I MET JULIA Butler Hansen, a bona fide force of nature, in the fall of 1961. I was a 17-year-old reporter for the student newspaper at Grays Harbor College. She was Southwest Washington’s new congresswoman, already a legend after 21 eventful years in the state Legislature. She boasted that she once had “decked” a guy who said women had no business being in politics. No one doubted it was true. She told me Grays Harbor always felt like home because she grew up surrounded by loggers, sawmill workers and fishermen in tiny Wahkiakum County along the Columbia River.
Five years later, when I became a reporter for The Aberdeen Daily World, State Sen. Bob Bailey, Hansen’s district representative, worked at the newspaper as a Linotype operator when the Legislature wasn’t in session. He told amazing Julia stories — about how she humbled arrogant men, loathed unctuous lobbyists and became fast friends with Lyndon B. Johnson, even though she admired the Kennedys.
I came to know her well over the next 20 years as she became the most powerful woman in Congress, heading the House subcommittee overseeing appropriations for the Department of Interior. She was a masterful parliamentarian; a lyrical poet; and a self-described “woman with a temper, sensitive to hurt and pain, a tumultuous soul.” She was happiest writing historical novels for young readers or working in her garden.
Hansen always said a woman had to work “twice as hard as a man to get accepted. You can’t be an incompetent woman. If you are, the men will laugh you down the drain.” Women also were “sick of being a bug on the end of a pin,” she said, weary of the notion “that we should be something completely and startlingly different because we’re women. We’re not. We’re citizens.” Early on, when she emerged as a power in the male-dominated Legislature, she was disturbed to discover that, “Women have a fatalistic capacity of being extremely jealous of other women.”
Though Julia Butler Hansen died in 1988, her legacy as an equal rights trailblazer is more relevant than ever. A recent study by the National Women’s History Museum revealed that accomplished women are shockingly underrepresented in K-12 social studies curricula. The 2020 centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment seems a fine time, then, for a fresh look at the life of a suffragist’s daughter who became one of the most honest and effective lawmakers in the history of either Washington. My biography of her is set for publication in November.