Forbus, Lady Willie (1892-1993)

  • By Kathleen Moles
  • Posted 11/18/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10969

One of the first women to practice law in Seattle and the first to represent the 44th District in the state senate, Lady Willie Forbus was a liberal Democrat, nicknamed the Steel Magnolia for her tenacious advocacy of children's rights and equal opportunity for women. Her early experiences with discrimination and living on limited funds were instrumental in the path she followed after arriving in Seattle in 1918. For 10 years (1919-1929) Forbus was the only woman with her own law practice in Seattle. Beginning with a bid for prosecuting attorney in 1922, Forbus unsuccessfully sought public office for 20 years, losing two races for superior court judge in the 1930s before being elected to the state senate in 1942. She served for two terms, becoming chair of the Judiciary Committee and serving on the Appropriations Committee. While she resisted the term "female lawyer" and adopted the campaign slogan "no sex in success," Forbus brought to Seattle politics a sensibility distinctly geared toward the rights of women, children, minorities, and the disadvantaged. Forbus practiced law into her nineties, and after retiring remained active in political and community groups, speaking out in support of equal rights and against discrimination.

Mississippi Childhood  

The second-oldest of six children separated by only eight years, Lady Willie Forbus was born August 24, 1892, on a plantation in Zieglerville, Yazoo County, Mississippi. She was named after her father, William, and, following regional custom for a girl named for her father, "Lady" was added "in order that there be no mistake about it" (Forbus, radio speech, 1935). Her father managed a series of cotton plantations, and her mother Birdie raised a small herd of cattle and sold eggs, butter, and lard from the home with the help of her children.

Money was always scarce, and Birdie Forbus wanted the best for her children, so when oldest son Sample was 15 and Willie was 14, Birdie moved the two of them 150 miles away to the nearest big town, Laurel, to receive an education. Shortly after, the younger four siblings were also sent to live in the two-room shanty. Willie ran the household while Sample received the monthly $25 check sent from home and doled out funds to her for the food he told her to buy. In a 1976 interview, Forbus said "advocacy came natural because I was discriminated against in my own family" (Simmons).

Working Through College and Law School 

After graduation from high school, the three Forbus brothers received college scholarships, but universities were not offering aid to women, so Lady Willie paid her own way through the University of Mississippi by working for a local judge as a stenographer. In her junior year, she suffered an ear infection and, as a woman, was not eligible for care in the university infirmary. She recovered but was left deaf in her left ear. In 1915, Lady Willie Forbus graduated with a bachelor's degree.

Forbus applied to law schools at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Cornell, but was not granted admission, as these universities did not accept women to their schools of law at the time. The University of Michigan did accept Forbus, and she worked her way through law school and graduated, the only woman in the 1918 class of 50. A farewell remark by the dean of the law school left Forbus speechless and stayed with her the rest of her life: "Goodbye, Lady Willie, someday you'll make a good stenographer for some lawyer" (Hopkins).

Early Career and Marriage  

Thinking that her best chances for succeeding in the field of law were in the West, Forbus consulted Michigan Law School's directories and wrote to lawyers in Denver, Cheyenne, San Francisco, and Seattle. She received an encouraging response from Walter Fulton, a Seattle criminal lawyer, and set her sights westward, arriving in Seattle in 1918. State law prohibited lawyers (male or female) who had not graduated from the University of Washington from practicing in Washington right out of law school, instead requiring them to serve as law clerks for one year. After doing so, Lady Willie Forbus opened her own law practice in 1919. She reflected later that the climate was indeed "freer, more open-minded" towards women in Seattle, and that she was treated fairly by judges and fellow lawyers, "a curiosity at first, but then more and more women went to law school and the legal profession got used to them" (Hopkins).

In 1921, Forbus married Alvaro Shoemaker, an editorial writer at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Forbus kept her given name, and when the couple had two daughters over the following decade, they were given hyphenated last names -- both instances rarities for the early twentieth century. The couple divorced in 1936, but remained close until Shoemaker's death in 1948.

Forbus's public profile began its rise with a case she handled in 1922. Police officer Charles O. Legate (1872-1922) was found shot to death in his car in the early hours of March 17. A coroner's jury ruled the death suicide, which meant his wife would be denied benefits. The widow turned to Lady Willie Forbus to represent her. Successful in bringing the case before a grand jury, Forbus proved that two different bullets had struck Legate's head, and that the garage in which his car was found was locked from the outside. The grand jury ruled that Legate had been murdered, and though the case was never solved, his widow was granted a pension.

In the same year, Forbus ran for prosecuting attorney. She lost, but her entry into the realm of politics had begun. She continued to make speeches. In 1925 Forbus testified before the legislature on behalf of a Child Labor Amendment, and spoke also in support of an illegitimacy law, teachers' retirement, and a cabinet-level department of education. Her lengthy list of civic activities helped increase Forbus's visibility at a time when lawyers were not allowed to advertise.

Two Bids for Superior Court  

Lady Willie Forbus ran twice for King County Superior Court, in 1932 and 1934. Described as a controversial candidate with a flair for rhetoric, Forbus ran tireless campaigns, advocating establishment of a domestic-relations court to handle all family matters (separation, divorce, child custody, adoptions, paternity, and related criminal cases) together rather than have cases for each in different courts. Her platform was rooted in her belief "in humanity, in the law, and in the administration of justice," and "that all laws should be construed liberally to meet the demands of the people who enact them and the purposes the law seeks to serve" (Forbus radio speech, 1935).

When women's groups offered to organize in support of her candidacy, Forbus was careful in speeches to acknowledge this backing, but also maintained her position as a lawyer (not a female lawyer) with 15 solid years of experience, capable of holding the judgeship. Forbus walked a fine line between distinguishing herself as a more caring, humane candidate and lashing out at the male-dominated status quo of politics. In 1934, she promised in one campaign speech: "If elected, it would be my chief aim to achieve humanity and a feeling of at-home-ness in the court under which I preside"(Forbus radio speech, 1934). In a speech in Enumclaw, Forbus said, "the highest qualifications of a judge are human kindliness and common sense in administration of justice. A woman, by nature and a mother, by experience and human contact, is especially fitted for the judiciary; for she brings to the bench not only legal knowledge but human understanding" (Forbus radio speech, 1935).

In another radio speech during the campaign, Forbus felt the need to explain her unusual name. She sought to dispel the notion that she was foreign or titled:

"It is a quaint old Southern custom to name girls boys' names, so my father and mother named me Willie, for my father, because his name was William; but in order that there be no mistake about it, they placed a 'Lady' in front of it ... I have kept the name of Lady Willie Forbus, and am known variously as Lady Willie and as Lady Forbus, although my close friends call me BILL ... with this explanation, I hope I may let my name drop into the limbo of unimportant things where it belongs, since it is not my name but the principles for which it stands that should determine my worthiness for judicial office" (Forbus radio speech, 1935).

Despite her vigorous campaigns, Forbus lost both elections for the Superior Court judgeships. She was the first woman to run in King County, and was told by other judges that she was defeated because she was a woman (Hopkins). These losses did little to diminish Forbus's public advocacy for the advancement of social programs that helped the disadvantaged, minorities, women, and children. Her public profile continued to rise in Seattle and further afield. In 1936, Forbus took part in the Roosevelt Caravan, stumping 40 towns in three weeks throughout the state on behalf of the ticket headed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), ultimately visiting hundreds of locations; she was also the chair of the Democratic National Committee's State Speakers' Bureau.

By the end of the 1930s, Lady Willie Forbus had become a well-known public figure, and the King County Democratic Central Committee asked her to run for the state senate. Forbus reflected, "I never was particularly interested in becoming a member of the Legislature. I wanted to be a judge. But in those days, the discrimination was in the Bar. I couldn't get any help out of the Bar Association" ("Celebrating 100 Years").

Single Mother in the Senate 

An active member of her Magnolia community and a staunch advocate for the working class, Forbus was elected to the senate in 1942, representing the 44th district. Having divorced six years previously, Forbus was a single mother to Alvara and Dale, who accompanied her to Olympia when the legislature was in session. Both daughters worked there, one as a page and the other in the secretarial pool.

During her first term in 1943, the legislative season opened with a battle over committee appointments. A first list of assignments was rejected, and the second was overthrown by a coalition of nine Democrats and 19 Republicans. After the next list was finally passed by unanimous vote, the Ballard Tribune reported that Lady Willie Forbus, "by some magic managed to get her chairmanship -- that of the powerful Cities of the First Class committee -- on BOTH LISTS! Not bad for a first-time senator!" ("About the State").

Senator Forbus continued her fight for the underprivileged by sponsoring bills relating to family issues, civil actions, health care, and housing. She was appointed chair of the Judiciary Committee and member of the Appropriations Committee. While serving in the senate, Forbus was also an assistant attorney general for the state Department of Labor and Industries (1943) and the state Fisheries Department (1944-1946).

During her second term, Forbus's stance on equal pay for equal work brought the support of an ultraliberal group in Ballard; by association, the she was branded a communist, and lost her bid for a third term in the senate. Forbus later recalled: "I was called a communist by the head of one of the lumber companies right in public. ... I'm sure it contributed to the defeat ..." ("A Century of Vision"). As before, an election loss did not keep Lady Willie Forbus from involvement in community, legal, and political groups.

Still Active in Politics and Community 

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Lady Willie Forbus remained an active Democrat, becoming precinct chairwoman for the party in the 36th Legislative District. She also continued her involvement in her community: She was the first woman elected president of the Magnolia Community Club (for 1949-1950), served on the board of the Friends of Discovery Park, was president of the Ballard Business and Professional Women's Club, and was president of the board of the Florence Crittenden Home for Unmarried Mothers.  

Through the mid-1980s, Forbus continued her work as a lawyer and advocate for equal rights (she never liked the term "women's" rights), was a board member of the Washington branch of American Lawyers Against First Strike Nuclear Arms and, from 1958 to 1969, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. She gave speeches ranging in subject matter from "Educational Development in Colonial America" to "Garden Planning" to "An International Bill of Rights."  

Forbus also traveled widely after leaving the legislature, visiting South America, Mongolia, China, and the Soviet Union.  

Reflections on a Career 

In various newspaper and oral-history interviews from the 1970s through the early 1990s, Lady Willie Forbus reflected on her career and accomplishments. "I've been called the 'spokesman for the underdog' ... my philosophy has always been to help those people who are not able to help themselves. I've always fought very hard for education -- it's almost a religion to me that you get an education then you don't need to get public help because you have a tool in your hands, you have a skill" ("Celebrating 100 Years"). 

A staunch promoter of equal rights well before the advent of feminism, Forbus lived the life she advocated for, overcoming discrimination to make her own way through college and law school to become the first woman in Seattle to own her law practice. 

Through failed and successful campaigns, Forbus advanced the role of women in politics and community. Her words in the 1930s during the run for Superior Court Judge spoke volumes about her mission in politics and in life:

"[A]s a woman I wish to express my sincere appreciation of the loyalty of those of my sex, as well as of broadminded men, who are working so hard for me, not because of myself, but because my candidacy affords women an opportunity to advance further up the hill toward equality of the sexes. This is the essence of the battle which women are waging all over the world. I am glad to be able to be a part of this glorious battle" (Forbus radio speech, undated 1930s).

Forbus retired from practicing law in 1984, the year she turned 92, but remained active, speaking out in support of equal rights for women and against discrimination toward minorities even as she neared 100. Lady Willie Forbus died in Seattle at the age of 100, on April 27, 1993.

Writing in 2007, George W. Scott described Forbus as "a study in chiaroscuro: the driving intellect, the ambition to 'rise above one's class,' the unwillingness to admit to professional limitations, the ongoing frustrations, and the contrasts between traditional marital views and modernist social stances" (Scott).


Sources: Lady Willie Forbus, radio speeches, 1934,1935, and undated 1930s, Box 2, Acc. 259, Lady Willie Forbus Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; "About the State," Ballard Tribune, January 21, 1943, clipping in box 3, Acc. 259, Lady Willie Forbus Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries; Walter Evans, "Whatever Happened to ... Lady Willie Forbus," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 4, 1976, p. A-2; Diane Simmons, "Lady Willie Is Still Wily," Ibid., August 22, 1976, p. D-1; Jack Hopkins, "Lady Willie Forbus Won't Lay Down the Law," Ibid., January 12, 1986, p. F-4; "Lady Willie Forbus, Lawyer, Dies at 100," Ibid., April 30, 1993; Mary Ann Gwinn, "A Century of Vision: 'Old-Fashioned Liberal Populist' Lady Willie Forbus Retains Her Commitment to Social Justice at Age 100," The Seattle Times, August 30, 1992, pp. K1-K2; Gwinn, "Lady Willie Forbus, Noted Pioneer Who Set Pace for Individual Rights," Ibid., April 30, 1993; "Celebrating 100 Years: Women in the Legislature -- Lady Willie Forbus," Washington State Legislature website accessed September 14, 2014 (http://web.leg.wa.gov/WomenInTheLegislature/Members/ForbusLW.htm); Kerry Brock, Her Day in Court: Women and Justice in Washington State, documentary film (Seattle: Northwest Women's Law Center, 1988); "Lady Willie Forbus, Oral Interview, 1983," Washington State Historical Society website accessed November 17, 2014 (http://digitum.washingtonhistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/politics/id/682/); George W. Scott, "Three Lady Lawyer Legislators Who Showed Us the Way," Washington State Bar News, October 2007, pp. 20-26.

Related Topics:   Government & Politics | Law | Women's History

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