Women and Oregon Political History: The Research and Writing of Up the Capitol Steps

By Tollestrup, Jessica | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Women and Oregon Political History: The Research and Writing of Up the Capitol Steps


Tollestrup, Jessica, Oregon Historical Quarterly


THE FINAL CHAPTER of the recent autobiography, Up the Capitol Steps: A Woman's March to the Governorship, by Barbara Roberts--Oregon's first woman governor--includes these thoughts about women in elected office:

Gender is not a small matter. One might think in this day and age, with women doctors, judges, engineers, CEOs, U.S. senators, and police officers, that gender would no longer be a defining characteristic. Don't you believe it! (1)

Many scholars agree. Academic interest in women who serve in the legislative or executive branches of state government has steadily increased in the past several years, and a considerable amount of literature now exists that seeks to define the effect those women have on political processes and policy outcomes. Very few of these women, however, have addressed such issues in their own words. (2) Roberts's experiences campaigning and serving in various levels of Oregon government are a case study for why women aspire to public office, how they seek it, and what actions they take once they are there. Because Roberts had to make conscious choices about what to include in her autobiography, the policy decisions she details in her book contribute to our understanding of how women officeholders might conceptualize and prioritize issues that disproportionately affect women, such as child care, workforce equality, and reproductive health.

Up the Capitol Steps covers the governor's life from her early childhood through mid 2010, including her time as a citizen lobbyist advocating for special education in the early 1970s; as a member of the Parkrose School Board (1973-1982) and Mt. Hood Community College Board (1978-1982); as a county commissioner (1978-1979); and her tenure as a state representative in the Oregon Legislature (1980-1984), secretary of state (1985-1990), and governor (1991-1995). Roberts's account of the barriers to public office she encountered as a woman during her various campaigns provides insights into how those barriers have functioned at different levels of office as well as during different contemporary periods. It also provides a significant resource for data that researchers can use to better understand women's lives and work in political office.

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Measuring the extent to which Roberts and other women officeholders affect the creation of laws and policies is a challenge because many stages of the decision-making process occur outside the public view or are difficult to define. Personal interviews, biographies, and autobiographies, therefore, provide access to important information about the intersection of sex and politics. (3) By identifying and studying critical actors within an institution, scholars are able to examine and compare how women conduct themselves when running for and holding office. (4) Although much of the interest in Roberts's autobiography to date has focused on various elements of Oregon politics that were hitherto unknown, as well as the historic and inspirational nature of her achievements, the book also contributes to the academic understanding of women in political positions of power and how they shaped Oregon's political development over the past half-century.

In order to understand how women negotiate the political sphere, some political scientists seek to identify ways that women, such as Roberts, achieve elected office, participate in the process of creating public policy, and influence particular policy outcomes at critical junctures. (5) This work is based on two aspects of Hanna Pitkin's theory of representation. (6) Pitkin's conceptual framework addresses various meanings of the term representation when used to describe the relationship among elected public figures ("representatives"), the institutions in which they work, and the people they represent. She uses the term descriptive representation to refer to relationships based on the common attributes shared by a representative and a segment of the group he or she represents. …

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