Meet Some of the Women Who Helped Shape Oregon as We Know It

From securing the right to vote to leading the state in Salem to representing Oregonians in DC, we owe a lot to Redmond, Neuberger, Green, Kafoury & more.

By Margaret Seiler September 20, 2022 Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Portland Monthly

With Oregon guaranteed a female governor and going from one women in our congressional delegation to a possible whole bunch in the 2022 election, it might be hard to recall that not so long ago is was rare to see a women in a position of leadership in this state. Here are a few people who helped change that.   

1912 - Oregon Women Get the Right to Vote

Hattie Redmond, 1862–1952
The oldest of eight, Hattie Redmond sometimes went to union meetings in Portland with her father, who had once been enslaved, and who became a leader in the local Caulkers Union. (Redmond's mother had also been previously enslaved.) As an adult, she was a leader in groups including the Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage Association. After five failed votes over the course of four decades, a majority of Oregon’s male voters finally agreed with her in 1912. A century later, her grave at Lone Fir Cemetery was graced with a new headstone honoring her as a “Black American suffragist,” and her name given to a 60-unit affordable-housing building completed this year on N Interstate.  

1913 - First Woman Elected to Congress

Nan Wood Honeyman, 1881–1970 
A daughter of C. E. S. Wood, a major figure in early Portland’s cultural scene and radical political circles, Nan Wood Honeyman befriended Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt when she was in school in New York City and stayed close with them as they ascended to the White House. In the 1920s, she made a name for herself in politics with efforts to end Prohibition, which she said boosted organized crime. She served one term in the Oregon House and, in 1936, became Oregon’s first woman elected to Congress, where she pushed for FDR’s New Deal programs (and drew some criticism as a mere rubber stamp for the president). She lost her bid for reelection to a longtime state legislator but stayed in government, filling a state senate vacancy and working for the US Customs Service. 

1960 - First Woman from Oregon Elected to US Senate

Maurine Neuberger, 1907–2000 
Born in Cloverdale in Tillamook County, Neuberger was the first woman to represent Oregon in the US Senate, and still the only woman to have done so. Then a teacher at Lincoln High, in 1945 she married Richard Neuberger, a journalist who served one term in the Oregon House before landing in the Senate; a political power couple was born. Maurine Neuberger was elected to the Oregon House in 1950, and two months after her husband died in 1960 she won a special election to complete his term before getting elected to a full term of her own. In both Salem and DC, she was a strong consumer advocate and pushed for equal pay for women.

1972 - An Oregon Architect of Title IX

Edith Green, 1910–1987
The second woman elected to Congress from Oregon, Edith Green beat none other than the formidable future governor Tom McCall when she won the first of her 10 terms, in 1954. A child of two teachers and a former teacher herself, Green was a powerful voice in Congress on education, especially higher ed. She presided over the hearings in 1972 for Title IX, the landmark ruling that bars discrimination by sex at federally funded colleges and universities. It’s hard to imagine today’s WNBA, NWSL, or the ESPN staple that is softball’s Women’s College World Series even existing if not for her work to increase extracurricular opportunities for women. 

1973 - Portland City Club Finally Admits Women

Gretchen Kafoury, 1942–2015
A cofounder of the Oregon Women’s Political Caucus, Walla Walla native Gretchen Kafoury helped pressure Portland’s City Club to admit women in the 1970s before being elected to the Oregon House in 1978, succeeding her ex-husband Stephen. She was a Multnomah County Commissioner in the ’80s and served on the Portland City Council in the 1990s. Her legacy in local politics is extended by one of her daughters, Deborah, who has also served in the legislature and on the Multnomah County Commission, of which she’s been the chair for the past eight years.

1976 - First Chinese American Woman Elected to a State Legislature

Mae Yih, born 1928 
Born in Shanghai to a well-to-do family (she recalls her family hiring a Russian colonel as a horseback riding instructor), Mae Yih went to college in New York and then moved to Oregon with her engineer husband in the 1950s. Her advocacy at their children’s school drew her into politics, first on the Albany school board, and in 1976 she became the first Chinese American woman elected to any state legislature in the US. After three House terms, she served six terms in the Oregon Senate and was known for work on commerce issues and constituent advocacy. “When you help somebody in need, you really gain much more in return,” she said in a Museum of Chinese in America interview in 2021.

1976 - First Woman Elected to Statewide Office

Norma Paulus, 1933–2019 
Nebraska-born, Burns-raised Norma Paulus became the first woman elected statewide in Oregon in 1976, as Secretary of State. In her second term, she navigated the Rajneeshee episode as the state’s main elections officer. In 1986, the polio survivor and Willamette Law grad nearly became the first female governor, narrowly losing to former Portland mayor Neil Goldschmidt. In the ’90s, she served as the state Superintendent of Public Instruction and tried for two Senate seats, but lost.

1982 - First Woman on Oregon Supreme Court

Betty Roberts, 1923–2011
A Roberts by virtue of a brief marriage in the 1960s to Frank Roberts (a second marriage for them both), during which time he lost a race for the Oregon Senate and she won election to the Oregon House, while also teaching high school, attending law school, and raising four children. She ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1974, and three years later was appointed as the first woman on the Oregon Court of Appeals. In 1982, she became the first woman on the Oregon Supreme Court.

1984 - First Black Woman Elected to Oregon House

Margaret Carter, born 1935
Elected in 1984 as the first Black woman in the Oregon House, Margaret Carter helped secure the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a state holiday. Over seven House and two Senate terms, the mother of nine and onetime Portland Community College counselor also served a stint as head of Portland’s Urban League. She also worked to get Oregon to divest from South Africa’s apartheid regime and increase economic development and workforce opportunities in underserved areas like her own Northeast Portland district.

1990 - First Woman Elected Governor 

Barbara Roberts, born 1936
Also a Roberts thanks to Frank (see Betty Roberts, above), whom she met when she was advocating for a bill securing educational access for disabled students and married in 1974, Barbara Roberts served on the Parkrose school board before being elected to the Oregon House in 1980, eventually becoming House Majority Leader before being elected Secretary of State in 1984. She defeated Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer in 1990 to become the state’s first female governor.

1996 - First Black Woman Elected to Oregon Senate

Avel Gordly, born 1947
Portland-born Avel Gordly had been working in youth programs and was active with the Black United Front when she was chosen to fill a vacancy in the Oregon House in 1991. She became the first Black woman elected to Oregon Senate five years later. Her legislative advocacy for mental health and education has landed her name on buildings at OHSU, the University of Oregon, and Albina Head Start.

2017 - First Black Legislative Leader in Salem

Jackie Winters, 1937–2019
A survivor of the Vanport flood, Jackie Winter worked in several governors’ administrations before being elected as the first Black Republican woman in the Oregon House in 1998. The Salem restaurant owner later was elected five times to the Oregon Senate, and became the state’s first Black legislative leader when she ascended to Senate Minority Leader in 2017.

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