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What It's Like to Be Your State's First Woman Governor

"I found myself the poster girl for proving to my citizens and voters that women were strong enough, tough enough, knowledgeable enough, and wise enough to lead in such polarizing and changing times."

Posted on March 12, 2018
Barbara Roberts

Barbara Roberts, pictured here in 1992 during her term as Oregon's first woman governor

In 1991, Gov. Barbara Roberts made history by becoming the first woman to serve as governor of the state of Oregon. She is a charter member of Vision 2020's Leadership Circle, has participated in every Vision 2020 National Congress since 2010, and is a member of Vision 2020's Women 100 Advisory Board, not to mention an active advocate for women's equality. 

We spoke with Barbara about her experiences, challenges and the important role that men can play in the fight for gender equality.

1. How long have you been involved with Vision 2020, and why did you become involved?

I have been involved with Vision 2020 since 2010. I considered it a 10-year commitment lasting until we reached the century mark for women’s suffrage in America in year 2020.

When Lynn Yeakel asked me to participate, there was no way I could say no. The state of Oregon celebrated our centennial of women voting in 2012, and my active involvement in that state-wide celebration taught me what a significant experience it is and how personal that historical landmark feels even today.

2. You served as Oregon’s first woman governor from 1991-1995. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as your state’s first female governor? What lessons did you learn from this experience? Why is diverse leadership important?

I began my term as Oregon Governor in 1991 with three notable challenges facing me: (1) A newly-passed tax measure that was the most restrictive tax measure in Oregon history and would have huge negative impacts on school funding and the state budget; (2) The federal listing of the Spotted Owl as an endangered species. It would dramatically impact the timber industry (Oregon’s largest industry), our timber communities and thousands of our workers. I supported the owl listing and found myself emerged in the most divisive economic and political controversy in modern Oregon history. There was no middle ground!; and finally (3) I found myself the “poster girl” for proving to my citizens and voters that women were strong enough, tough enough, knowledgeable enough, and wise enough to lead in such polarizing and changing times.

3. Throughout your career, did you have any male allies? What role can men play in the push for gender equality?

I was amazingly fortunate when I remarried to have a husband who was both a state senator and a university professor. Frank was my coach, my advisor and my best fan. He encouraged each step I took up the political ladder, from school board to governor.

When I served as Majority Leader in the Oregon House of Representatives, I was the first woman to hold that position. My male colleagues stood solidly behind me in that leadership role. That gender-neutral respect for my role was a personal and political confidence-builder for me.

4. What’s an interesting piece of women’s history from your state?

Oregon has had many women’s successes and benchmarks, but we currently have a new “women’s first”: For the first time in our state’s history, women justices are now in the majority on the Oregon Supreme Court. This seven-member court has five women judges. This court also just added its first African-American judge.

5. Name a woman you look up to and explain why.

At 81 years of age, the few women role models I had are now deceased. However, I am a great admirer of Governor Jennifer Granholm, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, and my state’s current Governor Kate Brown. These three women have real passion and are intellectually prepared risk-takers and voices of courage.