Standing on the Side of Love

Rock On, Oregon! Marriage Equality and Betty Roberts

Betty Roberts (center) greets Rosalynn Carter (left), wife of presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, in May 1976. Roberts was co-chairman for the Carter campaign in Oregon. (The Oregonian/1976)
Betty Roberts (center) greets Rosalynn Carter (left), wife of presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, in May 1976. Roberts was co-chairman for the Carter campaign in Oregon. (The Oregonian/1976)

Betty Cantrell Roberts was the first woman appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court. That was in 1982. She served there four years, at which point she retired. Before that she served in both houses of the Oregon legislature and made failed attempts to run for governor and U.S. Senate.

I knew Betty before that. I knew her in the early 1970s, which means I knew her when she was in her early 50s and I was…well…in Kindergarten. Maybe preschool. That’s when my mother worked for her – both in the Oregon Legislature in Salem and at her private legal practice in Portland, Oregon.

My mom, a scandalous divorcee raising two children on her own, was her legal secretary. Betty let my mom bring me to her office. I don’t really know how often that happened but in my memory, it was A  L  L  the time.  It was the 1970s and sisterhood was powerful. At home, my single mother was listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary as they hammered out justice and she listened to Helen Reddy:

I am woman hear me roar.

In numbers too big to ignore.

And I’ve come too far

to go back and pretend.

Betty was a true Women’s Libber. She divorced her first husband because he didn’t believe women should work outside the home. My mother admired her and in my own five- or six-year-old way, I did, too.


After nearly two decades, in 2004, Betty came out of retirement. For a split second, in Multnomah County, same sex couples were allowed to marry. Betty came into the public light to officiate the first wedding.  I was so proud of her that at the time, I emailed her to thank her. It felt important to reach out and recognize her action on behalf of marriage equality. I didn’t think she would respond nor did I think she would remember me. She did write back, immediately: a full response that indicated she remembered not only my mother, but me as well. My heart swelled.

Of course, she comes to mind this week since the decision on Monday by U.S. District Judge Michael McShane that brings marriage equality to my home state. Here is the conclusion to McShane’s ruling:

“…on this issue of marriage I am struck more by our similarities than our differences. I believe that if we can look for a moment past gender and sexuality, we can see in these plaintiffs nothing more or less than our own families. Families who we would expect our Constitution to protect, if not exalt, in equal measure.

With discernment we see not shadows lurking in closets or the stereotypes of what was once believed; rather, we see families committed to the common purpose of love, devotion, and service to the greater community.

Where will this all lead? I know that many suggest we are going down a slippery slope that will have no moral boundaries. To those who truly harbor such fears, I can only say this: Let us look less to the sky to see what might fall; rather, let us look to each other … and rise.”

I know there are so many justice issues out there. I know there are urgent justice issues impacting the GLBTQ community – like violence, like access to humane health care, like protection from discrimination on the job and in housing – and that our ongoing love affair with marriage equality can overshadow these less sexy issues that disproportionately impact people of color and low income people (especially women, both cis and trans*).

And yet here is my shout out to my home state. The state I was so proud, as a little girl, when they passed the first Bottle Bill, requiring deposits on bottles that we might recycle. That is a point of pride in my family – that Oregon holds that progressive honor. Guess who was one of the original co-sponsors of that bill in 1971?

Yup: Betty Roberts. Rock on, Betty. Rock on, Oregon. Rock on.


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