A century after suffrage, Oregon politics still a boys club

by: FILE PHOTO - Kate BrownSusan Conn wasn't the only woman applying for the vacant St. Helens City Council position in 2011, but she was the first to actually be appointed in over 20 years.

This year marks the centennial of women's suffrage in Oregon, but in Columbia County, the majority of elected positions are still pursued and attained by men.

How significant is that? It's up for debate.

On the surface, it looks like a good time to be a woman in politics: Portland judge Ellen Rosenblum will make history June 29 when she's sworn in as Oregon's first woman attorney general; U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici joined the state's otherwise all-male delegation in Congress following a special election race in January; and Nena Cook won an open Oregon Supreme Court seat in the May primary. If she wins a November runoff, the state's highest court will feature three women out of seven justices, the most ever.

Still, in Salem, the state Senate is losing two of its nine women after the general election in November, leaving the 30-member Senate with its fewest women since 2004.

A decade ago, a third of the Oregon Legislature was female, but those numbers have dropped.

After a century of women voting, Oregon has elected only six women to Congress and five to statewide office.

"I don't know what explains it," said Kate Brown, Oregon secretary of state. "We've come a long way, baby, but we have a long way to go."

What about Columbia County?

In Columbia County, all three county commissioner positions are held by men (though there have been women in the past) and no women fill any of Rainier's seven city council seats. Still, three cities have elected female mayors, and County Clerk Betty Huser, a former mayor of Scappoose, has held her current position for 23 years.

Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl believes voters in Columbia County are more interested in what a candidate brings to the table than if that candidate is male or female. Pohl herself has served as mayor for six years and run for office unopposed twice.

Pohl admitted that maybe women still have to "jump a little higher and dance a little longer" but there have been many respected female politicians in Oregon and in Columbia County.

"When that happens, it elevates the opinion of women in politics," she said.

A history of strong female leaders

State Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) said Oregon has been blessed by a long history of strong female leaders - women like former governor Barbara Roberts - who have encouraged the next generation of women to participate in politics.

Johnson believes the time commitment has a lot to do with why fewer women run for office.

"There are only 24 hours in every person's day," she said. In the present society and economy, women must often shoulder the multiple demands of maintaining a home, raising a family and holding down a job.

Perhaps the "demands of doing it all preclude public service," she said.

Instead of running for county commissioner or city council, more women seem to be drawn to focused advisory boards, school boards and smaller commissions.

Certainly, that's how city Councilor Conn stayed involved throughout the years. But that's the beauty of living in a small town, she said: Even though you aren't serving on boards tasked with running an entire county, you can still make a big impact on your community.

She would encourage women interested in entering politics to serve on nonprofit boards.

"Because that's an education, knowing how boards work," she said.

However, Johnson added, it's easy now to take women's rights for granted.

"We lose track of the fact that it was only 100 years ago," she said.

And it's important for citizens to be represented: the whole mix of male, female, rich, poor, she added.

Women tend to be better "collaborators and conveners," Johnson said. "I think women listen with a different set of ears sometimes."

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