The sixth time was the charm for Oregon suffragists who worked tirelessly for decades to see women’s right to vote written into law. As historian Kimberly Jensen writes in the Oregon Encyclopedia, efforts to pass the law in 1884, 1900, 1906, 1908, 1910 and 1912 earned Oregon the distinction of putting the issue up for a vote more times than any other state. In November 1912, the state’s all-male voting contingent finally approved women’s suffrage by 52 percent.
As Oregon celebrates the 100th anniversary of its Equal Suffrage Proclamation, several civic leaders reflected on how women’s right to vote paved the way for women to establish legal careers and, ultimately, laid the foundation for greater diversity within the profession. And while much has been done to increase equality for women and minorities in the legal field over the last hundred years, many say much remains to be done in the years that lie ahead.
Pioneers of Oregon’s Suffrage Movement
Women’s voting rights first arose as an issue in 1857 during the state’s Constitutional Convention. It was a fleeting concept, however, and white men exclusively held the right to vote without debate until the 1870s, according to Jensen, a founding member of the Oregon Women’s History Consortium and an organizer of its Century of Action project.
Inspired by Susan B. Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw and other suffragists who were prominent members of the national movement, Oregon’s early suffragists in 1873 formed the Oregon Women Suffrage Association. Names like Abigail Scott Duniway, Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy, Sara Evans, Maria Hendee, Mrs. M.A. Lambert, Elizabeth Eggert and Grace Watt Ross are woven throughout Oregon’s suffrage history. Also among the founders are Mary Beatty and Hattie Redmond, two African Americans who helped propel the movement.
Jensen noted that the movement gained momentum in 1905, as Oregon prepared to stage the Lewis & Clark Exposition and Oriental Fair. That same summer Portland hosted the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s annual convention, catapulting Oregon’s suffrage movement into the national spotlight. Successful grassroots organizing efforts and coalition building — along with the fact that California and Washington had already passed suffrage laws — led to victory in 1912.
“I think they would have imploded had they not received the right to vote,” says Robin Wisdom, president of the League of Women Voters of Oregon. “It was just the right time, and they were not going to be contained any longer.”
Oregon’s suffrage movement had plenty of internal discord over the years, particularly as Duniway clashed with temperance activists about whether the two issues should be intertwined. When Oregon passed its suffrage law, however, it was Duniway who signed the proclamation at the request of Gov. Oswald West. And despite the law’s passage, many women — Asians and Native Americans among them — still didn’t have the right to vote until several years after the 19th Amendment was written into the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 26, 1920.
Civic Engagement Leads to New Career Options
For those who could vote, the law allowed women to seek elective offices and craft legislation that would further improve conditions for women. Marian Towne became the first woman elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 1914, and Kathryn Clarke joined the Oregon Senate the following year. Umatilla and Yoncalla soon had all-female city councils. In 1921, the legislature passed a law allowing women to sit on juries, according to Jensen.
Oregon Supreme Court Justice Virginia Linder notes that a couple of key moments in history further ignited the equal rights movement for women. The Roaring ’20s ushered in an era of greater freedom, which led to increased civic engagement.
“Women started bobbing their hair, wearing shorter skirts and dancing in beads. The world was simultaneously horrified and fascinated,” Linder says. “I think we underestimate the ways these social markers have an impact politically. Women realized they could have a greater role in civic life, and law and government are a big piece of that.”
World War II marked another key moment in the progression toward greater civic participation for women. With so many men at war, law schools began accepting women and — seeing the U.S. Supreme Court hire its first female law clerk — more women began considering careers in the law. Early female law school grads often ended up working as glorified secretaries, but that changed in the late 1960s and ’70s, Linder says.
“Lowering the voting age to 18 seemed to energize and revolutionize a new segment of people. The younger generation became so civic minded and vocal about the Vietnam War because they felt that if you were old enough to die, you were old enough to vote. And that led to another influx of people going to law school,” she says. “When you add the women’s rights movement on top of that, you had this huge influx of women entering law school.”
As law school courses began to see a 50-50 ratio of female and male students, Oregon ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in 1973 and again in 1977. Jensen notes that while the state ERA ultimately failed to pass, Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts in 1982 ruled that Article I, Section 20 of the Constitution states that “no law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges, or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens” and therefore was an equal rights clause (Hewitt v. State Accident Insurance Fund Corporation (SAIF)).
The Emergence of Role Models
The late Betty Roberts, the first woman to serve on Oregon’s Supreme Court, inspired many women to join the legal profession and become involved in politics. Secretary of State Kate Brown is among those who cite Roberts as a role model.
“The thing about having women in the legal profession as well as in politics is that they could fight for equality on both fronts,” she says. “Betty Roberts was fighting for reproductive choice on two fronts. She was doing it at the state capitol and she was doing it in the courtroom.”
Barbara Roberts, Oregon’s first and, so far, only female governor, notes the significance of Betty Roberts’ presence on the Oregon Supreme Court, particularly for female attorneys after decades of facing an all-male bench.
“People describe how it felt when they went to present a case and faced Betty Roberts. Those women attorneys were really impacted by seeing that face in that robe on the bench,” she says.
While there were few role models for either Betty or Barbara as they established their respective careers, both were cognizant that they had become role models themselves. Barbara Roberts says she entered the political arena in small steps, first serving on the Parkrose and Mount Hood Community College school boards while working as a Senate staff member. When Roberts ran for a House seat in 1981, she was joined by legislative contemporaries such as Darlene Hooley, Vera Katz and Gretchen Kafoury.
“We had a lot of women running for the Legislature so you were not alone in the process, and we felt the energy of the movement,” Roberts says. “I think the first time I really had the sense of leading in terms of other women was when I was majority leader of the House and a woman had never held that position before. I felt a great responsibility because I had a majority caucus and I wanted it to be successful, I had a number of women in my caucus and I wanted them to be successful, and I wanted to be a strong leader for them.”
Roberts says that many of the decisions she made as governor were made with future generations of women in mind.
“I was aware that I wasn’t just doing the job for the citizens and the voters … I was also setting an agenda for the future in terms of young women in my state,” she says. “I really thought about that when I made choices in my life and when I made political decisions. Every step of the way I truly thought about, ‘If I was a young woman in high school and I heard this, what would my reaction be?’ ”
During her four years as governor, Roberts appointed 54 judges and knew that in addition to selecting the most highly qualified professionals, it was an opportunity to help make the profession more diverse as well.
“Several of the people I appointed were women, minorities, and gays and lesbians. I knew that each of them was not going to just be a judge, but they also were going to be a role model,” she says.
Roberts, referring to the recent Oregonian article announcing Michael McShane’s nomination to the federal court, says that the article’s mention that McShane is openly gay shows the strides that have been made when it comes to increasing diversity within the profession. Another measure of progress, however, is when such facts won’t need to be reported anymore, she notes.
Looking Ahead to the Next 100
The changes that have occurred over the last century are reflected on the bench in other ways as well. Women make up the majority of judges in the Multnomah County Circuit Court. And women continue to enter law schools and law firms at an equal pace with men. Still, there is plenty more to be achieved when it comes to improving equality for women and fostering diversity and inclusion within the profession. Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Angel Lopez points out that the two go hand in hand.
“What it does for us as a society is make us realize that the law is for everybody, not just a particular segment of the population,” he says. “With the increasing number of women in law schools and the profession, the culture has changed to be more inviting and inclusive so that people of color, regardless of their gender, feel that law is not only open to them but in many cases is a great fit.”
Secretary of State Brown agrees that the suffrage movement was essential to opening doors for women to work in the legal profession and in politics, but says women still face challenges in terms of true equality in the political arena. For example, women make up just about a quarter of the state’s legislators, two women serve in the six statewide offices, and Oregon has just one woman serving in Congress.
“I think we still have work to do in terms of these political leadership roles, and I think we’re going to see changes happen quickly in the next generation or so,” Brown says. “The next generation of feminists are going to be much more diverse racially and much more reflective of the changing face of Oregon, not only racially but politically.”
Inequalities continue to exist at the private-sector level as well, Justice Linder says. Women who hold managing partner positions and similar leadership roles in private firms remain in the minority. And many women face barriers when they try to balance raising a family with their careers. The new generation of male law school graduates, many of whom want that same work-life balance, will help erode those barriers, Linder says.
“As soon as those things begin to happen, you really do see the change in the degree to which the profession tries to accommodate the balance that people are trying to achieve,” she says.
Megan Livermore, president of Oregon Women Lawyers and an attorney at Gaydos, Churnside & Balthrop in Eugene, says a growing number of firms realize that there is a business case to be made for promoting diversity. It goes far beyond recruiting, though.
“In this day and age, with fewer people being able to afford legal services, I sometimes feel like we’re starting to price ourselves out of the market, except for the one percent who can afford it,” she says. “We have to create a different business model than the traditional white-male model and provide for different perspectives that will provide access to a broader set of clients.”
Livermore adds that increasing diversity on the bench is an essential means of addressing access to justice.
“The governor and others see the importance of doing that to ensure that the people who are our public servants, and oftentimes are the gateway between citizens and the justice system, actually reflect the citizenry,” she says.
Oregon’s legal profession still has a problem when it comes to the retention of nontraditional lawyers as well, says Lane County Circuit Court Judge Mustafa Kasubhai. The problem is amplified in smaller communities throughout the state as nontraditional lawyers tend to gravitate to other nontraditional colleagues. For example, many University of Oregon law students move to Portland after graduating, thereby diminishing diversity in Eugene’s legal community.
“In my world view, I would love to be able to sit across the table with people from all walks of life and have the ability to hear all sorts of voices, gain a better understanding of where we all come from and hear each other in a meaningful way,” Kasubhai says. “That, to me, enhances our ability to serve our clients and the public and build collegiality across the profession.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2012 Melody Finnemore