PULLMAN, Wash. — Barbara Roberts was politically inexperienced, scared to death and so poor she couldn’t afford to buy a legislator a cup of coffee the first time she marched up the steps of the Oregon Legislature.
Today, she is a community activist, published author and experienced politician who served as Oregon’s first woman governor. She shared her experiences at a morning talk today (March 28) at Washington State University’s Compton Union Building. Roberts’ address, “American Women: Blazing the Trials, Laying the Concrete,” was part of the annual WSU’s Women and Leadership Forum.
Roberts began her career in the 1960s when her son was denied a public school education because he is autistic. That cause and “a mother’s anger” spurred her into action. Eventually, Oregon became the first state to pass a special education bill in the country because of her efforts.
She rose through the ranks from community school board member and county commissioner to majority leader in the Democratic Party and Oregon’s Secretary of State. Despite years of public and political service, the press described her rise to the governor’s chair in the early 1990s as “sudden.”
“A sudden rise I think not,” she said. Women “aren’t perceived to be leaders no matter what they do or how well they do it.”
She found this sentiment continued to be true after she decided not to run for reelection in 1994. Her spouse died in 1993, and Roberts decided she needed to deal with her grief rather than run for public office.
Despite building an impressive political record during her term that included lowering unemployment to its lowest rate in 25 years, streamlining bureaucracy, decreasing the welfare rolls, increasing economic diversity and developing job training programs, the press insisted she had dropped out of the running because she didn’t have a strong record and couldn’t handle a tough campaign.
“I knew I had the record and the strength,” she insisted. During the process of grieving for her husband, Roberts began writing “Death Without Denial, Grief Without Apology,” a book for the individual facing death and for those grieving a loved one.
Although women live in a culture that doesn’t always recognize their accomplishments, she said women “must continue to lead effectively with or without the recognition.”
She believes the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment helped women become mobilized politically, running for seats in every level of government. The amendment passed Congress in 1972 but was not ratified by the necessary 38 states.
“In a quarter of a century we changed the face of American politics, and we have the scar tissue to prove it,” she said.
Roberts encouraged women to recognize those pioneers who came before them, and to continue to be active in leadership roles. “We have to carry the water for generations of women leaders who will follow us.”
Since serving as governor, she has continued in public service as a private citizen, serving on the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., and is involved in a hospice program that supports giving terminally ill patients the right to die.
“Sometimes when we are searching for a leader, we discover a leader in ourselves,” she said.
“I don’t have to be an elected official for my voice to be heard and neither do you.”