Register-Guard Book Review

Justice roberts recounts ACTS of injustice in her memoir

In her new memoir, retired Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts credits “grit” for her trailblazing political and judicial career.

But reading her account of the hurdles she overcame to become the first Oregon woman to sit on that court, the word seems inadequate.

Looking back at the shockingly overt sexism she faced as recently as the 1980s, it’s clear she had to wield that determination again and again, like a machete cutting through the tangle of obstacles blocking her path.

Early in “With Grit and By Grace” (288 pages, Oregon State University Press, $24.95), Roberts recounts her outrage at being rejected for the political science doctoral program at the University of Oregon by then-Chairman Burt Wingert.

“I stacked up in my mind the many times a man had told me, ‘You can’t,’?” she writes.

“Just in the previous seven years: I’d been told by a male registrar that I couldn’t major in physical education; by my husband that I couldn’t teach; by a male minister that I should never have gone to college; and by a male academic adviser that I should be happy being a housewife. Twice I’d been forced to shift jobs to another school district — once to be able to teach rather than be a dean according to a superintendent’s decree. Once I’d been fired when I ran for public office, just because another male superintendent had disliked the idea.”

But Roberts, then 39, refused to be defeated.

Her rejection by the UO propelled her enroll in a night law school — Portland’s Northwestern College of Law.

“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.’?”

Despite that satisfyingly direct riposte, however, Roberts’ natural ear for politics led her to cloak her public displays of grit in a useful gentility.

Roberts, now 85, wrote the first part of “With Grit,” an account of her Depression era Texas childhood, for a family reunion. But when a law clerk read it, she urged Roberts to publish a book about her life. It’s obvious why — Oregonians tempted to skim the first two chapters to get to her adult life in Oregon will have trouble doing so.

It’s a compelling look at the events that produced the gritti­ness in young Betty Lucille Cantrell: A father crippled by a chemical in his bootleg whiskey; a mother who took in laundry to try — not always successfully — to feed her family.

An early affinity for the Democratic Party came after a New Deal library job allowed her mother to finally earn a decent living.

The bulk of the book deals with Roberts’ 13 years as a Democratic state legislator, her candidacies for governor and the U.S. Senate (she lost a close race to Bob Packwood, whose career ended in the disgrace of a sexual harassment scandal) and her nine years as a judge (five on the Oregon Court of Appeals, four on the Oregon Supreme Court).

Even after her election to the Legislature, Roberts continued to face obstacles her male counterparts did not.

She had to fight for the right to continue to use her last name — the one known to her constituents — after she divorced Frank Roberts and married Keith Skelton.

She was frozen out by her male counterparts on the appellate court during opinion conferences, with the chief judge, Herbert Schwab, skipping over her as he called on the others. A male judge groped her breast when she attended her first judicial conference.

But the book, written with free-lance writer and editor Gail Wells, also chronicles the exhilaration of Roberts’ many successes.

In the Legislature, she was a leader in passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, the bottle bill, and of laws banning workplace discrimination and decriminalizing abortion.

The latter issue was “not a big moral issue” back in 1969 when she introduced her legalization bill, Roberts said in a recent interview.

“The only people who really opposed it then were Catholics, on religious grounds,” she said. “It was a more of a matter concern for the health of women, because so many were getting abortions in spite of the law, in nonclinical settings where it was very dangerous because of a lack of sanitary conditions.”

Republican Gov. Tom McCall championed the legalization, she said, “and the medical profession had also come on board. Doctors were saying, ‘This can’t be a crime.’ They were seeing many women trying to give themselves an abortion — they saw the aftereffects.”

By 1982, when Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh appointed her the first woman in the 124-year history of the Oregon Supreme Court, Roberts enjoyed acceptance and “professional collegiality” with her male fellow justices.

She recounts the day an arguing attorney addressed the court as “gentlemen,” only to have her colleague, Justice Bob Jones, add pointedly: “And Justice Roberts.”

“Word must have gotten around the Bar,” she wrote, “Because I never heard ‘gentlemen’ used again … It was always ‘Your Honors.’?”

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