Frances Rowena Mathews Jones Hunt (1874–1958)
Frances Hunt was a representative from Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) in the Forty-third, Forty-fourth, and Forty-fifth Arkansas General Assemblies, serving from 1922 to 1926. She was the first woman to serve in the Arkansas General Assembly.
Frances Rowena Mathews was born on June 6, 1874, in Des Arc (Prairie County) to Julia Ann Wair Mathews and Allen C. Mathews, a Confederate veteran and editor of the Des Arc Citizen. Her friends and family called her “Fannie Dear.” She was educated in the Des Arc schools and learned the printing trade in her father’s newspaper office.
Her father died in 1891, shortly after purchasing the Prairie County Democrat and founding the Des Arc Guidon. Her mother moved with her family to live on the plantation of her brother, Samuel T. Wair, in Redfield (Jefferson County). Wair was active in politics, representing Barraque Township on the Jefferson County Democratic Central Committee and serving as a delegate to the Democratic State Convention. Another uncle, Robert Fort Wair, was mayor of Cabot (Lonoke County) and editor of newspapers at Cabot and Lonoke (Lonoke County). Frances Mathews was steeped in public affairs, and as she later said, had always been interested in state and county politics.
While working as a printer in Benton (Saline County) in 1899, Mathews met and married Henry Pearce Jones, a young attorney and a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas Law Department in Little Rock (Pulaski County). In a report on the wedding, the Arkansas Democrat said she was “a lovely, graceful, and accomplished lady, coming from one of the best families in the state.” Henry Jones died less than a year later, and Frances, a pregnant widow, returned to Redfield to live with her family.
In November 1904, Jones became a candidate for postmistress of the Arkansas House of Representatives, and the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic observed, “Mrs. Jones is well qualified for the position and has many friends at work on her behalf.” When the legislature convened in January 1905, she was elected on the first ballot, receiving 64 votes to 32 for the three other nominees. In October, she married Representative Sidney Jackson Hunt, a prominent Pine Bluff attorney who represented Jefferson County in the Arkansas House from 1905 to 1908. In addition to her son, Henry P. Jones Jr., Sidney and Frances Hunt had two more children, Mary Ellen and Sidney Allen Hunt.
Frances Hunt was an active clubwoman in Pine Bluff. She was secretary of the Young Ladies Club of the First Methodist Church and active in the church’s Woman’s Missionary Society, a group that examined the roles of women in various cultures. She also was secretary, vice president, and superintendent of the Legislative and Franchise Committees of the Pine Bluff affiliate of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), at times when, she said, “the organization was subject to almost general derision.” In addition, she was 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 April 13, 1922, Frances Hunt was sworn in as the first woman member of the Arkansas House of Representatives, appointed by Governor Thomas C. McRae to fill the vacancy created by Representative Sterling Miller’s resignation after being elected Pine Bluff’s municipal judge. She announced on May 6 that she would be a candidate for reelection, touting her service in the Democratic Women’s Club and claiming to be “one of Arkansas’ first suffragists.” Boosted by many women voting “single shot” for only one candidate when each voter could vote for three at-large positions, Hunt finished third among six candidates and was unopposed in the general election.
When the 1923 legislative session convened, the League of Women Voters held a reception at the Arkansas State Capitol to honor Frances Hunt and Erle Chambers, who had been elected from Pulaski County. 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 curtail the activities of “labor agents” recruiting sharecroppers and farm laborers for better jobs in the North, a process that undermined the low–wage farm economy and the Jim Crow system in the South. It would have 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.
Hunt ran for reelection in 1924, finishing third among four candidates in the Democratic primary for the three House positions from Jefferson County and was unopposed in the general election. During the 1925 session, she became the first woman to preside over the House when she took the chair during a temporary absence by Speaker Thomas Hill, her Jefferson County colleague. Hunt served on the committees on Oil and Gas, Charitable Institutions, Industrial Schools, and Memorials during her second term. One controversial bill she sponsored would have added a three-dollar fee to marriage licenses to fund pensions for widows, but that failed almost immediately. She was more successful with legislation to create the Board of Cosmetic Therapy to license beauticians and inspect cosmetology schools and beauty shops (Act 158 of 1925).
Not seeking another legislative term in 1926, Hunt continued to be involved in public affairs, chairing the Jefferson County committee for the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Fund, raising money for restoration of the former president’s birthplace. In 1931, she was one of the three Arkansas delegates to the national convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She also continued to be involved in Democratic Party politics, attending state party conventions and supporting the gubernatorial campaigns of Homer Adkins and Sid McMath.
After her legislative service, Hunt was appointed to a position as field inspector for the Board of Cosmetic Therapy. For twelve years she traveled the state inspecting beauty shops and occasionally prosecuting unlicensed beauticians. She retired in 1938 to raise her grandson, Henry P. Jones III, whose mother had died in childbirth.
Frances Hunt died on August 21, 1958, at the home of her daughter in Pine Bluff.
For additional information:
Frances M. and Sidney J. Hunt Letters, 1892–1936. Arkansas State Archives, Little Rock, Arkansas.
“Frances R. M. J. Hunt.” Southern Women Legislators Collection, MUM00422, Archives and Special Collections, J.D. Williams Library, The University of Mississippi. Box 1, Series 2, Folder 1–37.
“Henry Pearce Jones III Interview,” conducted by Stephen A. Smith, March 31, 2010. “Women in the Arkansas General Assembly,” David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
“Mrs. S. J. Hunt Is in the Race for Representative.” Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, May 7, 1922, p. 1.
“Mrs. Hunt, Ex-Legislator, Dies at 84.” Pine Bluff Commercial, August 22, 1958, p. 1.
Lindsley Armstrong Smith and Stephen A. Smith
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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