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February 9, 2005

Will today’s Maurine Newberger please stand up…Caroline Forell on women in Oregon politics

Caroline Forell
Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Feb. 21, The Oregonian: Former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts and former Portland city auditor Jewell Lansing second Forell’s opinion
Girls’ state? Not in Oregon’s
top levels of leadership

Washington 7, Oregon 0.

No, that’s not a Huskies vs. Ducks football score. It’s how many women are serving as governor, U.S. senator or state Supreme Court justice in Washington compared with Oregon.

Washington is the first state in the nation to have a female governor and two female U.S. senators. Four of nine of its Supreme Court justices also are female. Newsweek, in its Jan. 31 issue, describes Washington’s phenomenon as “Girls’ State.” But it isn’t just in Washington where women rule. While California may have an extremely manly governor, both of its U.S. senators are women, as are three of seven of its Supreme Court justices. 

As a law teacher and feminist, I want to see more women participate in public life, particularly in politics. Many of my female students, past and present, are passionate, politically savvy and eager to engage in public life. But I wonder how accessible political power is to women. 
I am particularly concerned about women’s access in our nation’s post-9/11 climate of fear. The endless war on terror favors the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger who calls less macho male politicians “girlie men.” Even in heavily Democratic Washington, Gov. Christine Gregoire barely beat her male Republican opponent. Furthermore, the percentage of women in the Washington Legislature has decreased from a national record of 40 percent to 33.3 percent.
Some might say that Oregon’s record for women in politics is not so bad. Tom Potter may have replaced Vera Katz as mayor of Portland, but both the mayors of Eugene and Salem are female. All of the elected officials in Portland are male, but four out of five Multnomah County commissioners are female. And while the female percentage of Oregon legislators — 28.9 percent — is lower than in Washington or California, Oregon’s percentage is higher than the national average of 22.5 percent. Furthermore, both the House and Senate majority leaders are women.
Nevertheless, I worry. Women in Oregon are losing ground at the highest levels of political leadership. In the late 1960s we had a female U.S. senator (Maurine Newberger); now we don’t. In the early 1990s we had a female governor (Barbara Roberts); now we don’t. We have had female Supreme Court justices (Betty Roberts, 1977-82; Susan Graber, 1990-98; Susan Leeson, 1998-2003); now we don’t. The current lack of women at the top may be just coincidence, but I fear there is something more troubling going on. Perhaps Oregon is a less-hospitable political arena for women than our neighbors.
A number of reasons are given for women’s success in Washington politics. Washington women successfully raise big bucks thanks to a tech-driven economy with large numbers of women business owners who can and do write checks. Washington also lacks a strong old-boy network and disfavors old-style, heavily partisan styles of leadership, which may favor men. It has been described as a populist culture with a political system that lets all people in.
How does Oregon compare in these areas?
Women and men in leadership roles in both parties need to support women who seek to serve in public life. Grass-roots networking is essential. So is mentoring from the top. One or two women in high positions would be nice, but it won’t represent fundamental change. Critical mass is necessary before the idea of women leading is normalized.
Oregon’s young women need role models. The lack of women leaders at the very top sends my Oregon daughter a very different message than the message my sister’s daughter in Seattle receives about what women can accomplish.
Some day soon I hope my Oregon daughter will find the game between her state and that of her Seattle cousin tied at 7-7. Then we can see whether letting women play changes the game.
Caroline Forell is the Clayton R. Hess professor of law at the University of Oregon.

Copyright 2005 Oregon Live. All Rights Reserved.

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