For decades, Betty Roberts broke with social and political norms, leading the way for Oregon women in politics.
As a state legislator in the 1960s and ‘70s, she championed women’s equality, civil rights and environmental protections.
Following her political career, she served as the first woman on both the Oregon Supreme Court and the Oregon Court of Appeals.
Born Betty Lucille Cantrell on Feb. 5, 1923, in Kansas, she grew up in poverty during the Great Depression. She said President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies to assist the poor influenced her political decisions.
She wrote in “With Grit and By Grace,” her 2008 memoir, “I began to understand that government is good when it helps its neediest citizens.”
In 1942, she married U.S. Army soldier Bill Rice. At the end of World War II, they moved to his home state of Oregon, where they lived in a series of small towns, including Klamath Falls, Lakeview and La Grande.
Betty was a 32-year-old housewife with four children when she decided to go back to college, despite her husband’s objections and the conventions of 1950s society.
At the time, most Oregon women struggled to independently rent apartments, buy homes, obtain loans or even keep their surname when they married.
She enrolled at Eastern Oregon State College, and when the family moved to Portland, she continued her studies at Portland State College, graduating in 1958. After college, her husband didn’t want her to work outside the home, but she did it anyway, teaching in Multnomah County. Her marriage ended in 1959.
By 1960 she was active in the Democratic Party and serving on the school board. That year she married university professor Frank Roberts, who would also have a long political career. The two divorced in 1966.
Teaching by day and taking classes at night, she earned her master’s degree from the University of Oregon. In 1964, while enrolled in the Northwestern School of Law, she won her first legislative election to the Oregon House of Representatives. In 1968, she joined the Oregon Senate as the only woman there at the time. That same year she married Oregon House Rep. Keith Skelton.
She built her career as Betty Roberts and had to fight to keep that surname. When the Oregonian newspaper persisted in referring to her as Mrs. Elizabeth Skelton, she threatened legal action. In 1975, she helped pass legislation allowing Oregon’s married women to choose their names.
Through her career as a state legislator, she was instrumental in the passage of Oregon’s first legalized right to abortion, the state’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and groundbreaking environmental legislation, including the Bottle Bill. At the same time, she practiced law at the firm Skelton & Roberts.
In 1977, Gov. Bob Straub appointed her to the Court of Appeals as the first female appellate judge in Oregon. In her memoir, she described experiencing “shockingly overt sexism” on the court.
Five years later, on Feb. 9, 1982, Gov. Vic Atiyeh appointed her to the Oregon Supreme Court, making her the first woman to serve on the court. She retired in 1986, but remained active, focusing on women’s rights, teaching and serving on community boards.
In her 1994 oral history with the Oregon Historical Society, she said supporting other women remained her goal.
Betty Roberts died on June 25, 2011, of pulmonary fibrosis in her Portland home at the age of 88.