Women in The Oregon Legislature

by Hugo Gonzalez Venegas

If a representative elected body is the foundation of our democracy, then understanding why more women do not hold elected office is an important question with implications on the legitimacy of our democracy. Women account for a little over fifty-percent of the total population of the United States, but account for only a small portion of the federal Congress. On the State level the numbers are better, but not by much. Since the passing of women’s suffrage in Oregon in 1912, women have been serving in elected office. I pose to show how the women who have served in the Oregon legislature shape the type of legislation that passes each session. From the historic 1973 legislature that passed more feminist-leaning laws than ever before, and the disparity of representation today, where women only make up a little over twenty-five percent of the state senate and only one-third of the state house chamber.

Prior to the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, women’s suffrage passed as state law in Oregon in 1912 (Watson, 2010), giving women the ability to vote and run for elected office.  Since 1915 there has been a women serving in the legislature, beginning with Marian B Towne, except for the 1927 session (Watson, 2010).  Nationally women have served in state legislatures since 1894, when a women was first elected to the Colorado statehouse (Cammisa, 2004).  Some women have stood out more so than others.  For example Maurine Neuberger whose husband Senator Richard Neuberger (Neuberger Hall’s namesake) said she “rang the political gong” and served alongside him during his time in the Oregon legislature (Werner, 1968).  She was first elected to the Oregon House of Representatives while her husband served in the Oregon Senate.  Richard Neuberger was more than just a jovial husband, he was championing rights for women.  He was quoted as saying “In politics, the woman’s mission is to champion the particular aspirations of her sex, but to expect no quarter in doing so.”  This was radical speech for a respected senator, at the time.   Upon his death in 1960, Maurine won a special election in 1961 and took the seat as U.S. Senator Maurine Neuberger.  She served only one six-year term but did so as the first, and as of yet, the only woman Oregon has elected to the United States Senate.

The study done by Emmy Werner was the first of its type and broke the ground for studying women in politics.  Werner laid the foundation explaining the nuances that elected women in state and national politics must deal with.  Of the 351 women who served during the duration of her study, she sampled 185 of them.  The women who served in state legislatures from 1921 to 1963 had a variety of backgrounds but some commonalities.  These women were considered to be of an “elite group.”  The majority of them had college degrees and considerable professional training, predominately in the areas of teaching, law, communications, and the applied social sciences (Werner, 1968).  What was also common was they had all been married and found to have shared a successful political partnership with their husbands.  This allowed for an easier transition to the life of a public servant.   Age range varied widely, with the youngest Mrs. Nancy Brown-Burkheimer of Maryland at age 21 to a legislator from New England at 75 years of age.  But, most were post-child-rearing age and had already seen their kids off to college (Werner, 1968).  Although spatially separated, the majority of women in legislatures were in the New England states and in some western states.  They also generally belonged to the minority party at the time.  Of the women who served during this time frame, most had only served up to four years in their elected positions.  Approximately one-third had served five to ten years, and less than ten-percent had served up to fifteen years (Werner, 1968).

Their major areas of legislation were social welfare, including legislation concerned with family life, governmental processes, operations, reapportionment, and education.  They seemed motivated by a strong sense of moral consciousness and responded to the encouragement of their community, family, and friends.  While they were mindful of women’s social conscience at the time and the relative freedom they enjoyed from outside pressures they were keenly aware of the liabilities from adverse public opinion from both voters and politicians alike due to the barriers of traditional social mores (Werner, 1968).  It can be argued that women chose to focus on legislation that would bring the women’s sphere into the public sphere (Baker, 1984).  Issues such as child care and maternity leave, which prior to women in politics was an unknown phenomena.   This was of course because of the power structure and the institutions that allowed only men to be considered capable of conducting in the sphere inside the home and men conversely outside the home.  The rearing of children through education and their morals was considered only done by women (Werner, 1968).  Women were able to bring these roles into the mainstream narrative and fight for protections and equality in all aspects of life, inside and outside of the home.  In turn breaking the binary model of separate spheres (Baker, 1984) and creating a new dialogue of roles for men and women.

The end of the 1960s saw a dramatic increase in women in elected roles, which lead to five-percent of state legislators being women by the 1970s.  As of 2014 the national average was 24% of women in elected office of state legislatures.  States like Vermont and Colorado both have over 40% of their elected legislatures served by women.  Conversely, some states like Louisiana and Georgia both hover around 12% of women serving in the state legislatures (NCSL, 2014).  In States like Arizona there has been a definite increase in the number of women legislators but also to the increase in women’s issues legislation passed (Thomas, 1991).  The study done by Werner had been the bedrock that other political scientists have worked from, then in 1991 Sue Thomas and Susan Welch published a study that found that the traditional legislative endeavors taken on by the first women to serve had changed dramatically.  What they discovered was that women and men state legislators are now very similar in legislative activities.  Both women and men legislators had similar times spent speaking on the floor and in committees along with meeting with lobbyists and bargaining activity.  In general though, they did find that women legislators’ lists of priority bills contain more legislation pertaining to children and the family than the lists of men.  Moreover, women introduce more welfare bills than men, and as the pattern of gendered roles goes, men tend to introduce more bills related to business than women (Thomas, 1991).  Generally though men introduce and pass more legislation than women, but women’s priority bills are more likely to pass than that of men’s.

The study also found that women are less likely to be on business or economic committees than men, but are more likely to sit on health and welfare committees.  The greatest disparity in committee assignment lies in the appointments to the prestigious committees such as finance, revenue, and ways and means, here it is disproportionately men who chair and or vice-chair the committees (Thomas, 1991).  R. Darcy also found confirming evidence that women continue to chair a large number of social, human, education, and health committees.  Surprisingly though, Darcy noted that women have been found to chair their fair share of business related committees, finding that underrepresentation is fading away as have women have been able to make significant gains, though not full parity.  This is especially true in rules committees were women on average are only chairing less than half of their respective committees (Darcy, 1996).  Darcy expects that committee chairs be proportional to the number of women in each legislative body when compared to the men. She uses this as the framework for her analysis.  I argue that doing this does not account for the population of women in general, and seeks to assume that the representation of women in the legislature should be the measure by which committee chairs should be reviewed.   Darcy does argue the importance of party affiliation, finding that Republicans are two-thirds as likely to become committee chairs as are democrats (for both sexes).  As well as the importance of incumbency; nonfreshman legislators are five times more likely to be selected to chair a committee than freshman in the case of both sexes (Darcy, 1996)


The party lines have changed vastly since the first women entered elected office.  The women of the Democratic Party are not the same women of their Republican counterparts.  It is imperative to distinguish the factors for choosing to run office as well as the climate in which they are elected to office.  Sanbonmatsu posits two different theories of how political parties affect women’s representation.  First is the Social Eligibility Pool Theory that conceptualizes each party as a mechanism by which women can become political elites.  The pool is recognized as an important determinant of women’s representation; states with more working women: women executives, women law students, and lawyers are more likely to have women in their legislatures than states that do not.  The second is Political Opportunity Structure that looks at the party as a group of office-seeking individuals.  In this view, the parties consist of elites competing for electoral office.  Parties develop organization precisely to enhance their chances of winning office (Sanbonmatsu, 2002).  This is referencing the structural factors that shape candidate emergence, such as incumbency, electoral rules, and party organization that character the opportunities available to the potential women candidates.  Sanbonmatsu’s research confirmed that the social eligibility pool was confirmed, the variable of working women were causally related to women’s representation for both groups of women, but the effect was larger for women of the Democratic Party.  She concluded that the social eligibility pool on women’s representation is conditional on party.  Ironically the women who found being a Democrat also found themselves likely to report that they were less likely to be supported by the Democratic Party during the primaries if the Democrats were in the majority.  Sanbonmatsu’s conclusion that women in the legislature are as diverse as women in the general public and should be disaggregated when doing research and she stated that more research must be done to better understand the role of women in the legislature in the context of the male legislators.

What has been researched and published in the last decade is a focus not on the women legislators as individuals but on their social, economic, and political characteristics in their legislative roles.  This diversification on women has allowed scholars to look more fully at women as integral into the legislature as opposed to the “female as other” (Cammisa, 2004).  One of the more noticeable traits that has evolved is that women elected today are more likely than men to think of politics as a career and they plan to run for re-election with aspirations of running for higher office (Cammisa, 2004).  This professionalism in women seems to resolve the paradox as to why women’s representation in state legislatures has been increasing at the same time the professionalization of these bodies has made those seats more difficult to obtain.   One of the central tenants of women entering the political arena of state legislatures was: should women adapt to the existing structure, or should they try to transform politics with their own unique perspectives, priorities, and styles? (Cammisa, 2004)  This is a normative question that has its basis in feminist theory. There is no singular answer as the diversity of women in state legislatures varies spatially as well as institutionally.

The Fifty-Seventh Oregon Legislative Assembly was comprised of eleven women which included two senators and nine representatives, most notably Rep. Vera Katz who became the first women Speaker of the House in 1985 and eventually became the Mayor of the City of Portland in 1993.  These women created herstory by passing some of the most progressive and anti-gender discrimination legislation up to that date.  The Equal Rights Amendment pass in the national congress in 1972 and with the newfound power of women in Oregon, the ratification became a realistic goal.  With the help of activist Gretchen Kafoury in her new role as the first lobbyist for the Equal Rights Alliance in 1973 and Kafoury worked tirelessly to ensure passage.  By the end of the session the eleven women in both chambers were able to introduce and pass seventy-nine percent of their priority bills in the Senate and fifty-five percent of their priority bills in the House chamber (Watson, 2010).

The Seventy-Eighth Legislative Assembly is not as diverse as the state is in population but some ground has been made, in gender as well as in race.  Currently the leadership roles of the Oregon legislature is mostly women.  The Speaker of the House is Tina Kotek, the House Majority Leader is Val Hoyle, and the House Majority Whip is Jessica Vega Pederson.  The Senate President Pro Tempore is Ginny Burdick, and the Senate Majority Leader is Diane Rosenbaum.  These women have distinguished careers as elected officials.  Along with their leadership duties, they also have their bills they chief sponsor and serve as chair, co-chair, and sitting member on committees to their respective chamber.  Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson is the first Latina to be elected to the Oregon Legislature.  She and Rep. Joe Gallegos are the only Latinos, but she stands alone as a female.  Rep. Lew Frederick and Sen. Jackie Winters are the only two elected black officials.  That is all for racial diversity.  Gender diversity is better, there are seven female senators, and 20 representatives.

Committee chairmanship is faring well for women, currently the Senate Committee on Health Care; chaired by Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, Senate Committee on Human Services and Early Childhood; chaired by Sen. Sara Gelser, Senate Committee on Rules; chaired by Sen. Dianne Rosenbaum (OLIS) are chaired by a woman.  That is three committees out of eleven or twenty-seven percent, which is proportionally higher than the number of women senators.  In the house chamber the committees chaired by women are: House Committee on Consumer Protection and Government Effectiveness; chaired by Rep. Shemia Fagan, House Committee On Education; chaired by Rep. Margaret Doherty, House Committee On Energy and Environment; chaired by Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson, House Committee On Human Services and Housing; chaired by Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, House Committee On Rules; chaired by Rep. Val Hoyle, House Committee On Transportation and Economic Development; chaired by Rep. Caddy McKeown (OLIS).  That is six out of fourteen committees or forty-two percent, this is again proportionally higher than the number of women in the House of Representatives.   In contrast to the numbers given in the studies from the 1990s women seem to be doing much better, but again not full parity.  It is fair to say that Oregon is the exception with Speaker of the House Rep. Tina Kotek and House Majority Leader Rep. Val Hoyle and the two women leader of the Senate: Senate President Pro Tempore Ginny Burdick and Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, all four of these women are at the helm of the legislature that has the strongest women leadership than almost any state (Hoffman, 2015).  Not all states are as liberal as Oregon nor do they have the number of women in leadership roles.

We are nearing the one-hundred year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment and equal representation seems like a far-fetched dream for most people.  What has been found is that women who do run for elected office tend to win just as often as men, it is just a matter of women actually running for office (Lawless, 2012).  There appears to be a socialization of girls at a very young age that changes the way young girls view themselves.  Women are much less likely to think they are qualified for an elected office.  Women also are less likely to receive a suggestion to run for office.  This is not about simply telling girls that they are equally qualified or that they can do everything a man can do.  It is about more, more change, more accountability from ourselves and society as a whole.  The persistent gender gap in political ambition is more about the electoral environment but there are so many cultural, institutional, and political factors that stop women from considering running for office (Lawless, 2012).

If women believe that they must stay home and care for the children instead of working, and or expected to do both, then we will continue to see the disparity in representation.  Men must take an active role in ameliorating the playing field so women can and do run for office.  Entering the political world throws that person’s life into the public arena and again women tend to be less risk averse then men (Lawless, 2012).   Women are socialized to be less competitive and more cooperative and take less risks, where men are told be competitive and take risks.  This rhetoric for socializing young people has severe effects on how they grow up and how the political viability of running for office is perceived.

The women elected in the twenty-first century see no boundaries between gendered roles.  What a man can do, a women can do and vice-versa.  Like their unelected counterparts the women that comprise the seventy-eighth legislature understand the dogma that has kept them down but refuse to be defined by it.  They aspire for equality with their legislation as well as their own voice.  Some of them have used the platform provided by organizations like Emerge Oregon, whose mission is to “change the face of Oregon politics by identifying, training and encouraging Democratic women to run for office, get elected and to seek higher office.”  This organization is leading the way to getting more women elected by providing training and support for women to see others like them and to support each other through positive experiences.

The United States was founded on the notion of liberty and justice for all, of course the founding fathers only referred to white men who owned property.  Times have changed as well, as laws that now allow all peoples the right to vote.  Our democracy is only as strong as the institutions and the people who make up those institutions.  If we are truly to be a representative democracy than we as a society, must be better about ensuring that women and especially minority women be elected to office.  We must ensure that the people making the laws are the same people who are being affected by them.  Otherwise we have learned nothing since establishing the Constitution.

Works Cited

Baker, Paula. “Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780 – 1920” The American Historical Review. Vol. 89 No. 3 (Jun. 1984) pp. 620 – 647.

Cammisa, Anne Marie and Reingold, Beth. “Women in State Legislatures and State Legislative Research: Beyond Sameness and Difference” State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Vol. 4 No. 2 (Summer, 2004) pp. 181-210.

Darcy, R. “Women in the State Legislative Power Structure: Committee Chairs” Social Science Quarterly. Vol. 77 No. 4 (Dec. 1996) pp. 888 – 898.

Emerge Oregon – website:   http://www.emergeor.org/about

Hoffman, Hannah. “Women Will Guide Oregon Legislature in 2015” Statesman Journal. January 31, 2015. Online http://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/politics/2015/01/31/women-will-guide-oregon-legislature/22679907/

Lawless, Jennifer L. and Richard L. Fox.  “Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics” Women & Politics Institute.  Washington D.C. (2012).

OLIS – oregonlegislature.gov

Sanbonmatsu, Kira. “Political Parties and the Recruitment of Women to State Legislatures” The Journal of Politics. Vol. 64 No. 3 (Aug. 2002) pp. 791-809.

Thomas, Sue and Welch, Susan. “The Impact of Gender on Activities and Priorities of State Legislators” The Western Political Quarterly. Vol. 44 No. 2 (Jun. 1991) pp. 445-456.

Watson, Tara and Rose, Melody. “She Flies With Her Own Wings: Women in the 1973 Oregon Legislative Session” Oregon Historical Quarterly. Vol. 111, No. 1 (Spring 2010) pp. 38-63.

Werner, Emmy E. “Women in the State Legislatures” The Western Political Quarterly. Vol. 21, No. 1 (Mar. 1968) pp .40-50.

Zeigler, Katie. “Women in the State Legislatures” National Council of State Legislatures. Accessed 3/16/2015 < http://www.ncsl.org/legislators-staff/legislators/womens-legislative-network/women-in-state-legislatures-for-2014.aspx>

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s