Statesman Journal Interview

[From the Statesman Journal]

Roberts broke down barriers for women

State’s first female court justice shares her story in a new book

By Peter Wong, published June 9, 2008

Betty Roberts has blazed a number of Oregon trails.

At age 32, already a mother, she returned to college — and then got a law degree at age 43.

One of the first women to get involved in state politics, Roberts mounted the first serious campaign for governor and then was thrust into a race for U.S. senator the same year. She is best known for being the first woman on Oregon’s appellate courts.

She has just published a memoir, “With Grit and By Grace,” with Gail Wells.

Question: Why did you choose to write this book?

Answer: The book was written to tell the story of my own experiences during the time women were struggling to find their own identities and to relate the achievements of the women’s movement (the so-called second wave) through the Oregon legislative process, beginning in the late 1960s and continuing to my time on the appellate courts. So much is taken for granted now about women’s advances that I felt it important to give in some historical detail how those advances were achieved.

Q: Why now?

A: This book has been “in progress” for some years. I first wrote about my childhood for a family reunion in the 1990s, and it went on from there. It took so long because I wanted to live in the present with my family and friends, with my mediation and arbitration work, with my personal interests in golfing and quilting, but do the research and write on what had gone before as well. With 800 pages of manuscript I finally decided to find a professional writer to help me make it publishable. Gail Wells was just the right person. With her regular urgings and considerable talents, it was published. It is only a bit of fate — or perhaps grace — that it has been published at the time the first woman who has a chance of being president of the United States is running for the Democratic nomination.

Q: What was it like for you to return to college in the 1950s, after World War II and parenthood? What prompted you to make the decision?

A: For many of my friends and for my husband, it was an audacious move to return to college; for me it made perfect sense. I feared I’d have no way of supporting my four children should something happen to their father, as had happened to mine when I was a child. My mother had to support our family of five during the Depression by taking in washing, and life was very hard for all of us. I remembered all of that very clearly and I would not relive it simply because I did not have an education.

Q: How did your time in college, particularly after you transferred to Portland State (College/University), lead you to an interest in politics and your eventual participation?

A: The courses I liked most were in the social sciences, particularly political science and history. It may have been the stimulus of a latent interest because of my family’s personal experiences in receiving assistance under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that ultimately got us out of poverty by providing jobs for people like my mother. It, unquestionably, was due to some very fine professors — Lee Johnson, professor of U.S. history at Eastern Oregon College; Marko Haggard, professor of political science at Portland State College, and Ben Padrow, my speech teacher and debate coach at Portland State College. All of them taught that we learn by doing — getting involved and making a difference.

Q: Compare your initial involvement in politics during the 1960s with your observations about how women fare in politics today? What obstacles did you face that are no longer obstacles today? What obstacles remain? What advantages, if any, are there?

A: I first served in the Oregon House in 1965. In 1968 I ran for the Oregon Senate against an entrenched incumbent. A poll told me 20 percent of the voters would not vote for a woman, but I won. In 1974, I ran for governor, and polls showed generally the same statistic for a woman for that particular office. It seemed that by then voters would accept women for certain offices, such as the Legislature, but not in executive positions. Looking at statistics today about whether voters will vote for a woman for president is confusing as they show that generally fewer individual voters say they will not vote for a woman for president — but still about 20 percent think voters in general will not support a woman. Analysts surmise that voters have learned not to appear prejudiced in order to be “politically correct” but they think other people will not vote for a woman. This makes it hard to determine analytically whether women “fare” better in politics today.

Looking at statistics in another way, it is true there are more women in elective offices than there were in the 1960s — more in state legislatures, more as governors (8), more in the U.S. House of Representatives and more in the U.S. Senate (16). Certainly, there are more women in appointed positions in both state and federal government. Even with these gains, women are far from parity with men, and the numbers increase at a very slow rate. There are some statistics to show that the numbers of women in elective office have held steady for the past several years and that that is cause for concern. The obstacles for women are obvious in the presidential campaign this year where blatant sexism has been prevalent in the media and in voter demonstrations. The biggest obstacle of all is the lack of women in high offices to act as role models and mentors to younger women, and the fact that women in larger numbers must be in positions of power in order to move on up into the executive branches of government.

We must constantly work to get women into state legislatures and statewide offices in order to elect more governors, and we must work to get more women into the U.S. Senate if we are ever to see a woman elected president. They must start at an early age in order to progress through various political positions in order to gain the experience needed to be a governor or the president.

Q: Was your gender or your age a bigger barrier in the 1960s to going to law school and entering law?

A: Neither my gender nor age was a barrier to entering the particular law school I attended as it was a night law school in downtown Portland and was designed for people like me who worked and often were older. The place where both gender and age — it was difficult to determine which was the more offensive — was a factor when at age 39, I sought admission to the University of Oregon political science department to be a doctoral candidate. I was told it was age, but it was common knowledge that women were not accepted there for doctoral degrees, although I had completed my master’s degree in political science at the school.

Q: Much of your work as a legislator focused on women’s rights, but touched on other issues. What were you proudest of achieving as a legislator? Biggest disappointment?

A: Some of my work in the legislature focused on women’s rights, but I was considered a solid legislator on a broad range of issues. I have chosen to write about women’s issues in “With Grit and By Grace” because those issues have been generally overlooked in discussions and writings about the 1970s where the focus has been more on land use, environmental protection, consumer protection, opening up government to citizen participation, etc. But the women’s movement — and the legislation that was passed during that time — was an important part of making equality of opportunities a reality for women. That legislation, indeed, changed the lives of women who now participate more equally, and productively, in our society.

I am proud of much of the legislation I worked on as chairwoman of the Senate Consumer and Business Affairs Committee and as a member of the Ways and Means Committee as well. I served on the Senate Education Committee and was vice chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. I am probably best known for saving Oregon’s famous “bottle bill” from the lobbying interests that opposed it and seeing that it was ultimately passed by the Senate and became law. As far as women’s issues are concerned, I am probably best known for introducing and helping pass a bill that decriminalized abortions in 1969. My greatest disappointment was the failure of my repeated efforts to get funding for kindergartens in our school system. I tried every session from 1965 through 1977, but it never got all the way through the legislative process while I was there. (NOTE: A 1981 law finally required districts to offer kindergarten.)

Q: What prompted you to run for governor in 1974? How did it feel, after your loss in the primary, to run a second statewide campaign in the same year for a different office?

A: During the 1973 legislative session speculation began about who would run for governor in 1974 as Tom McCall would not be able to run again. A likely Democratic candidate was former state Treasurer Bob Straub, but he had been out of office a few years and had run against Tom McCall for governor, but he was silent on whether he would seek the office again. The press began to suggest possible names, mine among them. Then political colleagues and friends began to encourage me to run in the Democratic primary. At the time, it looked like it might be a crowded field. When I began to get specific offers of help I began to consider it seriously, and by late fall of 1973 I had a good campaign staff and announced my intention to run. Later Bob Straub did get in the race and he won the nomination by a very small margin.

When former U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse died in the summer of 1974 (after my defeat for governor) while he was attempting to take back his seat in the U.S. Senate from Bob Packwood who had defeated Morse in 1968, I was named by the State Democratic Central Committee to take Morse’s place on the ballot. I had at first been ambivalent about running for the U.S. Senate. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be that far away from Oregon on a regular basis. But, on the other hand, I thought I had the best chance of anyone who was considering it to put on a good campaign and win. I had 84 days to switch from being a candidate for governor to winning a campaign for the U.S. Senate. The dynamics of the campaign were very different, including the issues to be discussed and the method of raising money to run the campaign, both of which made me rely more on contacts in Washington, D.C., than in Oregon.

It was a huge challenge, and the campaign was even more exhausting than the governor’s race. Our campaign made a fine showing, however, and it was down to the wire 10 days before the election, so my surveys showed. Bob Packwood ultimately won due to his heavy media coverage the last weekend and endorsements by major newspapers.

Q: Oregon’s appellate courts were all-male prior to your appointment to the Court of Appeals in 1977, and the Supreme Court in 1982. As the first woman on both, how did you make a difference?

A: There is no question I made a difference on both courts in terms of changing the attitude of the public and the personnel on both courts about the acceptance of women on the courts. That barrier had to be broken. As far as affecting the work of the courts, that is more difficult to determine. However, it is true that different people bring different talents and backgrounds to the court, and that is why we need more diversity in our court system. Mine was one of being a mother, grandmother, teacher, legislator and, of course, lawyer. With that experience I looked at some cases a bit differently than the men.

A few cases are described in “With Grit and By Grace,” in which I felt my influence as a woman helped decide the outcome. Probably the greatest influence was on other women lawyers, particularly those who argued cases before the courts, who saw me as a role model. After leaving the bench I was told often about how relieved women lawyers were to see a woman on the bench who they felt they could relate to. It made them more at ease and more comfortable when they appeared before the courts, and, most significantly, it encouraged more women to seek appointment and/or election to the Oregon appellate courts.

Note to readers: The following question was asked May 30, before Sen. Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination.

Q: You were on the platform when Hillary Clinton opened her Oregon presidential campaign April 5 in Hillsboro. Why do you support her? When do you think the ultimate political barrier will fall?

A: As this moment I am still hopeful Hillary Clinton will be named the Democratic nominee and, if so, I am certain she can beat John McCain in the fall. If that happens, the ultimate political barrier will have fallen. I support Senator Clinton because she is the best qualified candidate by reason of experience and knowledge of the political process that is necessary to enact the programs that she has proposed for our country. She is sound on the issues that face Americans and she is willing to take a strong stand in behalf of those issues. Her personality is one of determination, dedication, perseverance and tenacity — all prerequisites for skilled political leaders.

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