Taking the Gloves Off
Betty Roberts, political animal
by Suzi Steffen
Talk about a determined human being. Betty Roberts attended her first sociology class wearing a dress, stockings, pumps and gloves. She was 32, a banker’s wife living in LaGrande, a mother with four children — and the year was 1955.
Fast forward to February, 1982. By this time, Roberts had been a teacher, a school-board member, a state legislator, a lawyer, a grandmother, a state senator and the first woman on Oregon’s Court of Appeals. She had run against Bob Straub in the Democratic primary for governor — and that same year, after beloved former Senator Wayne Morse died, she ran against then-Sen. Bob Packwood.
Political to her bones, she understood running campaigns, so it wasn’t by accident or chance that she ended up breaking the state Supreme Court’s glass ceiling — she would have won the seat in an election, but she shrewdly maneuvered Republican Governor Vic Atiyeh into appointing her instead. Everybody won in that deal; everyone looked good. That was part of Roberts’ plan, part of her political skill.
Roberts’ honesty about political machinations in the service of a greater good to those she served makes her memoir, With Grit and By Grace: Breaking Trails in Politics and Law, a most fascinating read. Every page reveals a surprise, from the fact that Oregon’s legislature had to make it legal for places other than pharmacies to sell condoms to The Oregonian’s various sexist naming practices (calling the other Supreme Court justices by their titles but referring to her as “Mrs. Roberts,” for merely one instance). The UO doesn’t come off well; Burt Wingert, chair of the political science department (still not reputed to be a welcoming place for women), refused her entry into grad school because of her age and gender.
Guess what? At that time, the department chair’s decision was perfectly legal — but because Roberts then turned to law school and the state legislature after the UO’s idiotic rebuff, she helped change discriminatory laws. That was some revenge, and of the best kind, for Roberts’ revenge cleared the way for many others to succeed. In a variety of ways, her entire career served as inspiration: Oregon Supreme Court Justice Martha Walters, a Eugenean and former labor lawyer, says, “Justice Roberts has been a far off beacon and close friend to countless women lawyers and judges throughout the state and nation,”
For political junkies, the memoir opens a treasure box of insights about campaigns, political planning and the process of gradual legislative change. Roberts explains that although she sometimes felt like marching in the streets with other women demanding equality, she understood her societal function as well: “I’d learned what it means to have unilateral power. I’d learned that power also comes from being informed and from building alliances — collaborative power.”
That collaborative power meant getting the famous bottle bill passed, maneuvering so that Oregon’s legislature supported the Equal Rights Amendment, protecting the state’s public beaches, allowing women to decide what last names they wanted upon marrying or divorcing men and even confronting Portland’s City Club when it didn’t allow women to become members. Beyond its value recounting displays of sexism (The Oregon House Speaker had a problem with women wearing slacks, for instance … hearing echoes in the obsession with Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “pantsuits”?), the book becomes almost a quest to identify Oregon politicians and their fame. Hey, Tom McCall just got elected governor! There’s Vera Katz becoming a state rep! And oh look, here’s (now federal Judge) Ann Aiken graduating from the UO!
But Roberts’ own story, from her hardscrabble life as a kid in Texas to her three marriages, from canning fruit to serving on the state Supreme Court, provides a strong narrative as well. No, not everything in the book has literary merit despite expert help from writer Gail Wells, and transitions can range from clunky to abrupt, but so what? This memoir, published by OSU Press, deserves a wide readership in Oregon and across the country.
Justice Betty Roberts reads from With Grit and By Grace at 2 pm Sunday, Sept. 21, at the Eugene Public Library. Get there early! The UO Bookstore will be selling copies of the book at and after the reading, so be sure to bring some cash as well.