Gresham Outlook – Book Review

Roberts’ book has East County backdrop

By mark garber, The Gresham Outlook, Sep 12, 2008.

Betty Roberts’ fine autobiography – “With Grit and By Grace” – is at least three history lessons woven together:

• It’s the personal history of a woman who, although born at a time when people of her gender had limited options in life, overcame overt discrimination to eventually become Oregon’s first woman Supreme Court Justice.

• It’s also a history of Oregon during its most fascinating and progressive period – the 1960s and 1970s.

• And it’s a recounting of the women’s movement or what Roberts refers to as the second wave of feminism.

Along the way – and perhaps of most direct interest for Gresham-area residents – the reader will pick up more than a few anecdotes about East Multnomah County in the 1960s and ’70s. This area, like the rest of Oregon, was a place filled with colorful personalities who at the time played a central role in the heady issues of the day.

Among the cast of East County characters mentioned in Roberts’ book are Mt. Hood Community College founders Poly and Betty Schedeen, former legislators Ross Morgan and Vern Cook and, of course, Betty Roberts’ second husband, Frank, who went on to become Oregon’s First Man when his third wife, Barbara Roberts, was elected the state’s only woman governor.

The East County references – Betty Roberts worked at Reynolds and Centennial schools before she got into politics – are enough to draw the interest of local readers. But there’s more to this book, published this year by Oregon State University Press, than name dropping.

Roberts tells her story in a matter-of-fact manner that keeps the book moving at a reasonable clip. And it turns out that the former justice is a surprisingly good storyteller. (Want to know the real reason that the aforementioned Morgan decked Cook at a Salem event? You’ll find it in these pages.)

But underlying Roberts’ capable writing style is a story that truly needed to be told. Roberts grew up and married her first husband during an era when the expectations for women were extremely restrictive. She divorced that husband because he didn’t want her to work outside the home. Her desire to obtain a PhD. in political science at the University of Oregon was thwarted by a chauvinistic department chairman. The rebuff led her to become a lawyer and eventually a legislator.

While in Salem, Roberts was in the thick of the monumental issues of her time: decriminalizing abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, the Beach Bill, the Bottle Bill and statewide land-use planning.

And her personal story, as with all good autobiographies, intersects with the larger historical drama that surrounds it:

• Her peace-loving son is shipped off to Vietnam, promising that he won’t kill anyone.

• When she and Frank Roberts divorce, and she remarries, both the state bar association and the Oregonian newspaper try to bully her into changing her name. They relent only after she obtains an attorney general’s opinion and threatens a lawsuit.

• Roberts’ biggest disappointments – her historic, but unsuccessful races for governor and and the U.S. Senate in the 1970s – ultimately lead to her greatest achievement: being named to the Oregon Supreme Court.

The personal details in the book, in fact, reveal the most about how opportunities have grown for women in the years since Roberts began her career. In today’s world, young women have few obstacles to pursuing any occupation they choose. And if they run up against discrimination, there are laws in place to protect them.

Few of those advantages – neither the laws, nor the expectations – existed when Roberts began her journey. Each step of the way, she had to violate the limits that others wanted to place upon her. Without the work of Roberts and others like her, it’s impossible to imagine that a Hillary Clinton or even a Sarah Palin would be standing where they are today.

As such, this book is a timely reminder that the barriers Roberts encountered didn’t fall from natural forces – they were pushed, kicked and intentionally dismantled.

Posted under: Book Reviews

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