Much of Oregon's progress can be credited to Barbara Roberts, who, before her election as governor in 1990, sat on school and community college boards and the Multnomah County board, and was elected to the Oregon House and secretary of state.
Roberts said that, although women were in the Legislature when she first ran in 1980, she was part of the political movement that emerged during the 1970s as states considered the Equal Rights Amendment to guarantee federal rights for women. Oregon ratified it twice, but it fell short nationally.
"When I was a little girl, it never occurred to me that a woman could be on the school board, own a business or be an elected official. You can't be what you can't see," Roberts said. "What the ERA did was stimulate women all over the country to the possibilities there were other roles they could fill in our culture. We now have the role models we did not have before."
Roberts raised $2 million for her 1990 run, compared with $3.5 million by Republican Dave Frohnmayer. She won 46%, Frohnmayer 39% and anti-abortion candidate Al Mobley 13%, a modern high.
After her term as governor, Roberts directed a program for state and local government executives at Harvard University from 1995 to 1998. While there, she also advised Rutgers University as it set out to create its own program for women and politics.
She then came back to Oregon, where she helped found the Center for Women's Leadership at Portland State University. She was associate director for leadership development in PSU's Hatfield School of Government until 2003. She has continued to take part in the New Leadership Oregon program. (Programs elsewhere offer specific training in political campaigns.)
"Barbara Roberts is a supporter of that program, and also of other women who get involved in politics," said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics, part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "It is creating a culture of possibility of women at a young age considering politics as an avenue for advancement."
But Roberts also said plenty of men support women seeking office.
"I think you will find that from the women who are running for major offices right now."
In the Democratic primary race for governor, Roberts endorsed the male frontrunner, Treasurer Tobias Read, and not former House Speaker Tina Kotek, who went on to win. But Roberts also endorsed Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who was leading seven-term incumbent Kurt Schrader for the 5th District congressional seat, and Andrea Salinas, who won the nomination for the new 6th District seat.
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