Lady Willie Forbus was a trailblazer. She was one of Seattle’s first woman lawyers, a feminist before her time who believed in equal rights, Magnolia’s first female State Senator and probably one of the only Magnolia politicians ever to be branded a Communist.
But this story starts about as far away from Magnolia as you can get, down in the Mississippi Delta.
Forbus was born in 1892 in Zeiglerville, Miss., a small town in the hills along the edge of the Mississippi Delta. By the age of 8, the family moved into the Delta where her father, William Forbus, for whom she was named, became a plantation manager.
Those were tough days. If Forbus didn’t turn a profit at the end of each harvest, he would be fired from his job. It was his lot in life to have that happen routinely.
Schools were poor in the Delta, and Lady Willie’s mother, Birdie, decided that to get her six children an adequate education in the deep south, drastic action was needed: “When we reached 14, Mother kicked us out of the nest. She bought a two-room house in Laurel—now people would call it a shanty—installed a stove and two beds. She took one of my brothers and me there, enrolled us in school, and as soon as we were settled she returned to the plantation.”
In time, Birdie moved all six of her children into the house, located about 150 miles away from the plantation, and enrolled them in school. They ranged in age from 7 to15. Sample, 15, was in charge of the money and Lady Willie, at 14, did the cooking and kept house while going to school herself. All the while, Forbus ran the household. Her brother continued to hold the purse strings.
Lady Willie’s daughter and lifelong Magnolian, Dale Forbus Hogle, said in a recent interview that was “probably when equal rights became an issue for mother.”
Forbus graduated from high school, learned stenography, and was employed by a local judge. “That is where the notion of a law career probably dawned on mother,” Hogle said.
Lady Willie saved her money, obtained her college degree with funds lent her by the judge and graduated from University of Mississippi. She worked hard to pay off her debts.
“I then applied for entrance to Harvard Law School, but they informed me that they wouldn’t accept me—they didn’t take women,” Forbus is quoted from an article in 1963 edition of this newspaper. “I decided I’d show them and I picked the number two law school in the country, the University of Michigan. They accepted me.”
After law school, she sent letters far and wide to gain employment as a practicing lawyer. The only encouraging letter came from Seattle. It was an offer to be a law clerk. A year later, Lady Willie became a sole practitioner of law in her own office, one of the first women lawyers in Seattle.
She married Alvaro Shoemaker, a newspaper writer. They built a Sears kit home on Magnolia Boulevard when it was a dirt road and barely developed. They had two daughters and after her marriage ended in divorce, became a working single mother in an age when it was scandalous. Her daughters had hyphenated last names far before it was a common or fashionable practice.
Lady Willie first made a name for herself in a newsworthy trail. She had a ruling overturned in which the victim’s death, a policeman, had been determined a suicide. Forbus was hired by the wife to appeal the decision so she might receive the pension denied her by the judgment. Forbus, with some clever detective work, proved the man had been shot by two different guns and therefore murdered. The widow’s pension was restored.
At the age of 51, she ran for the state senate in the 44th Legislative District, which included Magnolia and Ballard. Magnolia was staunchly republican. Lady Willie was a liberal democrat.
“Mother’s political leanings…can best be explained as Franklin Delano Roosevelt liberalism: The Federal Government helping the people of the U.S.,” said Hogle. “He instituted Social Security and many programs to get the country through the terrible Great Depression. There were national programs such as WPA, NRA, CCC and others. Old people, poverty stricken people, unemployed people were all helped by these programs. Having been poor herself, she had a strong empathy with those people and FDR’s programs got them back on their feet.”
So, Lady Willie Forbus focused on the working-class voters in Ballard and won the election in 1942, becoming the first woman Senator from the district. She served 2 terms. In 1945, she was the only woman Senator elected. Her daughters went with her to Olympia when in session, the younger employed as a page and the older in the secretarial pool while their mother served as a lawmaker.
According to an article in the Seattle Times, Lady Willie helped pass legislation eliminating the practice of labeling out-of-wedlock children as illegitimate on their birth certificates. She supported improved workmen’s compensation, unemployment insurance, a graduated income tax and equal pay for equal work, a position strenuously opposed by the powerful aircraft manufacturers and shipyard owners, the chief employers of Washington women in wartime.
As her daughter remembers, Lady Willie’s second term came to an end in the early days of McCarthyism and she was accused of being a Communist “because a few ‘pinkos’ and people with socialist/communist leanings had attached themselves … to mother’s campaign.”
This became the theme of the campaign by Lady Willie’s opponent and guilt by association ended her political career.
It was 16 years before another woman was elected to the Washington State Senate. Lady Willie remained an active Democrat, became Precinct Chairwoman of the Democratic Party and first women president of the Magnolia Community Club in 1949. She continued her work as a lawyer and advocate for equal rights, she never liked the term “women’s rights.” She died at the age of 100 in her Magnolia home, which to this day still stands on Magnolia Boulevard.
Sources for this article: Aug 30 1992, “A Century Of Vision -- `Old-Fashioned Liberal Populist’ Lady Willie Forbus Retains Her Commitment To Social Justice At Age 100”, Seattle Times, by Mary Ann Gwinn;”, Jan 9, 2011, Remember When”, Kitsap Sun, Compiled by Ann Horn; interview with Dale Forbus Hogle, November 5, 2011, Magnolia: Memories & Milestones, “New Feminism: The Forbus Family” by Monica Wooton; 36th District Democrats, www.36th.org “State of Washington Members of the State Legislature by Districts Since 1889 (With Name Index), Revised and Published by T. Hoemann, B.Baker 2011.