Frances Axtell of Bellingham was one of the first two women elected to serve in the Washington State Legislature, serving between 1913 and 1915. She promoted minimum wage and public safety legislation, and left an impression in the Legislature as an independent, broad-minded reformer. In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) appointed her vice-chairman of the newly created U.S. Employees Compensation Commission in Washington D.C., making her the first woman appointed to a federal commission. Axtell was subsequently promoted to chairman of the commission in 1918, and served in this position until 1921.
Frances Sevilla Cleveland Axtell was born to William A. and Mary Humaston Cleveland on June 12, 1866, on a farm near Rock Falls, Illinois. Her father was a farmer and stock-raiser, and the young girl grew up on the farm, developing a keen sense of humor, and a shrewd and solid personality for which she would become known throughout her life.
In the 1880s she went to college, something few women did in her day. She attended Northwestern University, but then transferred to Depauw University, where she was a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. She obtained a master’s degree at DePauw, and graduated in 1889 with a Ph.D. She may have met her husband-to-be, William Henry Axtell (1863-1927), at DePauw: He likewise graduated from this university in 1889 with a master’s degree. He remained at DePauw to obtain his doctor of medicine degree, but she did not. She moved to Lynden for a year and taught at the Northwest Normal School (later Western Washington University in Bellingham). She then spent the next year traveling and studying in Europe.
In 1891 she returned to the United States and married William Axtell in Sterling, Illinois, on June 11, 1891. The young couple lived for several years in Tipton, Indiana, where William Axtell practiced medicine. A daughter, Ruth, was born there in 1892. Two years later, the family moved to New Whatcom (which later became Bellingham), Washington, and in 1901 the Axtells had a second daughter, also named Frances. From 1902 to 1942 the Axtells lived at 413 East Maple in Bellingham; the house still exists today, though later in her life Frances Axtell divided it into apartments.
Axtell became involved in local politics and civic organizations not long after her arrival in New Whatcom in 1894. In 1897 she unsuccessfully ran for director of the New Whatcom School District. Early in the 1900s she advocated the commission form of city government in Bellingham (giving its commissioners a broader range of power than other forms of city government), but this was defeated in elections there in 1909 and again in 1913.
She was more successful in local civic organizations in her early years in New Whatcom and Bellingham. She was the first president of the New Whatcom Ladies Cooperative Society, formed in 1895 for the purpose of helping stimulate the local economy (in the mid-1890s the U.S. economy was mired in a depression that would be considered one of the worst in American history until the Great Depression of the 1930s). She was also a charter member of Bellingham’s Aftermath Club, a literary and social organization that first met in 1895 and existed until 2003.
Axtell worked with Emma Smith DeVoe (1848-1927) of Tacoma to restore a woman’s right to vote in Washington state, which was approved by Washington’s male voters in 1910. (Women in Washington had previously had the right to vote between 1883 and 1888, when Washington was still a territory.) By the early 1910s she had become well-known and respected in Bellingham.
To The Legislature
With considerable community support as well as support from the local press, Axtell ran for Washington state’s House of Representatives in 1912. She ran as a Republican for one of two House seats in the 54th District, campaigning primarily on women’s issues (especially those of working women), and came in second in an eight-person race. Though she was 85 votes behind the first-place finisher, W. J. Hughes, her victory attracted more attention in the Bellingham press than Hughes’s did: “Bellingham Will Send First Woman To State Capital,” announced a front-page headline in Bellingham’s American-Reveille on November 8, 1912. This was technically not correct, because in the same election Tacoma voters also elected a woman, Nena Jolidon Croake (1865-1934) to the House. These two women would be the first to serve in Washington’s state legislature, although it was Axtell who would leave more of an impression, both on a state level and later on a national level.
Axtell’s campaign manager in 1912 was Bellingham’s Ella Higginson (1861-1940), a writer and poet who in 1931 would become poet laureate of Washington state. Axtell credited Higginson with doing all of the campaigning when she was interviewed by a Seattle P-I reporter in December 1912, and other accounts also confirm Higginson largely directed Axtell’s 1912 campaign. But Axtell was no shrinking violet. She had her own ideas and would quickly develop her own platform.
In the P-I interview, Axtell discussed what motivated her to enter politics:
“We didn’t particularly want suffrage [a curious comment since she promoted it], but now that we have it we are going to do something with it. I don’t contend that women can manage affairs better than men; it is altogether probable that a legislature composed entirely of men would give better service than one made up entirely of women, but neither would be ideal. Women look at life from a different angle than men, and both viewpoints should be represented. Most men are in politics because they want to do something or somebody, whereas women are in it because they want to get something done. Then, too, women are not bound by party fealty; they vote for what they think is right and for the people they think will do what is right regardless of party” (“Washington’s New Political Boss -- A Woman!”).
A Fast Start
Washington’s 13th Legislature convened in Olympia on January 13, 1913, in a rainy downpour, which would come to symbolize the contentious nature of this particular legislative session. This was due in part to the absence of a clear majority in the House: There were 48 Republicans, 30 Progressives, 18 Democrats, and one socialist. Further, the relationship between the Legislature and Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) was strained. Yet despite these obstacles, the session was not without accomplishments. The 1913 Legislature approved the creation of a state welfare commission to set a minimum wage for women, and it passed a $1.25 million highway appropriation ($27.5 million in 2010 dollars), which included money to build a highway over Snoqualmie Pass. It also voted to ratify the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provided for the direct election of U.S. senators.
Axtell got off to a fast start in the Legislature. At the first session she spoke in favor of an amendment to the rules which would have required a record of the names of all persons who visited House committee members (including the names of lobbyists) and for minutes of House committee meetings to be kept. The amendment was defeated. The next morning she confronted House speaker Howard Taylor when he mocked a bill intended to regulate morals that she submitted at the request of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. As a joke, Taylor referred the bill to the Committee of Commerce and Manufacturers, drawing loud and appreciative laughter from the mostly male membership. Axtell rose from her seat, waited for the laughter to fade, then bluntly demanded that Taylor retract his statement and refer the bill to the House Committee on Morals. He quickly complied.
In her term in the Legislature Axtell worked on minimum wage and public safety legislation. She introduced legislation proposing improvements to the rules of evidence in cases of violent assault. She also dealt with matters involving agriculture, funding for retired teachers, and children’s issues. She left an impression in the Legislature as an independent, broad-minded reformer, and was dubbed by some in the press as “the lady from Whatcom who votes as she pleases.” But she did not obtain an influential position in the House, and found herself with stiffer public opposition in 1914 when she ran for the state senate in the 42nd District as the Progressive Party (also known as the Bull Moose Party) candidate.
Part of this opposition may have been a change in voter sentiment as opposed to a reflection of Axtell herself. The 1912 election had been an especially exciting one in American politics, with a viable third party, the Progressive Party, garnering more than 27 percent of the popular vote in the presidential election alone. As has been the case in some elections before and since, the emphasis in the election of 1912 was for change. But by 1914 there was a backlash to this change. One brief editorial in the Bellingham Herald the day before the 1914 election bore this succinct headline: “Let’s Get Back to Normal And Quit Experimenting.” The editorial complained of higher taxes and too much government, a theme that a century later still resonates in politics.
But Axtell also came under attack. During the 1913 legislative session she had initially opposed an appropriation of $25,000 ($550,000 in 2010 dollars) for the Bellingham State Normal School (now part of Western Washington University). Yet at the same time she favored an appropriation four times as large for the University of Washington. Although she eventually voted for the appropriation for the Bellingham school, her initial opposition was highlighted in the local press as the 1914 election approached.
Two weeks before the election, Bellingham’s American-Reveille wrote a scathing editorial about Axtell’s proposals for legislative reform, opining:
“It is really a shame that as likeable and, in many respects, as capable a woman as she should be made the spokesman for the visionaries and vagarists of this community. It is really astonishing that her intelligence permits her to take so unenviable a place in public life as the champion of so many untried, unnecessary, and freakish measures… Theoretical legislation has become a fetish of the Bull Moose candidate for the Senate in this city. Some things that have been debated and rejected by able legislators of several states for years are being urged upon the people of Washington AS THOUGH THEY WERE NEW DISCOVERIES! One measure succeeds another, and then another, and then another, until the chain becomes an almost endless one, and until those who attempt to analyze this matter find themselves rushing madly for a padded cell!” (“More Laws And More Taxes”).
Axtell lost the 1914 election for state senate to former Bellingham mayor Ed Cleary, coming in second in a three-way race. But she was undaunted by this setback, and in 1916 ran for U.S. Congress in the 2nd District. Once again she switched parties, and in the 1916 election ran as a Democrat. She lost to Republican Congressman Lindley (Lin) Hadley (1861-1948), although she received approximately 46 percent of the vote, and carried King and Skagit counties.
To The Other Washington
But this was hardly the end of her political career. Early in January 1917 President Woodrow Wilson appointed Axtell vice-chairman of the newly created U.S. Employees Compensation Commission, making her first woman appointed to a federal commission. The commission was created to administer the Federal Employees Compensation Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Wilson in 1916 to provide workers compensation benefits to federal employees injured on the job. Axtell’s appointment came as a complete surprise, not in the least to Axtell herself, who received notice of it via telegram as she was preparing to board a train for Tacoma.
The job required her to move to Washington, D.C., and she began work on March 14, 1917, a little more than three weeks before the United States entered World War I. Although the commission’s initial purpose was to adjudicate claims brought before it, Axtell found herself with additional duties once the U.S. entered the war. During 1917 she visited and surveyed every arsenal and navy yard in the United States, making safety recommendations to conform with state workers compensation laws in the state where the particular yard was located. The Council of National Defense asked her to prepare a report of her findings from a woman’s view, and in it she wrote that women could do a great deal of the work in the arsenals that was then being performed by men, such as making government uniforms, rope and twine, and small weapons.
In April 1918 President Wilson promoted Axtell to chairman of the commission. News of her promotion made The New York Times, which reported, “It is understood that her appointment to be president [sic] of the commission is in recognition of her services as one of its members.” She held the position until her term expired in 1921, and became known as the “mother” to half a million men and women who fell under the commission’s jurisdiction.
Despite her capabilities, news articles of the day often took particular note that Axtell was a woman. A 1917 article in Sunset magazine -- also written by a woman -- described Axtell’s work inspecting the U.S. arsenals and navy yards, but then reassured the reader: “Mrs. Axtell’s exceptional business qualifications do not detract a whit from her womanly attributes, and the merry twinkle in her eye demonstrates the gladness with which she imbues every duty.”
Axtell returned to Bellingham when her term expired in 1921. In 1922 she ran as a Republican for the U.S. Senate, but lost in the primaries that September, coming in fourth in a field of six. During the rest of the 1920s Axtell worked more behind the scenes, taking on issues such as upholding the 18th Amendment for Prohibition, and promoting a proposed federal amendment to ban child labor.
In 1929 or 1930 (accounts differ) she was appointed the Supervisor of Mothers Pensions and Probation Officer for Women in Bellingham. She held this position until 1936. During the Great Depression of the 1930s Axtell supported financial aid for farmers as well as early bonus payments due to World War I veterans. In 1944 she moved to 5033 16th Avenue NE in Seattle, where she was active in the Women’s Century Club and the University Presbyterian Church.
Frances Axtell died on April 1, 1953, at age 86.