Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Judge Reah M. Whitehead, 1883-1972
By Julia Thompson, Holocaust Center for Humanity, Seattle, WA
Groundbreaking lawyer and judge in Washington State
Reah May Whitehead was born in 1883 in Kansas City, Missouri to Esther Gideon and Stanley E. Whitehead. The family of three moved to Seattle when Reah was still young, in 1890, following economic opportunity that surfaced along with the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush in Western Canada and Alaska. In 1899 Reah then moved alone to Skagway, Alaska, one of the main jumping-off points for gold prospectors, for a little over a year. While there, at just age 16, she became a court reporter of some renown in what was then the Alaska Territory.
A few years after returning to Seattle in 1900, Whitehead enrolled in the University of Washington Law School. She graduated in 1905 and subsequently passed the Washington State bar exam. For the May 1905 exam, 12 individuals became new lawyers in the state – Whitehead the only woman – which was big enough to make the news. A Seattle Daily Times headline of May 12, 1905 read “Seattle Girl Passes State Bar Examination.” As she went forward with a life and career in law, Whitehead continually encountered sexism in forms both casual and blunt, which seemed only to increase her ambition. Whitehead began work after law school as a clerk in Seattle for renowned King County Judge Thomas Burke, and then as chief clerk for the County's chief prosecutor, Kenneth MacKintosh.
By 1908 Whitehead had become involved in the woman suffrage movement locally. She was active in Seattle-area suffrage and women's clubs like the King County Political Equality Club, Seattle Business Girls Club, Women's University Club, Seattle Federation of Women's Clubs, and the Equal Suffrage League, and spoke publicly about the cause of woman suffrage. 1909 was a pivotal year for the state's suffrage movement, and for Whitehead professionally. On January 11, 1909, she spoke to the King County Political Equality Club, which was covered in the Seattle Daily Times. Whitehead linked her own profession to the importance of the movement. Whitehead stated that women were treated unfairly in the eyes of the law, from wage inequality to marriage and property rights, and this would only be remedied by woman suffrage. “These injustices,” she summarized, “will always exist until woman obtains the right to vote, because legislation is always in favor of the class that legislates.” The following day, she was officially appointed a prosecutor for King County. Despite the title and work she was expected to do, Whitehead continued to receive the lower salary of a clerk, and was forced to work in a clerk's office. She suffered this indignity for five years until she took another professional step.
In 1914, Whitehead ran for King County Justice of the Peace for the Precinct of Seattle (a jurisdiction that no longer exists) against nine men and won, at that time becoming one of just a couple dozen known female judges in the United States. Her mother Esther managed her campaign, which ran on a platform of a “female judge for female culprits,” as these, at the time, were the cases deemed acceptable for a woman to try. In her writings prior to the election, Whitehead made clear her belief that women deserved such positions, and that women were necessary for the smooth function of law and government. For one, she argued that, if women were part of judicial proceedings, it only made sense for women to adjudicate as well: “in the justice courts of Seattle, the vital, the real parties, are women. In two-thirds or more of the cases the witnesses or parties of interest are women,” she wrote in a Seattle Daily Times editorial of November 1914.
Whitehead continued to write about and champion women's rights, and women's deserved place in the courtroom and law, for the rest of her life. In the decade between Washington women earning the right to vote in 1910 and national suffrage for women in 1920, she spoke often promoting the vote for women. Her practical, local application of this vision is illustrated in speeches like one (of many similar) for a Seattle Parent-Teacher Association in 1918 titled, “Present-Day Legislation of Interest to Women.” In 1926, she was the chosen representative from Washington to attend the American Women's Association meeting in New York. Judge Whitehead published pieces often in Seattle and Washington news media and journals, and in books such as a 1928 compendium Women of the West about women's roles in Western states' governments. It took until 1941, with Whitehead's retirement after over twenty-five years in the King County Court system, for another female judge to preside in any court in King County.
Whitehead's personal life always took a backseat to her career. In 1931, at age forty-eight she married Frank Harrison, but they later divorced. She never had any children. Whitehead passed away in California, where she lived the last three years of her life, on October 13, 1972.
Judge Whitehead pictured in the Seattle Times, June 23, 1968 (Complete citation below)
Andrews, Mildred Tanner. Woman's Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 215-16.
Binheim, Max comp. and ed. Women of the West: a Series of Biographical Sketches of Living Eminent Women in the Eleven Western States of the United States of America (Los Angeles: Publishers Press, 1928).
Bragg, Lynn. “Judge Reah Mary Whitehead.” More than Petticoats: Remarkable Washington Women (Rowan and Littlefield, 2010), 131- 39.
Duncan, Don. “Don Duncan's Driftwood Diary: Judge Reah Whitehead.” Seattle Times. June 23, 1968. NewsBank.
“Fairview Parent-Teacher.” Seattle Daily Times, March 3, 1918. NewsBank.
“Justice Courts Concern Women.” Seattle Daily Times, November 2, 1914. NewsBank.
“Laws not Just to Women.” Seattle Daily Times, January 11, 1909. NewsBank.
“Reah Whitehead becomes the first female Justice of the Peace in King County and Washington state in 1914.” December 9, 2000. HistoryLink.org. http://www.historylink.org/File/2877
“Seattle Girl Passes State Bar Examination.” Seattle Daily Times, May 12, 1905. NewsBank. Suffia, David. “Reah Whitehead, Pioneer Woman Justice of Peace.” The Seattle Times, January 3, 1975.