Interview with Barbara Roberts | November 28, 2015 

As a mother of two with a husband working in Texas for the U.S. Air Force, politics was never in her future. But within just a few years, Barbara Roberts went from housewife to first female governor of Oregon. It all started when one of her two sons was sent home from school.

“By the time my son Michael was six and he was in school, they sent him home and said he couldn’t go to school anymore.”

At the time, there were no resources for kids with autisim to be able to stay in school and get an education. When Roberts’16 year long marriage came to an end, she was left with two kids to take care of-one of whom was home all day because of a system that couldn’t educate him. So for one year, Roberts enrolled Michael in a federally funded experimental program for kids with disabilities.

“And then the program went away. And that is when I thought ‘I can’t do this.’ He was not a child that wasn’t capable of learning, they just didn’t want to deal with him.”

While supporting a family of three on a bookkeeper’s salary, Roberts went to her local representative and asked for help.

“I said I wanted to have a bill introduced {so} children who are learning disabled do not get sent away from school and {they} still have a right to get an education.”

Within one six month legislative session, the bill was signed into law by Oregon Governor Tom McCall. It was the first bill of its kind in the nation, it provided Michael an education, and opened Roberts’ eyes to the power of politics.

“I found out I had a whole lot of skills I had never used before and I found out I loved the political system.”

Oh and one more thing: Representative Frank Roberts soon became her husband. With a husband in politics and some new found skills, Roberts got elected to the local school board, then appointed to the county commission before working on her husband’s legislative staff for three sessions.

“When I went down to Salem to work on my husband’s legislative staff, I had been a county commissioner getting a salary, dealing with important issues and suddenly I was a staff person with no vote. I missed being a decision maker.”

After running for state representative and winning, Roberts became the majority leader for the house (the first woman to ever hold this title). Then she became Secretary of State for two terms before running for governor.

“It was amazing that I could win that race. I started out 27 percentage points behind and in a very late campaign I won the governorship.”

After losing her husband late in her first term and the prospect of running against fellow democrat John Kitzhaber, Roberts did not run for reelection.

“I would like to have run again. Perhaps if I hadn’t had a democratic opponent in the primary I would have run again.”

But her career was by no means over. After finishing her term as governor, Roberts worked for higher ed all across the nation, including for Harvard University.

While at Harvard, Roberts wrote a memoir called “On Death and Grieving,” which is about her struggles with the loss of her husband.

Roberts now spends her time as an advocate for Women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, autism, as well as speaking publicly about death and grief.

Women in politics

“There is a slogan that women use that says ‘You can’t be what you can’t see. Well what we couldn’t see was any women leaders. There was no role model. There wasn’t a women that you could look at and say ‘Wow, that is what I want to be when I grow up.’ So not seeing those role models meant you never thought of yourself doing it.”

About Barbara

Age: Born 12-21-36 and will be 79 next month.

Fact: Her maiden name was Hughey (pronouned like Hughes but with a y)

Barbara’s first married last name was Sanders (Coincidentally ly the same last name as Hank)

Hobbies: The Portland Trail Blazers.

Fun fact: Since my birthday is on Dec. 21, the first day of Winter, when I was a child and saw on the calendar that Dec. 21st was the shortest day of the year, I thought I got cheated!!! I hope I got wiser and smarter over the years since!!!! – Barbara

2 thoughts on “Interview with Barbara Roberts | November 28, 2015 

  1. I love this woman. How amazing is she to persevere when she didn’t have any role models!? Thank you, Barbara, for all your hard work and for being a shining example of a civic leader!


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