Susan B. Anthony was the first woman to vote in an American presidential election; it was 1872 and she was arrested for doing so. Full suffrage for American women did not come until 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The landscape has significantly changed. In 2015, Oregon’s Governor, its Speaker of the House, its Senate and House Majority Leaders, Secretary of State and Attorney General, are all women. Directors of state agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Corrctions are women. And Oregon’s legislature hosts a higher percentage of females than the U.S. Congress does.
This large number of women influencing Oregon policy, says Governor Kate Brown, “is consistent with Oregon’s independent spirit and our state motto, ‘She flies with her own wings.’” Brown calls it “a pleasure and a privilege to work with these smart, innovative and creative leaders.”
Most of the women Salem Weekly spoke with became involved in politics to try to address problems they thought needed solving. Both Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins and Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum (D – Dist 21) were drawn to seek justice; Atkins to advocate for women’s rights and women’s health in the 1970s and Rosenbaum as a union advocate who worked to raise the state’s minimum wage in the 1990s.
Senator Jackie Winters (R – Dist 10) was influenced by a discriminatory Kansas law. “My interest in the whole realm of public policy actually began as a child,” she says, “as I began to participate in, the ongoing discussions around the table at home. One of my prized possessions on display in my Senate office in the Capitol, is the receipt for work my grandfather did to earn money to pay the poll tax required to vote in Kansas.”
Inequity can take many forms. “I got involved,” says Senator Kim Thatcher (R – Dist 13), “as I began experiencing the consequences of bad government policies that not only negatively affected my business as a public works subcontractor, but also wasted taxpayers’ money. I met with then Senator Shannon to work on a way to improve ODOT’s processes with contractors and their subs.”
Rosenbaum, Winters and Thatcher are among eight of the 30 state senators who are female. Rosenbaum says, the “unprescedented leadership” of women in state and legislative positions “has led to increased collaboration and passage of strong laws that help Oregon women.” Though she adds, “as Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘Women in politics need to develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide.’”
Heads of state agencies work tirelessly to achieve good for constituents. For Oregon Director of Agriculture Katy Coba and Director of Oregon Department of Corrections Collette Peters, service involves long days full of multitasking and forward thinking. Director Coba says her work starts with hiring “really smart people,” and goes all the way to being responsible for the organization’s results. The mission of the Department of Agriculture is vast not only managing Oregon agriculture, but also promoting it.
Director Peters has given extensive thought to the idea of leadership. “Leadership is different than management,” she says. “There are managers who are leaders and leaders who are not managers. If you are a leader, it means people believe in you and want to follow you; it means you are empowered by others to be a leader.”
Peters believes that leaders don’t really have power, “not even in high-level positions. The position does not give you power. All we have are our relationships, and relationships gets you influence.” Leaders, both male and female, she says, need to “stay away from the idea of control and power, and focus on our ability to influence. I believe some of our greatest leaders are those who lead quietly without a desire for power.”
A common theme among Oregon female policy makers is the partnerships they must forge with male colleagues. Most say they have excellent relationships with men; all have been influenced by men and many have even been mentored by them.
But Thatcher finds that the men she works with are still sometimes “unaccustomed to dealing with a strong, independent woman.” She adds that, “good business, as well as good government, is not gender-specific. And when a conflict arises, a win-win agreement can often be found.”
“Women get things done!” says Representative Jodi Hack (R – Dist 19). “We make decisions and move on to the next thing – we compromise and find solutions while still being able to maintain relationships.”