An Open Letter to the Women of Oregon, from Governor Barbara Roberts

Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts (1991–1995) on the hardship, endurance, bravery, and strength required to make a difference.

By Barbara Roberts February 2, 2015 Published in the March 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Amy Martin

In 2012 Oregon celebrated the 100th anniversary of our state’s women gaining the right to vote. Today, we can legitimately celebrate a state—our state—where women have gained success and leadership across a broad spectrum of arenas.

Yet it is my belief that if these successes are going to continue and to expand, we must learn the history of the women who blazed the trails on which we now tread. The deeper our understanding of those women, their voices and their actions, the better is our preparation to become “history-makers” in our time.

Oregon history offers countless lessons that remain timely and profound. I am reminded of the hardships of so many of our tribal women; the endurance of the women of the Oregon Trail; the persistence of the suffragists who fought through 40 years and five ballot losses to win the Oregon vote; the bravery of the women who fought for family-planning rights; the strength of the women who kept farms alive and built ships at home while their men fought abroad in World War II; the tenacity of women who challenged their right to a place in our law schools, our medical schools, our legislature; the scar tissue earned by Oregon women who held the first judicial positions, the first statewide offices, the first seats in our congressional delegation.

Hardship. Endurance. Persistence. Bravery. Strength. Tenacity. Scar tissue. This is our history. These are our role models. They should be our standard for women’s leadership.

For let there be no mistake about the hurdles women in this nation still face. Here we are in Year 2015, and the battle for “equal pay for equal work” continues. Could any issue be more clear, more logical, more fair? And 42 years after the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade, we watch state after state add demeaning restrictions and roadblocks to safe medical access for this most personal of decisions for women.

And when the 2014 election results finally crossed the “100 Women in Congress” threshold, the excitement was quickly followed by a major magazine cover asking, “104 Women in Congress. Does it Matter?” You think?! Women make up less than 20 percent of Congress. Would the women who fought for decades to gain women’s suffrage think that threshold was worth the battles? How would our long-ago role models evaluate not just our gains, but our “slippage”—our unending battles for equal pay, for congressional seats, for child care for working mothers?

Historians could easily cite the voices of our foremothers as inspiration as we face the ongoing challenges for women’s equity and our place at the table. Here are four illuminating quotations:

Suffragist Susan B. Anthony made clear that our voices, our words, must be strong and determined. She declared, “Never another season of silence.”

Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts demonstrated the multigenerational legacy of women’s rights work with her words, “I’m not passing on my torch. Get your own torch.”

Amelia Earhart reminded us of the importance of staying committed when she declared, “In soloing—as in other activities—it is easier to start something than it is to finish it.”

Eleanor Roosevelt gave us the defining statement about women’s equality: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

I’ve put my thoughts on paper regarding our women in a year that, for me, has historical significance. Year 2015 is the 25th anniversary of my 1990 election as Oregon’s first woman governor. The quotations I have shared remind me that we still have unfinished work. We must find our voices. We must again light our torches and make clear our agenda for women’s equity.

Our hopes are not at all unreasonable: Equal pay for equal work. Personal decision-making about family planning. Closer to balanced numbers of men and women in Congress and state legislative bodies. Child care for working parents. And perhaps, one day, a second woman governor and, after more than 50 years, a second woman US Senator from Oregon.

Our state motto can be our guide: “She Flies With Her Own Wings.”

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