Julia Butler Hansen

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Julia Butler Hansen

Julia Butler Hansen (1907-1988) was a Washington state politician who served in the Washington State House of Representatives and in the U.S. House of Representatives. She was the first woman to serve on the House Appropriations Committee and the first woman to head a major appropriations subcommittee.

Julia Butler Hansen was born in Portland, Oregon, on June 14, 1907, the daughter of Donald C. and Maude (Kimball) Butler. She grew up and spent much of her life in Cathamet, Washington, a small town in the southeast of the state where her father had settled in 1891. She attended Oregon State College from 1924 to 1926 and received her B.A. in home economics from the University of Washington in 1930.

After graduation she returned to Cathamet, where she worked for a title company, wrote children's literature, and became involved in local politics. In 1935 she published Singing Paddles which won the Julia Ellsworth Ford Foundation Award for Juvenile Literature. In 1936 she entered politics on the grassroots level, serving as chairwoman of the county Democratic party and becoming the first woman to be elected to the Cathamet City Council. The popularity of Singing Paddles won her a statewide reputation, and in 1938 she was elected to a seat in the Washington House of Representatives, where she served until 1960. "My love is writing, " she said, "politics is accidental."

In 1939, at the age of 32, she married Henry Hansen, a lumberman. Although her husband had little interest in politics, Hansen continued her political career. A veteran campaigner, she ran for reelection in one campaign from a hospital bed, where she had just given birth to a son (David) at the age of 38. In 1960 she left state politics, ostensibly to return to private life in Cathamet, but she was drafted to replace Russell Mack, the Republican representative to the U.S. Congress, upon his death.

Hansen moved to Washington, D.C. in 1960 and served under the administration of John F. Kennedy, first on the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives. By 1963 she had gained a seat on the influential House Appropriations Committee, becoming the first woman to serve on that committee. She later became chairwoman of the House Appropriations Sub-committee for the Interior, which controlled the purse strings for the Department of the Interior, including the National Parks Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Mines, as well as for all national arts and humanities projects. As chairwoman Hansen managed budgets of over $2 billion. Because her home district contained almost all of the fish and timber resources in the state of Washington, it became Hansen's task to try to balance the interests of ecology against the business interests of manufacturers and developers. Her career in Congress was successful in part because of her skilled political maneuverings behind the scenes to obtain favorable legislation for her state, particularly on bills involving the fishing and lumber industries.

In her career in the House of Representatives Hansen managed to overcome obstacles that traditionally had kept women out of key positions in the Congress. Stressing competence and hard work, she became widely respected by her colleagues for her intelligence and knowledge of the House rules. She was selected to chair the Democratic Committee on Organization, Study and Review, known as the Hansen Committee, which was charged with the delicate task of reorganizing the committee system of the House of Representatives to give greater power to junior members.

In the early 1970s she shifted to a more conservative position, but she remained strongly pro-union, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and voted to cut off funds for the Vietnam War after June 1972. Throughout her years in Congress she maintained a steady interest in the problems of Native Americans, working to improve education and living conditions on the Indian reservations.

When she announced her retirement in 1974 she had served longer than any other woman in elective office. "Thirty-seven years is a long time to be pursued by an endless string of people who want everything from post offices to gasoline, " she remarked with her usual candor.

A pioneer, Hansen had been the first woman in many different jobs: the first woman to chair the county Democratic Council, the first woman to serve on the Cathamet City Council, the first woman speaker pro tem of the Washington House, the first woman to chair its Roads and Bridges Committee, the first woman to serve on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, and the first woman to head a major appropriations subcommittee.

As she was not a candidate for the ninety-fourth Congress, Hansen was appointed in 1975 to a six-year term on Washington State's Toll Bridge Authority and the state Highway Commission. She was also Chairman of Washinton State's Transportation Commission 1975-1981. She then retired completely to her home in Cathamet, Washington, where she died May 3, 1988.

Further Reading

For additional information on Julia Butler Hansen, see Esther Stineman, American Political Women: Contemporary and Historical Profiles (1980) and Women in Congress, 1917-1976 (1977). There is also a lively article by Mike Heywood, "Julia Butler Hansen: Alive, Well, Persnickety, " in the Bellingham, Washington Herald (April 11, 1979).

For a chronological summary of Julia Butler Hansen's business and governmental positions, see the Biographical Directory of the American Congress (1774-1996), however, this presented no biographical details. □