Trailblazing Oregon Judge Fought ‘Shockingly Overt Sexism’—and Won
Posted Sep 15, 2008, 05:39 pm CDTMartha Neil
When Betty Roberts attended her first judicial conference, a male judge groped her breast. And that was just one of a number of instances of what a newspaper reviewing an autobiography of Oregon’s first female supreme court justice describes as the “shockingly overt sexism she faced as recently as the 1980s.”
But Roberts, who is now 85 and retired, was never one to be deterred by a challenge.
Rejected by Burt Wingert, who was then the chairman of the department, when she applied, at age 39, to enter a political science doctoral program at the University of Oregon, Roberts revised her game plan. She enrolled instead in a night program at what is now known as Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, according to the Eugene Register-Guard.
“I had one last thought of Burt Wingert,” she writes. “?‘To hell with you, Mr. Chairman.’ In my mind I flipped a finger south toward the University of Oregon. ‘I am going to be a lawyer.’?”
Things improved for women with career ambitions as time went on, however, and Roberts played a pioneering role, both as a judge and as a state legislator.
After being appointed in 1982 as the Oregon Supreme Court’s first female justice, Roberts—who had been frozen out during opinion conferences with the chief judge by her male colleagues when she became the first woman to serve on the state court of appeals—found her fellow justices on the supreme court a different story. When an attorney one day addressed the court as “gentlemen,” Justice Bob Jones pointedly added “And Justice Roberts,” the newspaper recounts.
“Word must have gotten around the bar,” Roberts writes of this experience. “Because I never heard ‘gentlemen’ used again … It was always ‘Your honors.’?”
Her book, With Grit and By Grace, was published by the Oregon State University Press and is well worth reading, the newspaper says.
An alternative newspaper in Portland agrees. Roberts’ life story is a fascinating account of how one person can make a difference, after starting out in life on the Texas plains as a child during the Great Depression, writes Willamette Week. But “the greatest pleasure of Roberts’ memoir … lies in how well, with help from collaborator-editor Gail Wells, she tells her story.”