet and a private life. She immersed herself in gardening, writing and community activities, while caring for her husband in the last years of his life. However, in 1975 she was appointed by Governor Dan Evans to serve on the State Transportation Commission, which she chaired in 1979-1980. Catastrophic events such as the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the sinking of the Hood Canal Bridge required energetic state responses beyond the complex issues already the responsibility of the committee. Julia also served on Petroleum Energy Allocation Board, appointed by Governor Dixy Lee Ray.
Julia retired from these state appointments in 1980 and returned to her activities and home in Cathlamet. Her husband Henry died in 1981 and she followed him in 1988. Among many honors, Julia was awarded the Washington State Medal of Merit in 1989, accepted by her son David. Representative Max Vekich, who nominated her, called her "one of the greats. There's no question about it. She was the epitome of dedication, toughness and effectiveness in both the Legislature and Congress." Senator Warren Magnuson in summing up her career and contributions said, "No one ever represented her people better than Julia Butler Hansen."