|Oregon State Bar Bulletin MAY 2008|
Chronicle of a 20th Century Pioneer
By Ira Zarov
In 1955 Betty Roberts, now known as Justice Betty Roberts, was a 32-year old banker’s wife, a housewife with four children, living in LaGrande, Ore. That year, she had taken the radical step for a woman of her generation and had enrolled, over the objections of her traditionalist husband and skepticism of her friends, in Eastern Oregon College. In her first semester, her professor suggested that she write a paper on pioneer women of the Northwest, having noted earlier that in the cemeteries along the trail the graves of women and children far outnumbered those of men. It was a prescient suggestion, as Betty Roberts would become a remarkable 20th century pioneer woman. She would finish her education, continue on to law school, become a state representative, a state senator, run for the U.S. Senate, and become the first woman appointed to the Oregon Court of Appeals and the Oregon Supreme Court. She would do these things at a time women were not welcome in legislative chambers or judicial chambers. She would face blatant and intentional discrimination and subtler, but no less pernicious, institutional sexism. She would carve out a career in public service filled with accomplishments and, along with a small group of other women, political pioneers themselves, change Oregon politics.
Justice Roberts’ memoir is a vivid history of the coming of age of the women’s movement, a history that should celebrated and read and understood by everyone who now benefits from the contributions of women in the law, in politics, and in every other field.
Justice Roberts does not offer a tell-all memoir, although there are occasional intimations that if she chose to do so, there would be plenty to tell. It is a tell-enough memoir. Justice Roberts candidly, directly and forcefully tells enough to make clear that the sexism of the ’50s through ’80s was a virulent and destructive force; that prejudices ruled the worlds of law and politics (and the rest of the world as well); and that overcoming them was a day-to-day battle won through, as she describes it "grit and grace," plus hard work, intelligence and determination.
The memoir is exceptional as both a telling of the growth of the women’s movement and as a history of Oregon politics through the latter half of the 20th century. The world that Justice Roberts enters in 1965 as a first-term member of the Oregon House of Representatives was a world filled with discrimination. The newspaper coverage of the opening of the 1965 session printed pictures of the few women legislators on the society page. In 1968, when Justice Roberts married attorney Keith Skelton, the Oregon State Bar insisted on listing her as "Betty R. Roberts Skelton," despite her request that she keep the Roberts name. When she protested it was suggested she sue the OSB. The register of elections informed her that they would not issue her a voter registration card unless she registered as Betty Roberts Skelton, despite the fact that on the ballot for her House Seat she would be appear as Betty Roberts. In 1969, The Oregonian insisted on referring to her as "Mrs. Betty Skelton," not "Sen. Roberts." A threatened lawsuit changed the view of Richard Nokes, The Oregonian’s editor, about the wisdom of his policy. Justice Roberts won these battles, but they are illustrative of the discrimination, large and small, that she and other women faced.
As a member of the legislature, both in the House and later the Senate, Justice Roberts worked on and was instrumental in the passage of numerous bills affecting women. Among them were abortion rights, employment discrimination statutes, the right of a woman to keep the name of her choice regardless of marriage, public accommodations laws and many others. She also worked on many of the legislative initiatives for which Oregon is famous, the bottle bill and the public beaches legislation among them.
Justice Roberts’ narrative of her time in the Oregon legislature is not confined to her experiences with discrimination. As her experience grew she became an effective, canny, and forceful legislator, and she is adept at explaining the legislative process as it occurs in real time, providing insights into the relationship between lobbyists and legislators, the caucuses, the majority and minority parties, and how legislative power is acquired and used.
After 12 years in the state legislature, in 1977 a Democratic governor appointed Justice Roberts to the Oregon Court of Appeals. She would be the first woman to sit on an Oregon appellate court. She writes that she knew from her time in the legislature, and her work as a teacher and lawyer, that she was as able as the men she encountered and was eager to take on a new challenge. But in her words, "I had no inkling just how much of a challenge it would be."
In some respects the discrimination, both direct and indirect, that Justice Roberts initially faced as an appellate judge is more surprising than her experience as a legislator, if for no other reason that it was these judges who were empowered to enforce the employment discrimination laws, the domestic violence protections, and other protective legislation that the had been recently passed. Justice Roberts also makes clear that her difficulties were not with all members of the court, although as an institution the court was hostile toward her appointment, starting with legendary Chief Judge Herb Schwab.
Justice Roberts describes a whole range of discrimination, from the subtle (i.e., many judges and court staff didn’t respond to even general niceties), which was merely bothersome, to direct and significant discrimination that interfered with her ability to function effectively. At case conferences she describes "you-are-not-present" discrimination, which she acknowledges is "one of the cruelest forms, for it makes one nonexistent." It came in the form of the chief judge’s refusal to ask her about draft opinions, declaring discussions done before she had an opportunity for input and moving to the next case.
It is here that readers will be able to get the measure of Justice Roberts and why she filled her role as social pioneer so well. She simply started to speak up, to give her opinion and when necessary, to delay opinions by declaring she would write a concurring opinion. But her explanation of how she did it is illuminating: "It was important for me not to act out of pique or retaliation, or frivolously or aggressively. …I patiently waited for the men to learn that I worked the same way they did and that…at all times — I expected to be heard."
As time progressed Justice Roberts became accepted as a member of the court, including by the chief judge, and in 1981 Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh appointed her to the Oregon Supreme Court. There she happily describes a different experience where the makeup of the court encouraged collegiality and respect and valued diversity.
As the sheer number of important Oregon political names that she has encountered indicates — the iconic Tom McCall and Mark Hatfield, Vera Katz, Norma Paulus and Bob Packwood among them — Justice Roberts’ memoir is a valuable contribution to Oregon history during a particularly turbulent period. The memoir is also a record, not to be forgotten, of how difficult was the fight for the opportunities women in law and in other professions now enjoy.
Throughout the memoir Justice Roberts is candid and direct and respectful of the institutions in which she worked and the people with whom she worked. She has a sense of irony that entertains. She is honest about her personal life, her friendships and her mistakes. One caveat: Readers who hoped that the book would help them finally discern exactly who is who among Oregon’s various political Roberts will face disappointment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ira Zarov is the chief executive officer of the OSB Professional Liability Fund. He has reviewed more than 100 books for Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, as well as other publications, including political biographies and memoirs and legal books by leading political and legal commentators
© 2008 Ira Zarov