Women in the Washington Territory won the vote in 1883, lost it in 1887, and regained it again in 1910 – a decade prior to the 19th Amendment that granted the vote to most American women in 1920. Moreover, at the first opportunity, voters rewarded a stellar feminist leader by making her the first woman in the legislature.
Frances Cleveland Axtell (1866-1953)
Born on June 12, 1866 to William and Mary Humaston Cleveland in Sterling, Illinois, Frances Cleveland earned her master’s degree and then an 1889 doctorate at DePauw University. She moved west to Lynden, Washington, and later to Bellingham, where she taught at the state’s first teachers’ college. On June 11, 1891, Dr. Cleveland married Dr. William H. Axtell, a local physician. The couple had two daughters, Ruth and Frances.
Along with Tacoma’s Emma DeVoe, she led the successful 1910 campaign that restored women’s right to vote, which the Washington Supreme Court had struck down in 1887. Bellingham voters rewarded her with election to the Washington House of Representatives in 1912; her campaign manager was Ella Higginson, a well-known author. Dr. Axtell’s platform focused on banning child labor and creating workers’ compensation for industrial accidents, as well as pensions for the elderly, disabled, and widows with young children.
Once elected as a very progressive Republican, she sponsored a state minimum-wage law, something that would not happen at a national level for decades. She also focused on agriculture, children’s issues, reforestation, and funding for retired teachers. Her independent thinking also led to reforms in criminal law, especially violent assault. She presented this legislation with such eloquence that she was termed a “brilliant theorist and a broad-minded individual.” Re-elected in 1914, a newspaper termed her “the lady from Whatcom [County] who votes as she pleases.”
Earlier than any other woman, Frances C. Axtell made a daring bid for the U.S. Senate in 1916 -- and came closer to victory than expected, losing by only about three thousand votes. She won support from the Non-Partisan League, the Washington State Federation of Labor, the Railway Men’s Political Club, the League of Women Voters, the Parent-Teacher’s Association, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Some coined this group of organizations as the “Conference for Progressive Political Action.” Although she lost, her strong race was a true political achievement: no other state would elect a woman to the US Senate until 1932, when Arkansas did.
Dr. Axtell had a brother in Washington, DC, Dr. Frederick A. Cleveland, who had held an executive position in the administration of President William Howard Taft, which ended with the 1912 the election of President Woodrow Wilson. This connection, plus her exceptional 1916 race for the US Senate, brought Axtell to the attention of President Wilson. Even though he was a Democrat and she a Republican, on January 5, 1917, he appointed her to the Federal Employees Compensation Commission. The commission reviewed compensation requests for federal employees hurt on the job, and the appointment was precedent setting for women.
While living in Washington, DC, she attended the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in December 1917, where feminist leaders were proud to introduce her and Montana legislator Margaret Hathaway. During the Roaring Twenties, Axtell focused on issues such as the proposed federal amendment to ban child labor and upholding the 18th Amendment’s ban on alcohol. Like most westerners at the time, she was an isolationist in foreign affairs, and as the as the Great Depression began, she supported both financial aid for farmers and early payment of bonuses due to veterans of World War I.
She returned to Bellingham after the 1927 death of her husband, and in 1929, was appointed the Supervisor of Mothers’ Pensions and Probation Officer for Women in Bellingham; she held this position until 1936. In 1944, Axtell moved to 5033 16th Ave. N.E. in Seattle, where she was active in the Woman’s Century Club and the University Presbyterian Church. Francis Cleveland Axtell died there on April 1, 1953 at age 86.