Setting the World on Fire

The portrait unveiling of former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts reveals more than a tribute, but a legacy that blazed the path for women like Gov. Kate Brown

Betty Roberts
Betty Roberts serving in the Oregon House of Representatives, 1967Photo courtesy Dian Odell

Sparkling sunlight pours through the panoramic windows of the courthouse, lighting the faces of an unprecedented gathering of movers and shakers from across the state and nation — all of them women.

With Mount Hood on the horizon, perhaps these women’s faces should be carved into its slopes, a sort of counterpoint to Mount Rushmore.

In attendance are Oregon’s Chief Education Officer Nancy Golden, U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Voting Rights Pamela Karlan, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Manufacturing Chandra Brown, Chief of Defender Services in the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts Cait Clarke, Funny or Die White House Liason Rachel Goldenberg and renowned Eugene artist Lynda Lanker, to name a few.

On Feb. 13, these women came for an event celebrating the legacy of Betty Roberts, the first woman on Oregon’s Supreme Court.

On the 12th floor of Portland’s Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, the chambers of Ann Aiken, Chief Judge of Oregon, were abuzz. As the group sat waiting for the event to begin, news broke that Secretary of State Kate Brown would become Oregon’s second woman governor following the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber.

As Aiken would later explain, the moment was bittersweet.

“It was so difficult for everybody to be witnessing that on a computer screen in my chambers,” she says, noting the dashed hopes that had been tied up in Kitzhaber’s unprecedented fourth term in contrast to the excitement surrounding a second woman governor and the challenges she’d face. “We’ve never seen anything like this in Oregon.”

Quieting the room, Aiken turned everyone’s attention back to the reason they were there that day: to celebrate the late Betty Roberts, a lifelong educator, a lawyer and judge and a state legislator who herself had run for governor of Oregon in 1974.

Piling into elevators, the group ascended to the ceremonial courtroom on the 16th floor for “Portraits of Possibilities: Women at Work,” a day of panels dedicated to Roberts and women in leadership, followed with a keynote by Karlan and culminating in the official unveiling of Lanker’s lithographic portrait of Roberts.

There in the courtroom, addressing a crowd of a few hundred, Judge Aiken opened the event by saying it was a momentous day with the news of Brown as governor, then motioning to the audience and announcing the attendance of Barbara Roberts, Oregon’s first female governor (’91-’95). The crowd cheered.

Then Aiken introduced Betty Roberts, a mentor to countless students, by saying “She would describe herself first as a teacher and an educator.”

That historic day for Oregon — Brown becoming governor, a Betty Roberts tribute with Barbara Roberts in attendence — was a lifetime in the making. More than 70 years after leaving a life of poverty in Depression-era Texas, three decades after her resignation from the Oregon Supreme Court and four years after her passing, there is finally a portrait of Betty Roberts to hang alongside those of her male counterparts at the Oregon Supreme Court in Salem. The group behind the portrait project, spearheaded by Aiken — a close friend and mentee of Roberts — and Dian Odell — Roberts’ eldest daughter — saw the lack of her presence in the capital as an omission in Oregon history.

The portrait and its unveiling also mark a critical time for reflection, a sort of checking in on the path Roberts blazed for women (and men) in education, politics and law. The path remains and it could use some maintenance, as women still struggle to reach the highest echelons of power and influence, especially in the field of law, both in Oregon and nationwide. A generation after Roberts’ resignation from the bench, only four out of Oregon’s 20 U.S. District Court judges are women.

The portrait committee, as well as the women speaking at the event Feb. 13, not only tells the story of Roberts’s widespread influence but is also a call to action for more women in leadership or, so to speak, for women to fill the bench behind them.

Odell says it best when quoting her mother over the phone in early February: “There’s not much point in being a first at something if there isn’t a second and a third and fourth.”

Hear Her Roar

Betty Roberts passed away in her Portland home from pulmonary fibrosis in 2011. Today, the best way to know her is by speaking with those whose lives she touched, as well as by reading her 2008 memoir With Grit and By Grace: Breaking Trails in Politics and Law.

Roberts’ ability to see possibility and opportunity on the horizon, through the muck of poverty, misogyny or plain-old party politics, paired with her willingness to take risks, has attracted many admirers, mentees and, at times, adversaries.

Aiken, who serves as the first woman chief judge of the District Court of Oregon and divides her time between Eugene and Portland, was one of Roberts’ early admirers. Shortly after Oregon’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment securing equal rights for women — pushed through in 1973 by a team of congresswomen led by Roberts, a state senator at the time — Roberts celebrated her 50th birthday. Aiken and three other young women working for the Oregon legislature approached Roberts with a gift.

“With some diffidence, she handed me a small, flat red-and-white box tied with a paper ribbon,” Roberts writes of Aiken in her book. “Inside was a white bra that had been partially burned … I joined in their giggles and grins and, looking around to be sure no one was standing nearby, I took it out and held it up to my chest to get a better look.”

She continues “Then they handed me my real birthday present: a Helen Reddy album with ‘I Am Woman’ on it and all the other great songs she sang. What a wonderful gesture between generations! ‘I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar,’ I sang to them as they departed.”

It Takes A Village

In late January, sitting at the back table in the Perugino coffee shop in downtown Eugene, Aiken remembers Roberts. “I knew her from the time I was 21 until the day she died. We were close friends.”

She explains that the portrait project has been in the works since Roberts’ passing. “No one ever had a portrait done of her,” she says. “A group of us said, ‘We’re going to do this.’”

Aiken is adamant that it took a village of women to raise this painted tribute: Roberts’ daughters Jo Rice and Odell and sons John Rice Jr. and Randy Rice; Sunny Petit of Portland State University’s Center for Women’s Leadership; Oregon Historical Society’s Eliza Canty-Jones; Aiken’s former law clerk and now Deputy District Attorney for Multnomah County Amber Kinney and her senior staff attorney Jolie Russo, who is also the immediate past president of the Oregon Chapter of the Federal Bar Association; members of Oregon Women Lawyers or OWLS; and many more, including, of course, artist Lanker.

After visiting Lanker’s Eugene studio on Aiken’s suggestion, the portrait committee knew early on that Lanker, renowned for her paintings and prints of gritty and graceful women, must be the artist to complete the portrait.

“I cared very much that it would look like her and feel like her,” Odell says. “Ann [Aiken] agreed that a stiff formalized portrait standing there in her black robes was not who she was.”

“Mine will be a departure, which seem appropriate because Betty was a departure,” Lanker says of the portrait. She stands in front of the 200-pound limestone slab used for the lithograph in her home studio. It takes “two burly men” to move the slab, Lanker says, which seems about right considering Roberts’ tenacity in the face of sexism. “She was a woman who had a sense of purpose that was not to be deterred.”

Odell adds how important it was that Lanker captured her mother smiling with her judicial robes slung over her arm, in contrast to the traditionally somber portraits of judges that line Salem’s state courthouse. She describes how this symbolizes Roberts persona. “This role I have — it is important to me but it is not who I am,” Odell says. “I’m comfortable with it, but I put on and take off the uniform because I am more person than that.”

When asked what her mother would think of the memorial, Odell pauses. “I think she would think that, ‘Well, it’s important that it be documented’ but she wasn’t really into lasting memorials to her,” but “she was very much willing to be the person to stand there to have something documented if it meant a breakthrough.”

Odell continues, “She would be pleased that her service is being documented. There is no other physical presence of her in the state.”

In a sense, that isn’t entirely true, as all of Roberts’ papers are housed at PSU’s Center for Women’s Leadership in the School of Government. Roberts also personally left a mark on the center, which advises and trains high school and college-age women in leadership.

“When we started this organization, Betty was central to giving her counsel and her advice,” says Sunny Petit, the executive director of the center and a mentee of Roberts. “She would always come, no matter what,” adding, “her story is so central to many of the women and girls coming through our program, and in trying to demystify leadership.”

As for the portrait, Petit says it is “so important because one of the things we know is that any time you visit the Supreme Court, or the state Capitol, what’s important is who is represented in those halls. When you don’t see people looking like you, it can send a message. To have her portrait hanging in the Supreme Court — what a wonderful testament to her leadership, but also to inspire so many others who are walking through those halls.”

The Oregon Historical Society also joined the “Betty brigade” early. “The Oregon Historical Society recognized the importance of this work, so we have been a partner from the beginning, helping to facilitate some of the logistics with fundraising,” says Canty-Jones, the public outreach coordinator for OHS. Canty-Jones emphasizes that one of Roberts’ greatest gifts to society was making her life and work accessible to the public.

“She also recognized the importance of telling her story and making sure her work was archived. That means they are available to historians. From the OHS perspective, the importance of being documented — that’s really important.”

Lynda Lanker’s judicial lithographic portrait of Betty Roberts

The Stories We Tell

“Women need to tell their stories,” Aiken says. “The essence of this event is women from different walks of life” sharing their experiences.

Petit, who helped plan the day of panels, says as a guide they used the Center for Women’s Leadership’s five steps to “Helping Women Live a Life of Leadership”:

1) Know who she is — no matter how she is depicted in the media or how much pressure there is from her peers; 2) Show her the money — tell her it’s OK to ask for money, whether she’s babysitting or running for office; 3) Ask her to lead — she shouldn’t have to wait to be asked, but if she does wait, tell her the world is waiting for her to lead; 4) Encourage her to serve — whether it’s a local board or executive office, there just aren’t enough women represented in our government; 5) Recognize her work — encourage people in your community to recognize women’s achievements and learn about how women have shaped our society and teach it to our children.

The panels hit on everything from the need for more women on corporate boards and in tech fields to unequal pay.

Oregon’s chief education officer, Nancy Golden of Springfield, discussed the importance of prevention versus intervention in education. “We need to provide as much education as soon as we can,” Golden told the crowd, pointing out that Roberts, once a high school teacher, had long advocated for early education and wrote the legislation to bring kindergarten back to Oregon after it was defunded by the Legislature in 1957.

Cait Clarke, a lawyer who trained and taught at Harvard Law, as well as authored Dare to Ask: The Woman’s Guidebook to Successful Negotiating, shared that she didn’t overcome her fear of asking for equal compensation until well into adulthood.

“Wherever you get a job, there’s a range,” she explained about asking for a higher salary or benefits. “You can even negotiate an internship.”

Rachel Goldenberg, a film director in addition to acting as White House liaison for the Emmy-winning comedy website Funny or Die, screened her short film “Mary Poppins Quits.” In it, actress Kristen Bell plays Mary Poppins and sings to the children she nannies as birds twitter and flutter about, “Just a three dollar increase can make a living wage — I don’t get these birds for free.” (Watch at

After the audience laughter died down, emcee Carmen Voilleque, CEO of Best Practices Media, said of Roberts: “She would have loved that video.”

Indeed. As Roberts wrote of her time in the 1973 legislative session: “Earning power, that’s what it’s all about, I told myself. When women make what men make, there will be equality. I’d known that for a long time.”

As the National Committee on Pay Equity states as of 2013, women’s earnings were still 78.3 percent of men’s earnings.

Checking In with Leaning In

One panelist, Melissa Aubin, a UO law alum and now the assistant to the counselor for Chief Justice John Roberts (no relation) of the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke about the invisibility of women in government, a point of frustration Betty Roberts discusses at length in her memoir.

In 1977, Gov. Bob Straub appointed Betty Roberts to the Oregon Court of Appeals, where she was the only woman among 10 judges. She writes about the discrimination she faced in the judges’ weekly conferences: “It was at these conferences that I encountered ‘you-are-not-present’ discrimination, one of the cruelest forms, for it makes one nonexistent. It is also insidious, for the person practicing it can say, ‘What did I do? I didn’t do a thing.’ Which is both true and not true, and that is the point: there’s been a refusal to interact at all.”

Aubin explained that, while she has never personally experienced the discrimination that Roberts faced, that for women in the workplace,  subtle discrimination can still exist, which can be as simple as male coworkers frequently interupting female coworkers. “One third of senior executives in federal government are women,” she said. “Women are disproportionately stuck at the management level.”

So, nearly 30 years after Roberts stepped down from the bench, what is the state of her legacy? The current female-to-male ratio in the Oregon House of Representatives and the Senate respectively is 20 women and 40 men, and eight women and 22 men.

In contrast, in 1973, when Roberts was in Oregon Senate, there were two female senators and nine representatives.

Representing Oregon in the U.S. Congress there is only one woman out of two senators and five representatives — Rep. Suzanne Bonamici.

Among Oregon’s 20 District Court Judges, five are women: Chief Judge Ann Aiken, Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman, District Judge Anna J. Brown, Magistrate Judge Janice M. Stewart and Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan. On the District of Oregon U.S Bankruptcy Court, two of six judges — Judge Trish M. Brown and Judge Elizabeth L. Perris — are women. There is also Susan P. Graber, a circuit judge on the 9th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

When asking Russo, Aiken’s senior staff attorney who is also an adjunct professor at the UO School of Law, why such a large gender gap remains in leadership, especially in law, she responds: “I have thought a lot about this.” She says that at the law school, women make up at least 50 percent of enrollment.

“They’re getting into law and they are graduating from law school,” she says. “Where we are finding the drop out is once they get a job and get into a firm, typically they find out pretty quickly that those jobs are not compatible with having a family. We see a huge dropout rate, frankly, as women choose to have kids.”

She continues, “I think until firm culture changes, until the culture of the practice of law changes, and we prioritize and give some importance and even status to a woman’s choice to raise kids, those numbers are not going to change.”

She says that as a lawyer, trying to have a life outside of a firm still translates to a lack of dedication.

“I think it’s more of a systemic problem,” she adds. “There are the Betty Roberts in my generation that can make it work. But the vast majority are struggling or opt out. Firms are so heavily loaded with male partners. It’s true in government; it’s true on the bench. Men have the opportunity to put their careers front and center and climb up the ladder.”

In the age of Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book — which essentially claims that if women engage more and efficiently juggle responsibilities, they too can have it all, just like their male counterparts — Russo’s methods may not always be popular.

“What I do is try to gently disabuse them of the notion that women can do it all or have it all. That has not been my experience; that’s not what I’ve observed. Women either have to make choices or be very politik about it,” she says. “That comes as quite a shock to these 22-year-olds that I’m talking to who have maybe never experienced professional discrimination or sexism. … My goal is not to flatten their hopes, I just want them to be prepared.”

Russo does note that she has seen a shift in nontraditional law jobs, like in the public service and nonprofit sectors, but she adds the caveat that these sectors are too small for a sea change. For that change to happen, she says, “We need more women in positions of power: senators, governors, senior partners. The hope is once a woman is in a position of power, she can understand and reach down and bring other women up, like Betty Roberts.”

Chief Judge Ann Aiken (Far right) in her portland chambers prepping for the panels Feb. 13, 2015. Photo by Alex V. Cipolle.

Light Your Torches

As the day of panels drew to a close in Portland, Pamela Karlan ended her keynote with this sentiment:

“So Justice Betty Roberts should be commemorated not only by the beautiful portrait we’re about to unveil, but by our commitment to continuing her struggle to make this a more equal and more fair society. There’s a reason this event is called a ‘Portrait of Possibilities.’ It’s up to each of us to transform those possibilities into reality.”

The following Monday, Aiken reflects on the event, and all the events of that day. “Kate [Brown] came into politics through sort of the same network that Betty did and worked through the Legislature. Betty would have been thrilled because they share that respect of the legislative process.”

She adds, “She would want everyone to call on their best efforts to support a woman who is taking over a very difficult job at a very difficult moment in time for everybody.”

Aiken continues, “The portrait is just a reminder of what’s possible,” noting “You can have it all; you just can’t have it all at once.” A step towards “having it all” is building community, a tool, she says, that was close to Robert’s heart.

“That’s what life is about. That’s why Kate Brown will do well,” Aiken says. “Betty was about pulling people up.”

This brings up an anecdote oft-repeated in talks about Roberts. When receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Center for Women’s Leadership in 2009, she was asked when she would pass her torch. Roberts famously responded,  “I’m not done with my torch yet. Go get your own.”

[Editor’s note: This articled was revised on Feb. 19 to include District Judge Anna J. Brown, Judge Trish M. Brown, Judge Elizabeth L. Perris and Judge Susan P. Graber.]