HANSEN, Julia Butler

HANSEN, Julia Butler
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object


Julia Butler Hansen’s seven terms in the House capped a 43-year career in elective office on the city, state, and federal level. Her legislative interests focused on issues affecting western states, such as transportation infrastructure, resource management, and improving the quality of life of Native Americans. As the first woman to chair an Appropriations subcommittee, Hansen thoroughly enjoyed the workings of Congress, once commenting, “I have a knack for legislation, and I like the rough and tumble of legislation.”1 Admired by her House colleagues, Congresswoman Hansen chaired a Democratic Caucus committee in 1974 which recommended procedural reforms that reined in committee powers and made exclusive committees more accessible to junior Members.

Julia Carrie Butler was born in Portland, Oregon, on June 14, 1907. Her father was a carpenter and her mother a schoolteacher. “I was raised by my mother and my New England grandmother, who believed that idle hands were the devil’s workshop and I was always raised to keep busy,” she recalled.2 Julia Butler attended Oregon State College from 1924 to 1926, and while working as a dietician and swimming instructor, eventually graduated from the University of Washington in 1930 with a degree in home economics. Two years before marrying blacksmith Henry Hansen in July 1939, she was elected to the city council of Cathlamet, Washington, where she served until 1946. The lack of a transportation infrastructure in Washington state brought Hansen into politics: “You couldn’t help but be interested in transportation when you came from this area because we did not have a road in or out of here until 1930,” she recalled.3 Between 1939 and 1960, Julia Hansen served in the Washington state house of representatives, eventually rising to speaker pro tempore from 1955 to 1960 and chairing several committees: education; highways; and elections and privileges. One of the major transportation projects that Hansen helped develop was the state’s extensive ferry system. She also chaired the Eleven Western States Highway Policy Committee from 1951 to 1960, managed a title and casualty insurance business from 1958 to 1961, and, all the while, helped to raise her only child, David.

In 1960 Hansen won the Democratic primary for the special election to fill the southwestern Washington seat held by Representative Russell Vernon Mack, who had died in office. On November 8, 1960, Hansen defeated Republican Dale M. Nordquist, 53 to 47 percent, to fill Mack’s unexpired term in the 86th Congress (1959–1961).4 On the same November 8 ballot, Hansen prevailed by the same margin against Nordquist for the full term to the 87th Congress (1961–1963). Hansen’s election was impressive, considering that she was one of just two Democrats from Washington who won election to the House in the 87th Congress. Representative Donald Hammer Magnuson had won by fewer than 200 votes in his Seattle district and, in the presidential balloting, Richard M. Nixon led John F. Kennedy by about 30,000 votes statewide. In Congresswoman Hansen’s six subsequent bids for re-election, she was never seriously challenged, winning with a range from 57 to 70 percent of the vote, including a 66-to-34 percent win in her final campaign in 1972.5

Although Hansen’s House service commenced on the date of her special election, she was not sworn in to office until January 1961 at the start of the 87th Congress. She received assignments on three committees: Veterans’ Affairs; Education and Labor; and Interior and Insular Affairs. Within a month, she left Veterans’ Affairs, at the request of Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, who planned to place her on the influential Ways and Means Committee.6 That position never developed, but, when a spot opened in the following Congress on the powerful Appropriations Committee, Hansen was on the short list of potential candidates for the exclusive post. Only one other woman, Representative Florence P. Kahn of California in the 1930s, had served on the committee. Representative Hansen used the political prowess she had developed during three decades in state and local politics to lobby for the assignment. Appropriations Committee Chairman Clarence Andrew Cannon of Missouri had told her in a letter, “I’d love to have a woman on my committee.” Hansen’s chief competition, Representative Arnold Olsen of Montana, lobbied Cannon by saying, “You don’t want a woman on your committee.” From Hansen’s perspective, Chairman Cannon wavered and appeared ready to deny her the post. An intense competition developed, with Hansen threatening Cannon through an emissary, “You wouldn’t want your opposition to women and your letter to me to appear in the press, would you?” To Olsen she said directly, “If you want to run versus me on the basis of knowledge, experience, and what votes we can get, fine. But if you are going to run versus me on grounds that I’m a woman, I’ll go out to Montana where I often go to make speeches to Democratic women, and I’ll cut you to pieces out there.”7 The next day Olsen conceded, and Hansen secured the post that she held for the duration of her time in Congress.

In 1967 Hansen became the first woman in House history to chair one of the Appropriations Committee’s 13 subcommittees—and the only one until Barbara Vucanovich of Nevada in 1995.8 When she was under consideration for the chairmanship of the Interior and Related Agencies Subcommittee on Appropriations, Chairman George Herman Mahon of Texas, who succeeded Cannon, privately polled other committee members as to whether or not a woman was an appropriate candidate for the position. Hansen cornered him: “Mr. Chairman, have you ever run around and asked the members of the committee if a man would make a good chairman?” She recollected years later that Mahon “looked kind of sheepish” and quit his surveying.9

As one of the 13 Appropriations “cardinals,” Hansen relied on her legislative experience to master floor procedure and to navigate the deal making that went on behind committee doors. An allusion to the “College of Cardinals,” who elect and advise the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, the cardinal title was meant to convey the power and authority vested in the handful of Appropriations members who shaped federal appropriations. As the Interior and Related Agencies chair, Hansen thoroughly grounded herself in floor procedure. “If you know your parliamentary procedures you’ve got no problems,” she observed. “The parliamentarian said to me after I handled my bill for the first time, ‘Julia, I’m going to quit worrying about you.’”10 Martha Griffiths of Michigan later recalled that Hansen “probably understood more of how to deal with power than any other woman who was ever in Congress.” When she brought her first bill as subcommittee chair to the full committee, Chairman Mahon decided to test her. “Oh, Julie, you’re going to have to cut at least $2 million out of that bill,” Mahon said. Hansen complied. The next morning, after conferring with her subcommittee, she reported to Mahon that she had cut $2.5 million from the bill. “Julie, that’s wonderful,” Mahon said. “Where did you take it out of the bill?” She replied, “Right out of your district, Mr. Chairman.”11 The episode only enhanced Hansen’s popularity and stature on the Appropriations Committee.

From her Appropriations seat, Hansen helped parcel out federal funds for government-owned land for each of the annual budgets for a decade. Her subcommittee, which Hansen claimed “had a deep interest in the environment long before it was fashionable” was the first to appropriate funds for the development of the Alaska Pipeline and helped pass the stipulation that oil companies pay for the cost of any environmental cleanup—a requirement that she said was responsible for the careful construction and development of the project. In addition, she used her position to promote and protect federal forests and national parks. Hansen’s interest in protecting the environment often caused friction with developers from her home state, especially in her timber-rich district.12

Hansen did not share the focus on women’s issues of the younger feminists who came to serve in Congress during the 1970s. Hard work and determination shaped her career and her outlook. “Women of my generation who entered public office had a very different kind of experience than those who come in today,” she recalled. “There was little women’s movement … and one had to work one’s way up the political ladder without too much assistance from either men or women. When I was one of four women in the Washington state house of representatives, in 1939, the other 95 members could not have cared less whether we were there or not.”13 In 1972, however, she did vote for the Equal Rights Amendment. Though sympathetic to efforts in the early to mid-1970s to create a formal caucus for women’s issues, Hansen ultimately did not support the proposal.14

During her final term, Hansen chaired the Democratic Caucus Committee on Organization, Study, and Review (also known as the Hansen Committee), which recommended the first changes in committee structure since passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946.15 It was a delicate task, and Hansen’s role in the project demonstrated her colleagues’ admiration for her work and her sense of fairness as a widely respected moderate. The Hansen Committee reviewed a controversial plan to change committee jurisdictions and to reform procedures proposed in 1974 by the Select Committee on Committees, headed by Richard Walker Bolling of Missouri. Hansen’s alternative plan, which passed the House by a vote of 203 to 165 on October 8, 1974, included provisions to expand permanent committee staff, to prohibit voting by proxy in committee, to require committees of more than 15 Members to have at least four subcommittees, to empower the Speaker to refer bills to more than one committee (to resolve jurisdictional disputes), and to mandate that the House meet in December of election years to organize itself for the next Congress. The Hansen Committee, however, abandoned most of the far-reaching jurisdictional changes proposed by the Bolling Committee.16

The episode pitted much of the House leadership and senior Members against the Bolling plan, while many junior Members, including half of the Democratic freshmen, were against the more conservative reforms enacted by the Hansen plan.17 Though Representative Hansen herself believed in the need to restrict the number of committees on which a Member could serve, she had reservations about radically altering the seniority system to more quickly advance younger Members. One reporter asked her if she supported an age limit for committee chairs. Hansen replied, “Would [you] suggest that the Democratic Party should be the first group to go down to the office of discrimination and explain why, against the law, they have discriminated against anybody over 65?” Years later she observed, “They’ve got young people in Congress now to a large extent, and I don’t see that they’ve done a damn bit better than the old boys did. That’s where—you know, there is a great thing for experience. You know, with age comes some wisdom and some experience and some knowledge.”18

Even before the Hansen Committee circulated its proposals, Congresswoman Hansen announced in February 1974 that she would not run for renomination to an eighth term and resigned her seat on the last day of the year. She cited overwork and the grind of being “pursued by an endless string of people who want everything from post offices to gasoline.”19 Hansen had been a prize-winning author long before entering politics, writing a work of juvenile fiction, Singing Paddles (1935). In retirement she continued her writing endeavors as an author and playwright. She also stayed active in government administration. In 1975 she was appointed to a six-year term on the Washington state toll bridge authority and state highway commission, which she had helped create during her years in the state legislature. She chaired the Washington state transportation commission from 1979 until her resignation in 1980. Julia Hansen resided in Cathlamet until her death on May 3, 1988.20


1Julia Butler Hansen, Oral History Interview, 3 March 1980, U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (hereinafter referred to as USAFMOC), Manuscript Room, Library of Congress, Washington, DC: 19.

2Hansen, Oral History Interview, USAFMOC: 21.

3Hansen, Oral History Interview, USAFMOC: 21.

4Michael J. Dubin et al., United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Publishing, Inc., 1998): 620.

5Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

6Hansen, Oral History Interview, USAFMOC: 4.

7Interview with Representative Julia Butler Hansen, May 1968, Research Interview Notes of Richard F. Fenno, Jr., with Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1959–1965, National Archives and Records Administration. Carl Albert recalls a different competition between Hansen and another Member, apparently when she was still being considered for the Ways and Means Committee.

8Karen Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999): 113.

9Hansen, Oral History Interview, USAFMOC: 9.

10Hansen, Oral History Interview, USAFMOC: 9.

11See Martha W. Griffiths's Oral History Interview with the USAFMOC, also at the Library of Congress.

12Hansen, Oral History Interview, USAFMOC: 5–7; Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 282; Karen and Herbert Foerstel, Climbing the Hill: Gender Conflict in Congress (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996): 24.

13Susan Tolchin, Women in Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976): 35.

14Irwin N. Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 167–168.

15Tolchin, Women in Congress: 35; John Kornacki, "Julia's Committee: Overlooked Impact," 9 September 2003, The Hill: 7.

16For more on the Bolling Committee and the Hansen Committee, see Julian Zelizer, On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and Its Consequences, 1948–2000 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 139–151.

17Zelizer, On Capitol Hill: 150.

18Hansen, Oral History Interview, USAFMOC: 15.

19Mary Russell, "Rep. Julia Butler Hansen to Retire," 7 February 1974, Washington Post: A3; Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women: 113.

20“Julia Butler Hansen Dead at 80,” 4 May 1988, Seattle Times: D1; Jack Broom, “Julia Butler Hansen’s Life Was Full of Interests, Accomplishments,” 5 May 1988, Seattle Times: H1.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of Washington Library
Manuscripts and University Archives Division

Seattle, WA
Papers: 1926-1974, 200 feet. The papers include congressional office files, correspondence, legislation and subject files, speeches, and material relating to committee work. An unpublished guide is available in the library.
Papers: In the Julia Butler Hansen Committee papers, 1961-1974, 2.5 linear feet. The records consist of files kept by James Carty from 1960-1974. The bulk of the records is correspondence between James Carty and Hansen pertaining to his position as treasurer of her legislative and congressional campaigns. Also included are James Carty's financial records for Hansen's campaigns, copies of press releases and newsletters from Hansen to her constituents. A guide for the papers is available in the library and online.
Papers: In the Marie B. Rosenberg-Dishman papers, ca. 1931-1972, 9 feet. Subjects include Hansen.

Library of Congress
Manuscript Division

Washington, DC
Oral History: In the Oral History Collection of the Association of Former Members of Congress, 1974-1980, 230 items. Restricted. Sound recording in the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division; transcript available in the Manuscript Division.

Princeton University
Mudd Manuscript Library

Princeton, NJ
Papers: In the David Lawrence papers, 1901-1975, 163 cubic feet. Correspondents include Hansen.

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Schlesinger Library

Cambridge, MA
Oral History: 1974-1976. The oral history collection includes an interview with Hansen conducted by Katie Louchheim. An unpublished finding aid for the interviews is available in the library.
Papers: In the Dolores Alexander papers, 1960-1973, 4 linear feet. Hansen included among subjects covered.

Stanford University
Hoover Institution Archives

Palo Alto, CA
Papers: In the Raymond Moley papers, 1902-1971, 293 boxes. Hansen included among correspondents.

University of California, Berkeley
Bancroft Library

Berkeley, CA
Papers: In the Conservation Associates records, ca. 1959-1979, 3 cartons. Hansen included among subjects covered.

University of Oklahoma
Carl Albert Center Congressional Archives

Norman, OK
Papers: In the Carl Bert Albert papers, ca. 1910-1997, 993 cubic feet. Other authors include Hansen. An inventory for the papers is available in the repository.

University of Texas at Austin
Briscoe Center for American History

Austin, TX
Papers: In the Sam Rayburn papers, 1831; 1845; 1903-2007, 118 feet. Subjects covered include Hansen.

Washington State University Libraries
Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections

Pullman, WA
Papers: In the William Edward Carty papers, 1898-1963, 22 linear feet. Hansen included among subjects covered.
Papers: In the Clarence Daniel Martin papers, 1896-1954, 23.5 linear feet. Hansen included among correspondents.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Anderson, Lynda Ring. "Julia Butler Hansen: The Grand Lady of Washington Politics." Ed.D. diss., Seattle University, 1992.

Hansen, Julia Butler. "Descriptive Notes." In Cathlamet Pioneer: The Paintings of Maude Kimball Butler, by Maude Kimball Butler. Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1973.

___. Singing Paddles. New York: H. Holt and Co., 1937.

"Julia Butler Hansen" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Ralph Nader Congress Project. Citizens Look at Congress: Julia Butler Hansen, Democratic Representative from Washington. Washington, D. C.: Grossman Publishers, 1972.

Rosenberg, Marie C. Barovic. "Women in Politics: A Comparative Study of Congresswomen Edith Green and Julia Butler Hansen." Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1973.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Appropriations
    • Department of the Interior - Chair
    • Department of the Interior and Related Agencies - Chair
  • House Committee - Education and Labor
  • House Committee - Interior and Insular Affairs
  • House Committee - Veterans' Affairs
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