Former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts reflects on career
Oregon’s first and only female governor, Barbara Roberts, gave a talk on her book “Up the Capitol Steps: A Woman’s March to the Governorship” at the Wood Lawn Mansion on Douglass Campus yesterday evening. The event was hosted by the Eagleton Institute of Politics and the Center for American Women and Politics.
During her talk, Roberts read stories about her personal life and how she got into politics. She began by discussing how she wrote her book because it was important to make history come alive.
“History is not meant to sit on a shelf,” Roberts said.
The fact she was one of the first 10 female governors in American history also motivated her to write the book, she said, as she wanted the public to know how the first female governors were able to pave the way for other women.
In addition, very few female governors have published their personal stories on their accomplishments before.
“Four of the first 10 female governors are now deceased,” she said. “This history is slipping through our fingers.”
Roberts also read passages on her childhood, her introduction into politics, her campaign for governor, and her life after being governor.
During her childhood and adolescence, women were not often expected to go to college or become political leaders, she said, but instead, were expected to be stay-at-home mothers. Even in high school, women were not expected to be the decision makers in student government.
“We were not the presidents of the student councils,” Roberts said. “We were the secretaries. Nobody questioned that.”
She first got into government to advocate for a bill that would require Oregon schools to provide for high quality educational programs for children with special needs, she said, especially since she had a son who benefitted from such programs.
Oregon would become the first state in the nation to pass a law establishing special education programs for all special needs children, she said. This experience helped her realize that she wanted to get into politics.
“I discovered I loved the political arena, and discovered I could actually change people’s lives positively in that setting,” Roberts said.
During a gubernatorial candidates’ debate, Roberts said she was the only candidate to directly answer a debate question as to which candidate they would vote for if they were not running for governor, while her three opponents all said they would vote for themselves. Roberts said this is what helped her win that debate, and later the election for governor.
Elected governor in 1990, Roberts said she won many counties in Oregon, including the county where David Frohnmayer, her Republican opponent, lived. Upon winning the governor’s race, she addressed an enthusiastic crowd of supporters.
“They looked up and saw me and the place went wild,” she said.
Although most governors find bodyguard protection to be stifling, she said she made an effort not to be frustrated by them.
“They did their job, and I did mine,” she said. “They made my job easier. They had my back.”
After being governor for four years, Roberts said she worked as a faculty member for Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government for four years. During a retirement party her colleagues hosted for her, she corrected the final speaker of the event when she pronounced Oregon wrong. She said she was sure she knew how to pronounce the name of her own state.
“The audience took great pleasure in what they thought was a joke,” Roberts said.
Roberts said she nearly lost her race for governor when she said she was in favor of closing down Oregon’s only nuclear power plant, but she does not regret saying it, since that was what she truly believed.
“The moment I opened my mouth, I knew it was going to be a disaster, but it didn’t matter,” she said.
That episode showed the importance of standing up for what you believe, she said, as well as being honest in politics, even if it’s politically risky.
“If you can’t be ethical and honest, I don’t want you in my politics,” Roberts said. “I feel very strongly about it.”
Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, said Robert’s path to public office was an excellent example of how many women have entered politics.
“She was very passionate about and issue that affected her family and her community, and she turned that passion into political action,” Walsh said.
Amy Passaro, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said she enjoyed the fact that Roberts approached her talk by using personal stories that everyday people could relate to.
“She made me realize that you don’t have to be president of Harvard’s student government [to be elected to public office],” Passaro said. “You just need to be a regular person who’s very passionate about something.”
“My main take away was her personal first rule of leadership, which is to always be ethical, even in tough situations,” said Krishna Akella, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. “It’s applicable to all aspects of life. If you always do the right thing, good things usually follow. It’s very important for college students to synthesize that.”
Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, said she invites political leaders, as well as those who study, write and think about politics, to talk to the Rutgers community about politics and government.
“We’re proud to host programs like these for the students, campus community, and New Jersey residents off campus who are interested in politics and government,” Mandel said.