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Frances Hunt: The First Female Member of the Arkansas House of Representatives

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

Frances Hunt was the first female member of the Arkansas House of Representatives and an accomplished politician and public servant throughout her lifetime.

(Left to Right) Erle Chambers and Frances Hunt

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Frances Rowena Mathews was born on June 6, 1874, in Des Arc, Arkansas, to Julia Ann Wair Mathews and Allen C. Mathews, a Confederate veteran and editor of the town’s newspaper, the Des Arc Citizen. While growing up, she was educated in the Des Arc schools and learned the printing trade at her father’s newspaper office.

Mathews' family were active politicians, so she found herself immersed and interested in public affairs and politics at quite an early age. In 1891, her father died shortly after purchasing the Prairie County Democrat and founding the Des Arc Guidon. Consequently, her mother soon moved the family to her brother, Samuel T. Wair’s plantation in Redfield, Arkansas. Wair represented Barraque Township on the Jefferson County Democratic Central Committee and served as a delegate to the Democratic State Convention. Robert Fort Wair, Mathews' other uncle, was the mayor of Cabot and the editor of newspapers in both Cabot and Lonoke.

In 1899, while working as a printer in Benton, Mathews met and married Henry Pearce Jones, an attorney and a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas Law Department in Little Rock. Unfortunately, her husband died less than a year later while she was pregnant with their first child. Jones returned to Redfield to live with her family. She gave birth to a son named Henry P. Jones Jr.

In November 1904, Jones became a candidate for postmistress of the Arkansas House of Representatives. An article in the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic stated, “Mrs. Jones is well qualified for the position and has many friends at work on her behalf.” In January1905, the legislature convened. She was elected on the first ballot, receiving 64 votes to the 32 received by the other three nominees. In October, she married Representative Sidney Jackson Hunt. He was a prominent Pine Bluff attorney who had represented Jefferson County in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1905 to 1908. The couple had two children, Mary Ellen and Sidney Allen Hunt.

Hunt was active in Pine Bluff’s women’s clubs. She was secretary of the Young Ladies Club of the First Methodist Church. As an active member in her church’s Woman’s Missionary Society, she examined the roles of women in various cultures. She was secretary, vice president, and superintendent of the Legislative and Franchise Committees of the Pine Bluff affiliate of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She was also a member of the David O. Dodd Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Pine Bluff Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

On August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified by the U.S. Congress, granting women the right to vote. On April 13, 1922, just two years later, Hunt became the first female member of the Arkansas House of Representatives. She was appointed by Governor Thomas C. McRae, after Representative Sterling Miller was elected municipal judge in Pine Bluff. On May 6, she announced her plans to run for reelection, calling herself “one of Arkansas’ first suffragists.” Many Arkansas women only voted for a single candidate even though they could vote for three at-large positions. As a result, Hunt finished third among six candidates and ran unopposed in the general election.

In 1923, the legislative session convened, and the League of Women Voters held a reception at the Arkansas State Capitol to honor the two female representatives, Frances Hunt and Erle Chambers. Hunt served on the committees on Education, Public Health, and Charitable Institutions, and she was chair of the Committee on Confederate Soldiers and Widows. On the first day of the session, she introduced legislation to diminish the activities of “labor agents” who were recruiting black sharecroppers and farm laborers for better jobs in the North. It required any recruiter to pay $500 to register in each county or face a fine of up to $5,000 and six months of hard labor. With this legislation, she assisted in upholding the low–wage farm economy and the racially-biased systems of Jim Crow South.

In 1926, though she did not seek another term in the Arkansas House of Representatives, Hunt continued her involvement in public affairs. She was the chairwoman of the Jefferson County committee for the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Fund, where she raised money for the restoration of the former president’s birthplace in Staunton, Virginia. In 1931, she was one of the three Arkansas delegates sent to the national convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She also continued her involvement in the politics of Democratic Party by attending state party conventions and supporting the gubernatorial campaigns of Homer Adkins and Sid McMath.

In 1926, Hunt was appointed field inspector for the Board of Cosmetic Therapy. Throughout her tenure, she traveled the state inspecting beauty shops and prosecuting unlicensed beauticians. In 1938, she retired to raise her grandson, Henry P. Jones III, whose mother died in childbirth.

Frances Hunt died on August 21, 1958, at her daughter's home in Pine Bluff.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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