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Reeves, Anna Belle Culp (1871-1948)

HistoryLink.org Essay 8938 : Printer-Friendly Format

Belle Reeves was Washington's eighth Secretary of State, second woman to hold statewide elective office, and first female Secretary of State. Several times in her 10-year tenure, she was acting governor when the governor and lieutenant governor were simultaneously out of the state, another first for a woman. As a Democratic member from Chelan County, she served 16 years in the House of Representatives before her appointment at the age of 63 to the state office by Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955). Although she bridled when referred to as "Mr. Secretary," she was no firebrand or outspoken suffragist; the ground she broke for women in Washington state was without public rhetoric. Before politics, she worked as a teacher, law clerk, and legal recorder; she was a newspaper correspondent, and toiled as a printer's devil on the pioneer newspapers she and her husband, Frank Reeves, founded in North Central Washington. Known as a work horse rather than a show horse, the diminutive Reeves was a popular office holder with few, if any, political enemies. Voters and colleagues considered her reliable, principled, commonsensical, tireless, and approachable. She earned the affectionate titles, "The Sweetheart of Washington," and "The Grand Old Lady." The headline of her obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer hailed her "Long, Useful, Career." The couple had a daughter, Zelma. Belle Reeves died in Olympia in 1948 in the last year of her second full term as secretary of state.

From Midwestern to Western 

Anna Belle Culp was born on August 17, 1870, on a small farm near Quincy, Ohio. One of six children, she wrote she "attended a traditional little red schoolhouse" until she was 17. The family moved to Geneseo, Kansas, in 1887 where she attended the nearby Normal School at Lyon, and met Frank Reeves, who published the town's newspaper.

They married on August 31, 1888, and she taught school for a year. The couple was anxious to leave the Midwest and head out to the booming West to start a life. They arrived in Spokane, in 1889, and there Belle lost a baby in childbirth.

Hearing about the opportunities in the gold and silver mines, they went to the Coeur d'Alenes. Mining didn't work out: Reeves later wrote, "We lost our shirts." She lost another child in 1890. They recouped by teaching at Post Falls, Idaho, for a year, and saving enough money to get them to Ellensburg, Washington, where they founded the town's first newspaper. Belle worked as a printer's devil, hand-setting the type for the entire paper. 

In 1891, their daughter Zelma was born, and this child survived. The family moved to Wenatchee that year where they founded Wenatchee's first paper, The Advance. In 1893, they sold the paper and moved to Leavenworth where they founded yet another paper, The Leavenworth Times, the first for that young town.  

The Times was not profitable; so as Frank toiled at reporting and editing; Belle set the type and took up what she called, "sidelines." She became the local correspondent for the Spokane Spokesman, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She was elected in 1893 as court reporter and legal recorder for the Districts of Leavenworth, Kittitas, and Okanogan. She taught shorthand at night, and was selected to record the presidential speeches in the election of 1896, which included the speeches of William Jennings Bryan, a political hero to the Reeves. They were strong Democrats when the party was a distinct minority in the area.

Meanwhile, Frank, with the aid of Arthur Gunn, went to Olympia in 1899 and successfully battled to separate Chelan County from Kittitas and Okanogan counties. Frank was later to become Chelan County's first prosecutor. He helped  found its first electric company and was also an early proponent of the fruit-producers' cooperatives. Frank Reeves was a fiddler famous for such tunes as "Turkey in the Straw" and he played the trombone in the brass band that celebrated the completion of the Great Northern Railway through Wenatchee in 1892. 

Mother and Volunteer

They moved back to Wenatchee in 1900, where Frank opened a law office with his brother, Fred Reeves. After they returned to town, Belle quit all her jobs to raise Zelma, and wrote: "I became a 'joiner.'" She took on volunteer work with a vengeance -- joining the Good Templars; the Maccabees; The Rebekahs; the WCTU, the DAR, and the PTA; Pythian Sisters; the Wenatchee Women's Club; Ladies Music Club; St. Luke's Guild; the North Central Pioneers; the Tuberculosis Association; the Daughters of Veterans; Wenatchee Garden Club, Business & Professional Women's Club; and the Soroptimists. She wrote, "the only reason I didn't join more clubs is because there were not more days and nights in the month."

Belle was interested in public service, but in those early years, women's public roles in Washington were limited to such club work. In 1890, the Legislature had disqualified women from public office by statute. That held until woman suffrage was enacted in 1910.  Washington’s first women legislators were elected in 1912 and served in the 1913 State Legislature. They paved the way for Belle Reeves, who was destined to do some groundbreaking herself.

Busy Solon

Belle stayed out of politics until Zelma was grown and Frank had retired from law practice to manage their 100-acre apple farm north of Wenatchee. In 1922, she was elected to the State House of Representatives, from the 12th District in the seat her husband had once held.

When Belle Reeves arrived in the House in 1923, there were only nine Democrats; the 1925 election reduced the number to five. She was a backbencher until the 1932 Democratic landslide installed an overwhelming majority of Democrats in the legislature as well as Governor Clarence D. Martin, a conservative Eastern Washington Democrat.

Reeves was known for legislation boosting tree-fruit agriculture in Eastern Washington and legislating for higher education; primary and secondary education, and what was known in her day as public moral legislation such as child-welfare advocacy. In 1931 she unsuccessfully opposed the legalization of boxing.

Widowhood and Beyond

 On January 26, 1933, Frank Reeves stood at the rear of the House floor cheering as Belle led the impassioned floor fight against a memorial to Congress recommending the reinstatement of the 18th Amendment (Prohibition). Well into her speech, a commotion was heard: Frank had dropped over. He was pronounced dead on the spot by a state senator member who was also a physician. 

After Frank's dramatic death, Belle kept her House seat for five more years, serving a total of 16 in all -- eight regular and special sessions during which she also managed the family's 100 acres of apple orchards.

Secretary of State Belle Reeves

When Secretary of State Ernest Hutchinson (1864-1938) died suddenly in February 1938, Governor Martin named the 63-year-old Reeves to the office, making her the second woman to serve in a statewide office in Washington -- Josephine Preston (1873-1958) was the first, winning election as Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1912. Reeves went on to win two terms as secretary of state; in 1944 she led the Democratic ticket and received the largest vote ever cast for state public office. Another "gender first," which made national headlines, was when she took the reins of the state as acting governor when both the governor and the lieutenant governor were outside of the state.

In one memorable occasion in 1938, the colorful Lt. Governor Victor A. Meyers (1898-1991) had been threatening to call a special session Legislature if Governor Martin ever left the state. Anxious to pass a pension bill that Martin said he wouldn't address until the 1939 regular session, state pension proponents saw their chance when Martin was in Washington D.C., to argue for the Olympic National Park. Unfortunately, Meyers was also out of the state.

In a political farce that fascinated and amused the entire nation, the left-wing legislators frantically found Meyers in California on a fishing trip, and the nation watched as he raced toward the state on a variety of types of transportation, train, boat, a chartered plane, he even commandeered a State Patrol car to Olympia, so Secretary of State Reeves could attest his proclamation of a special session of the Legislature. Arriving at the capitol after her office had closed for the day, Meyers went back to Seattle and announced his intentions on the radio.

Thus alerted, Martin hopped a flight as far as Chicago. As there were no direct flights to Olympia, he chartered a plane to Spokane. At 8 a.m. next morning, Meyers was at Reeves's office demanding an official stamp be affixed to his proclamation. Reeves refused. Meyers was no longer the acting governor. The Secretary of State had gotten word that Martin had landed in Spokane just 10 minutes earlier.

Popular Pol

After her appointment in 1938, Reeves ran for the office in 1940, and despite refusing all campaign contributions, received the second highest number of votes in the election, with only President Roosevelt winning more votes. In 1944, she led Roosevelt and the Democratic ticket, garnering the largest number of votes ever given any candidate in the state.

Suffering from a painful kidney condition and arthritis, Reeves, 77. announced in 1947 that she would not run for a third term in the next year. In what was high praise for a Democrat, The Seattle Times wrote: "The good service that Mrs. Reeves has given the state though the succeeding years has been performed without fan-fare and with studious attention to duty." She insisted, however, on serving out her last term, stating she wouldn't quit "as long as I can wiggle one little finger." She didn't quite make it: She died in office in Olympia on January 2, 1948.

Reeves was followed in statewide office by many other women, including two governors, Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) and Christine Gregoire (b. 1947). But it was not until 75 years after Reeves first took office that another woman became Secretary of State, when Kim Wyman was sworn in on January 16, 2013, following her election the previous November.

Sources:
"Elected Women of Washington," Women’s History Consortium website accessed February 2009 (www.washingtonwomenshistory.org); Marie Rowe Newberger, "Printer's Devil to Secretary of State," The Seattle Times, February 2, 1938 p. 30; "Mrs. B. Reeves Becomes First Woman Secretary of State," Everett Herald, February 8, 1938, p. 1; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Meyers, Victor A. (1898-1991)" (by Michael Hood), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 2009); Robert C. Cummings, "'Grand Old Lady' Had Long, Useful Career," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 2, 1948; Belle Reeves, “Mrs. Reeves Tells Her Own Story,” (1944 autobiographical sketch for the Associated Press) The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 4, 1948, p. 12;  “Death Summons Belle Reeves," The Seattle Times, January 3, 1948, p. 4; "Frank Reeves Drops Dead," Wenatchee Daily World, January 26, 1933, p. 1; Belle Culp Reeves, Manuscript Collection No. 0782,  University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Seattle; "Reeves Family Left Its Mark in Politics, Law." The Wenatchee World, July 20, 1992 Wenatchee World website accessed February 20, 2009 (http://wenatcheeworld.com/article/19920720/NEWS/207200301).
Note: This essay was emended on January 25, 2012, to correct the birthdate of Clarence Martin, updated on May 2, 2013, and corrected on July 25, 2013, to state that Reeves was the second (not first) woman to hold statewide office in Washington.


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Belle Reeves (1871-1948), Olympia, 1940s
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Image No. UW28271z)


"Belle Reeves Named Washington's First Woman Secretary of State," Spokane Chronicle, February 9, 1938
Courtesy Northwest History Database, Washington State University (Image No. sh228-31)


 
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