Book Review: Betty Roberts, An Oregon Pioneer

By Grant Schott of Fossil, Oregon. Grant is a long-time union organizer and political activist.

BettyrobertsAlthough her campaigns for Governor and U.S. Senate were unsuccessful, by running, and serving as the first female Oregon Supreme Court Justice, Judge Betty Roberts helped pave the way for other women in Oregon politics.

Betty Roberts is clearly a survivor and a great success story, as evident from the beginning of her recent memoir, With Grit and by Grace: Breaking Trails in Law and Politics - A Memoir. Growing up during the Depression in Texas was hard enough, but became even more challenging when her father was disabled by tainted moonshine, leaving the family impoverished.

Roberts found her way to Oregon and, as a young mother, decided to take college courses at Eastern Oregon College in the small timber town of LaGrande. Although she failed her first history final, the history professor, Lee Johnson (not the future OR Attorney General of the same name) urged her to keep going, and she improved and stayed in school. (I mention this in part because Lee Johnson was a beloved professor who married my Grandad's cousin, Betty Jo Schott.) Roberts finished her education in Eugene and Portland and decided to enter politics, elected to the Oregon House in 1964 and the Senate in 1968, at the time the only woman in that body.

In her book, Roberts recalls not only the uphill battle of fighting for gender equality, but of being taken seriously by numerous chauvinistic male colleagues. It wasn't just the big issues like abortion and birth control that were controversial, but seemingly trivial ones by today’s standards, such as allowing women to change their name after a divorce. That issue was defeated in the name of family values, with some Democrat men lecturing Roberts and other supporters of the bill. Roberts' lonely fights in her first legislative session were soon aided by other legislative women, including stars like the future Portland Mayor Vera Katz and Secretary of State Norma Paulus.

As a candidate for Governor in 1974, Roberts impressed the political world by just narrowly losing to former State Treasurer and prior nominee Bob Straub, while running ahead of Treasurer Jim Redden. When former Senator Wayne Morse won the '74 U.S. Senate Democratic primary but died in July, Roberts was appointed as the nominee, losing to Senator Bob Packwood. Roberts speaks of the expected hurdles and sometimes exhaustion of running for statewide office, at one point being told that she shouldn’t be cooking dinner when she should be campaigning. Roberts recalls with irony that she turned down the offer of a campaign appearance by the little known Georgia Governor, Jimmy Carter. Two years later, Roberts was the co-chair of Carter’s Oregon campaign committee, while her husband , Keith Skelton, supported the winner of the Oregon primary, Idaho Senator Frank Church.

A year later, Roberts was appointed to the Oregon Court of Appeals and later to the Oregon Supreme Court and was the first woman to serve on either court. Those interested in law might find her examination of various decisions interesting. Roberts resigned from the high court in 1986, after serving four years, and I found her still struggling to explain just why. She mentions wanting to spend more time with her family and tiring of the Salem to Portland commute.

One chapter missing from this book is Roberts’s prominent role in helping to organize former employees of her old opponent Bob Packwood in coming out in 1992-95 to tell their stories of sexual harassment and calling for his ultimate resignation.

Had she chosen to run for Governor or Senator again, or had she had more time to campaign against Packwood in ’74, Roberts might have won and become a more famous politician. She still remains a pioneer in Oregon politics, though, and tells a story that is an important part of Oregon’s political history.

  • SusanNielsen (unverified)

    Thanks for the review. This is a fascinating, thoughtful book. It's a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in Oregon history and politics, not to mention women's rights.

  • Christine Lewis (unverified)

    Thanks for posting this, Grant! I just added With Grit and By Grace to my to-read list.

  • LT (unverified)

    Sounds like a great book.

    About this:

    "....seemingly trivial ones by today’s standards, such as allowing women to change their name after a divorce. That issue was defeated in the name of family values, with some Democrat men lecturing Roberts and other supporters of the bill"

    Issues like that and like women having control of their own finances and a credit rating all their own (called fair credit reporting) were issues in the first session Norma Paulus served in the House. If a woman was famous in her own right and kept her name after marriage for that reason but wanted to open a joint bank account with her husband, there were banks which wouldn't allow that even if shown a marriage certificate.

    Something like 10 women of very different political persuasions (but all affected by the legal and financial rights of women) made themselves a political bloc to push those bills through. As I recall, that even meant not supporting bills supported by the political leadership until they got their own bills passed.

    Seldom has there been such an identifiable bloc since then, that is until now.

    What some call the "youth cohort"---legislators under the age of 35 or whatever--have that power now, as they have a larger number than the amount of majority as I understand it.

    If that cohort pushed for kicker reform or something else they could all agree on and had the logistical details all worked out, they could make history in this session.

    Norma Paulus always told that story when running for office after that. She said some had questioned the effort, "but when we got thank you notes from Business and Professional Women's Clubs we knew we had done the right thing" .

    One more thing about Betty Roberts. Everyone interested in her life should read the section of FIRE AT EDEN'S GATE about the original Bottle Bill. St. Sen. Betty Roberts carried it on the floor of the Senate. There were some behind the scenes attempts to kill it by pressuring legislators. Had the bill not passed in the Senate, we might not have had an original Bottle Bill to argue about revising a generation later.

  • J Loewen (unverified)

    Thanks for the information about the book. Betty Roberts has been one of my heros. I was a very depressed young man after the elections of 68 with Nixon's win and the defeat of Morse by Packwood. My tentative return to working for candidates was with her run for Gov. in 1974. Another sad loss from my view of what politics could be but her taking on the hopeless quest against Packwood convinced me never to stop fighting. HERE's to a great lady of Oregon.

  • Grant Schott (unverified)

    I sent the review to Bethine Church of Bosie, ID who tried to post, received an error message, so here is her message:

    "Please extend my best wishes to Betty and I was always grateful to her late husband, State Rep. Keith Skelton, for supporting my husband Senator Frank Church in the Democratic primary for President in 1976. I'm looking forward to reading Betty's memoirs, as I'm sure it will reflect well the personality, drive, foresight, and intelligence of a woman who paved the way for so many others."

    Bethine Church (Mrs. Frank Church)

    Mrs. Church wrote her own memoirs a few years ago.

    LT- Yes, Betty could be called the Mother of the OR bottle bill. The precise stroy is in the book, but, to paraphrase; someone, I believe anonymously, tried to bribe Betty to oppose the bill. She reported it the next day, I think on the Senate floor. This really stunned the bill's opponents and helped the bottle bill pass.

  • Bonny McKnight (unverified)

    It is always special for me to even see Betty's name in print. The best thing I have ever been associated with was my work with and for Betty Roberts. Her "success" problem was simply one of being ahead of her time - not a bad problem if you have to have one. The reviewer comments about her "unsuccessful" runs against Packwood and for Governor but I think that is a very limited definition of success. Betty's real success - one she still represents - is her clear message that each of us, man or woman, can change the world around us if we just stand up for what we know is right. The most courage comes from those few who stand up first and give comfort to the rest of us to join in. Thank you, Betty.

  • MB2-632 (unverified)
    <h2>It’s no doubt a great review for the nice book. It is an interesting and solicitous book I have ever seen before. I have read it and I would say that it’s a must-read for anybody with even has a bit of concentration in Oregon history and politics. Thanks for offering such a nice book.</h2>
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