Pioneer Oregon jurist frets over women’s political gains
Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts says Sarah Palin ‘is a stranger to me’
Betty Roberts, Oregon’s first woman Supreme Court justice, came to Gresham on Monday, Sept. 8, to talk with two local book clubs about her memoir.
But the readers crammed into the living room of June Swan, longtime Gresham resident, could not ignore what Roberts quipped was “the elephant in the room.”
Roberts’ role as a leader in Oregon’s feminist movement is recorded in her book, “With Grit and By Grace.” But Robert’s talk led straight to the hottest topic in the nation, Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Roberts, who saw the Equal Rights Amendment passed in Oregon, though it failed by a vote of three states nationally, pondered what to make of the Alaska governor who is Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s running mate.
“Do we accept it as a new step for women, or have we just regressed?” she asked.
Roberts pioneered law to decriminalize abortion in Oregon while Palin opposes abortion. The next administration will likely make the Supreme Court appointments that could end legal abortion in the U.S.
“This is a new sort of reality,” Roberts said, adding that it brings her back to the 1970s and Phyllis Schafly’s arguments against the Equal Rights Amendment.
“She (Palin) is a stranger to me,” Roberts said, “I just don’t relate.”
Bur Roberts said Palin’s candidacy raises one question all women in all politics share: How can women in political life support a feminine side and still be tough?
Roberts didn’t start out tough. She was a banker’s wife in rural Oregon with four children. A bonafide member of the bridge playing set, she decided in her 30s to go back to school, finish her college education and become a teacher in order to help educate her children. The man who admitted her to Eastern Oregon University (then Eastern Oregon College) remarked that returning to school was “cute.” It was the first of many rebuffs she experienced as she worked her away through politics, into law school and finally to the bench of the state’s top court.
“You learn how to deal with disappointment,” she said.
Roberts has a close connection to East County. She and her family came to Gresham in 1956, staying in the same motel with Swan and her first husband, as both families looked for houses.
“We each knew the other was not somebody we wanted to know,” Roberts said. “There I was in pedal pushers with clunky shoes and she was in black velvet toreador pants with high-heeled wedge shoes.”
But Roberts knew how to cook, a skill she learned from the women she knew in La Grande, and Swan, who later became a fine cook, began to borrow recipes. Swan, twice widowed, married Stan Swan who was Congresswoman Edith Green’s aide.
With a head full of lesson plans and a passion to teach high school social studies, Roberts, when she came to Gresham, was primed to teach. But her husband said no.
“So, I made a choice,” she said. She was divorced in 1960.
“You have to remember what life was like then for women,” Roberts told the book clubs from Boring and Mount Tabor. “Women couldn’t get credit … you couldn’t get a divorce without proving that the other party was a no-good person.”
Roberts began her teaching career first in Reynolds High School, then Centennial. And when Superintendent Harry Thompson wouldn’t let her run for political office, she moved to David Douglas High School, “which would take me, win lose or draw,” she said.
She first ran for the Legislature in 1964. She served on the Lynch School District Board. Roberts married twice again, first to Frank Roberts and then to legislator Keith Skelton.
Her third marriage, she said, “was when I finally got it right.” Skelton died in 1995.
Roberts earned a master’s degree in political science at the University of Oregon and was seeking a doctorate when an adviser at the University of Oregon denied her, saying she would be 45 years old when the degree was earned and would have “only 20 years to repay the state of Oregon.”
She turned to Northwestern School of Law, attending classes at night. In the Legislature, she was part of the pioneering Oregon Women’s Political Caucus. She was the first woman on the Court of Appeals in 1977 and the first on Oregon’s Supreme Court in 1982. She still works as a senior judge in mediation and arbitration.
“Here I am over 80 and still working for the state’s taxpayers,” she said.