Trailblazer in Northwest politics


"With Grit and By Grace"

- Betty Roberts

OSU Press - 276 pages - $24.95

Elections are hot news right now. Did you know that 2010 will mark the centennial of women's suffrage in Washington? In 1910, ours was the fifth state in the union to grant women the right to vote.

Our neighbor state to the south followed suit two years later.

Now "With Grit and By Grace," the autobiography of one remarkable Oregon woman who has been a political force for the past half century, tells one of the many stories that have contributed to the rising trajectory of Northwest women in significant civic engagement.

Betty Roberts began her life in politics as a precinct committeewoman in 1960. She went on to become a school board member, a state legislator, a candidate for governor and Oregon's first female Supreme Court justice. After retiring from the court, she embarked upon a new career in arbitration and mediation. In 2004, she performed the state's first same-sex marriage ceremony.

But the story of her commitment to overcoming obstacles to women's equal rights begins well before that, with Roberts' childhood in Depression-era Texas.

She was born Betty Lucille Cantrell in 1923. When she was just 6, her father succumbed to paralysis - he was one of many to be poisoned by drinking a certain bootleg liquor during Prohibition. From then on, Betty's mother was the breadwinner for the family and Betty learned from her how to be pragmatic and work hard through very tough times.

It was that practicality that convinced Betty to quit college at the age of 19 and marry a serviceman who not only promised to take care of her but also to get her out of dreary Texas.

Fourteen years, a move to Oregon and four children later, that same sense of pragmatism propelled Betty back to school where she figured she could get a teaching degree to help support her growing family.

But this was the 1950s and Betty's husband resisted the idea that she would work outside of the home. Once she landed a teaching job, though, she had her mind made up. If she had to choose between work and marriage, work won out.

"By Grit and By Grace" describes the phenomenal changes that were taking place in Oregon and throughout the Northwest at the time. As a lawmaker, Roberts was instrumental in passing legislation that legalized abortion in Oregon and that allowed a woman to decide on her own name rather than accept her husband's surname. Roberts was a force behind Oregon's ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and also was involved in some of her state's ground-breaking environmental laws.

In our state, where women currently are well placed at all levels of government, it might be easy to feel complacent about their progress in politics. But Roberts' lively and forthright memoir demonstrates that, for women everywhere, those gains were hard-won.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at

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