by Betty Roberts with Gail Wells. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2008. 288pp. Paperback. $24.95. ISBN: 9780870711992.

Reviewed by Julie Novkov, University at Albany, SUNY. Email: jnovkov [at] albany.edu.


WITH GRIT AND BY GRACE is Betty Roberts’ fascinating personal account of her liberal feminist journey from a hardscrabble existence in Texas as a child to the Oregon Supreme Court. While Roberts is telling her own story, she narrates two other stories as well: one of a state and its sometimes tumultuous political development, and another of the path of professional American women from the era of the feminine mystique to an era of equal rights under the law. Roberts is justly proud of the progress she identifies in both of these narratives, but she is by no means complacent that feminism has completed its work. Overall, the book is a lively, arresting read in which Roberts establishes herself as a tireless worker and keen political strategist, but also speaks in a no-nonsense, lightly humorous, and quintessentially Oregonian voice.

Roberts begins her narrative with her childhood in Texas, discussing the struggles of her mother to raise her family in the face of Roberts’ father’s absence and illnesses. In 1941, she began college at Texas Wesleyan, but in 1942 met and married a banker from Oregon serving as an Air Force drill instructor. She and Bill Rice moved to Oregon after the war, beginning her lifelong investment in the state and its politics as a determined Democrat. Fourteen years and four children later, after dropping out of Texas Wesleyan, Roberts returned to Eastern Oregon College to complete her degree, much to the consternation of her husband and their social acquaintances, who had trouble accepting a banker’s wife as a college student. Roberts graduated from Portland State and became a teacher, but her decision to enter the workforce signaled the end of her marriage (pp.31-42).

Roberts, newly divorced, still managed to win her first political campaign for a seat on the school board. Her involvement in politics contributed to the development of her relationship with Frank Roberts, a Democratic Party leader, whom she married in 1960. Both she and Frank ran for the state legislature in 1962 but lost primary races. In the mean time, Roberts had completed a master’s degree at Portland State and considered entering a Ph.D. program and becoming a professor. The chair of the University of Oregon’s political science department, however, informed her that she was too old to begin the program at 39; Roberts noted that the department had never had either a female professor or Ph.D. student at that point. This roadblock was a turning point for her, as she opted to matriculate in the Northwestern College of Law instead, earning her degree in the mid 1960s (pp.51-54). She began her service as a legislator in 1965, joining six other [*490] women in Oregon’s House of Representatives. As a house member, Roberts worked with Democratic allies to advance their agenda, but also supported agendas for women, raising issues like workplace discrimination and reproductive freedom in the late 1960s. She also divorced Frank Roberts in 1966 and married Keith Skelton in 1968, which led to a struggle with the Oregon State Bar over whether she could continue to retain Roberts as her professional surname (pp.102-03). (She succeeded with the bar, but had to cast her 1968 vote for candidate Betty Roberts under the name Betty Roberts Skelton, as the Registrar of Elections refused to issue her a voter registration card under the name Betty Roberts.)

After moving on to the Senate in 1968, she fought for unrestricted access to abortion (ultimately contributing to the passage of a more limited legalization of abortion) and was instrumental in getting the Senate to adopt a bill barring racial and sex-based discrimination. She worked relentlessly on behalf of education and helped to steer Oregon’s innovative bottle-deposit bill through treacherous legislative shoals to adoption. She also contributed to the ERA’s relatively uncontroversial passage in Oregon (pp.147-58). These accomplishments inspired her to run for governor, announcing her candidacy in 1973. She came in second in the race for the Democratic nomination, but the name recognition she garnered in the campaign convinced the party to choose her as a replacement candidate for Wayne Morse, whose unexpected death mid-campaign against Bob Packwood for Oregon’s US Senate seat left an enormous void in Oregon’s politics (pp.186-96). Upon losing to Packwood, Roberts returned to the Oregon Senate and continued to work for women’s rights and to support Democratic and progressive initiatives.

In 1977, Roberts’ life changed again as she became a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals, the intermediate appellate court in the state. She was the only female judge on the court, and had to struggle for acceptance and respect. Most egregiously, at a judges’ conference in 1978, another male judge groped her. She persisted, however, persuading her sometimes reluctant and clueless colleagues to recognize her professionalism. Nonetheless, it was not until newer judges were appointed in 1980 that the court became a moderately comfortable environment. In 1982, Betty Roberts became the first woman to serve as a Justice on the Oregon Supreme Court (pp.211-37). She remained on the Court only until 1986, but her impact was lasting on a state supreme court that was already known for its independence and creativity.

Roberts notes her most important opinion as HEWITT v. SAIF, in which a male claimant sought benefits after his female companion and the mother of his child died in an industrial accident (p.241). The state denied benefits on the ground that they were only available for female survivors. Roberts’ opinion identified gender as a suspect classification under Oregon’s constitution, generating an independent basis for the flowering of state equal protection law (653 P2d. 970 (1982)). As a Supreme Court Justice, Roberts continued to press both on and off the Court for more recognition of women’s issues. [*491]

In 1985, Roberts decided that she wanted to spend more time with her husband, who had begun the process of winding down his legal practice. After surviving a heart attack, he became a member of Portland’s Community College Board, and Roberts helped to found a new group, Oregon Women Lawyers, and became involved in arbitration and mediation. Skelton died in 1995, but as of the publication of her memoir, Roberts was still an active arbitrator and mediator, as well as a mentor for many Oregon lawyers (pp.252-65).

While Roberts describes a challenging journey, she clearly relished her successes along the way. Overall, the reader gains a sense of her as a relentless optimist, a woman who never allowed others’ negative attitudes or the adverse circumstances she faced to prevent her from moving forward. Her tone is deceptively conversational and down-to-earth, at times almost obscuring the extraordinary nature of her accomplishments: her repeated breaking of gender barriers with electoral successes in the state house and senate, her near capture of nominations for two state-wide offices, and her service as an appellate, and then supreme court judge. She achieved these milestones not just as a woman, but as a divorced woman with children in a time when both divorce and motherhood were seen as political millstones. While Roberts does not reflect extensively on why she was able to overcome these barriers, attributing it mostly to her persistence and good fortune, her narrative suggests that both elite Oregonians and Oregon voters appreciated her straightforward, matter-of-fact attitude.

Liberal feminism – the belief that women are inherently equal to men – has been a lifetime lodestone for Roberts. She writes frankly about her own path toward extending her personal liberal principles of equality to incorporate sexual orientation; she eventually performed Oregon’s first same-sex marriages in Multnomah County. She has less to say about race, but most of her active political career encompassed a period in Oregon’s politics when racial struggles tended to be more local and often occurred outside of formal political structures. The liberal feminist principle of choice also characterized Roberts’ active career, both in her decisions to run for various offices and her decision in 1985 to step back from active engagement in high-level law and politics. Some might frame her choice to follow her husband into retirement as an anti-feminist act, but Roberts clearly understands it as representing her own secure capacity to choose her life path with wisdom and sensitivity toward achieving an appropriate balance for herself and her family.

I recommend Roberts’ memoir as an engaging read for anyone interested in the real world of law and politics. In particular, it would make a great gift for a starting law student or for someone who has just completed the bar exam.

HEWITT v. SAIF, 294 OR 33, 653 P2d 970 (1982).

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Julie Novkov.