Political Pioneers

How Oregon women are breaking barriers and blazing a trail for equality in elected office.

Words by Josie Fey
Photos by KJ Hellis

In 1909, Oregon’s Carolyn B. Shelton became the first female governor in the United States. Well, for a weekend, at least.

Gov. George E. Chamberlain had just been elected to the U.S. Senate and wanted to go to Washington, D.C. early. So he asked Shelton, his chief of staff, to serve the remaining days of his term in Salem, the state’s capital.

Although women in Oregon couldn’t vote for another three years, Shelton blazed a trail that Oregon women are following – and expanding – more than a century later.

When it comes to women in politics, Oregon is a national leader. Only seven states have more women elected to state legislatures, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP). Oregon has a female Governor, Majority House Speaker, Attorney General and Secretary of State.  Eight of the ten new lawmakers in Salem this year are women. And the city of Eugene recently elected a new female mayor to replace its former female mayor.


Rep. Julie Fahey pets a dog at the Earth Day March for Science Rally.

“I feel like it’s the perfect storm in some ways,” said Sunny Petit, the former director of the Center for Women’s Leadership at Portland State University. “Talking about this issue is key.”

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that women are less likely than men to run for office — though they are just as likely to win races when they do run.

Gendered norms and expectations for women pose barriers to holding elected positions that men don’t typically face, like familial duties and motherhood. Petit added that the financial cost of running a campaign has historically been a hindrance as well, because “women haven’t had as much access to high-paying jobs,” or even colleagues who could afford to donate money to a campaign.

Rep. Julie Fahey talks to a constituent at a book giveaway hosted by the Oregon School Employees Association in the cafeteria at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Eugene.

Regina Lawrence, a University of Oregon professor who’s written extensively about Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, said it can be discouraging that women aren’t well-represented in politics. “Just like we argue with respect to racial identity, ethnic identity, etc., having people who look like you, or have had life experiences like you in office can be very powerful symbolically, in terms of whether or not people feel represented by their government,” she said.

As a result, some women simply don’t see themselves as political contenders. “Women tend to think that they’re not qualified enough yet to run for particular offices,” Lawrence said. “They tend to have to be invited, or asked or encouraged.”

Rep. Julie Fahey, a Democrat, is a good example. Before she decided to start a campaign, Fahey ran a small consulting business for many years. She said she always cared about politics and policy. “But it just never had dawned on me that running for office is something that I should consider,” she said.

So when she was encouraged by a friend to get involved in politics she took the chance, and was elected to her seat in 2016 after graduating from Emerge Oregon, which is an affiliate of Emerge America. The organization is a network of independently run state programs that promote Democratic women for elected positions. Emerge America runs trainings across the nation, educating women in the tactics and strategies of politics, from fundraising to messaging to knocking on doors.

Jillian Schoene runs Emerge Oregon from a spare room in her northeast Portland home, managing time between raising her two children and shaping democratic politics in the state.

Shoene saw a record number of applications for Emerge after last year’s presidential election, and said that it even drove a “Follow Her Lead” marketing campaign. “Women were already being spurred to run for office just by Hillary Clinton running,” she said. “And then we had a second wave of it after Election Day.”

Fahey speaks at a rally for reproductive rights at the Oregon Capital building. She advocated for Planned Parenthood, standing by a woman’s right to choose.

Emerge Oregon has trained 143 women in Oregon since 2009, and 67 percent of those who’ve subsequently run for office have won, according to Schoene. In the 2016 election cycle, that went up to 72 percent. But for her, it’s about more than getting women elected for the sake of getting women elected.

“It’s not just changing the face of politics to have more women representation, it’s also changing the perspective and priorities of our elected bodies,” she said.

Once elected, women tend to focus on a broader vision of public needs than men do — specifically those that benefit other women and families.

One of Fahey’s main initiatives is the Reproductive Health Equity Act (HB 2232), a bill that would ensure that all Oregonians have access to affordable reproductive health care services – many at zero out-of-pocket cost. “We have always been at the forefront of reproductive care in Oregon. We are the only state in the union that has no restrictions on access to abortion,” she said, also citing Medicaid advancements put through by former democratic governor John Kitzhaber. The bill is the first of its kind in the country, and specifically includes coverage for transgendered individuals and undocumented immigrants.

Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Democrat, said her experience as a woman and mother has affected her priorities as a legislator. “I am a feminist, so anything that makes sure that women have a fair shake in the work environment, whether it’s equal pay, whether it’s making sure we have access to childcare, whether it’s education, all of those things,” she said, “I think it all goes back to making sure that we value families, and that women have choices about when they start their families, and with whom they start their families.”

She was compelled to run for office out of her concern with how things were being handled in her school district – particularly disciplinary measures that affected her son in a way that she worried would impact his future as a young black man. “I knew at that point, that was the beginning of railroading him into the criminal justice system,” she said.

Republican Rep. Julie Parrish thinks the key difference between men and women in elected positions is a difference in ambition – not the amount, but the type. “I think women tend to run for a cause. They want to do something rather than be something,” she said.

In Oregon, Democratic women have outpaced their Republican counterparts.

That’s a trend across the nation, said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a contributing scholar at CAWP.

Jillian Schoene, executive director of Emerge Oregon, sits at her desk in her Portland home office as CNN plays in the background. Schoene’s organization encourages Democratic women to run for office in Oregon.

When it comes to getting Democratic women elected in the state, Emerge Oregon isn’t alone. The Women’s Investment Network Political Action Committee (WINPAC) is a fundraising arm, and Emily’s List is another recruiting and support organization. There aren’t women’s political recruiting organizations like Emerge for Republicans in Oregon, though.

According to Dittmar, in 1998 CAWP established a bipartisan training organization called Ready to Run that is administered at the state level. As of today, Oregon is not a participant. There is also a nationwide effort by the National Republican Congressional Committee called Project Grow, aimed at “growing republican opportunities for women,” according to their website. But it’s not as expansive as the recruiting efforts on the Democratic side.

“I really, truly believed that if you ran for office you just threw your name in the ring,” said Parrish. Still, she didn’t let the lack of recruiting organizations stop her. She was inspired to run in 2010 after watching the economy struggle and school days get cut. “I got a hold of the Republican leader at the time and said, ‘Here’s who I am, and here are the things I believe issue-wise. Tell me where to sign up.’ And then I told my husband that I was running for office,” she said.

Dittmar said the discrepancy in recruiting efforts stems from a difference in philosophy between the two parties. “For Democrats, identity politics are really important. Republicans don’t do as much race or gender specific targeting,” she said.

While areas with more democratic representation have been shown to be more accommodating to women in positions of power, a bipartisan approach is essential to achieving a more balanced gender distribution. “You’re never going to get parity without Republican women,” Dittmar said.

Fahey acknowledges the sacrifices she’s had to make for this position. “Many of us have made the decision that this is going to be a challenge for us financially, but have decided that public service is worth it.” Oregon state representatives make just over $24,000 per year, with a per diem allowance of $142 each day they are in session.

Natalie Fisher helps facilitate a town hall meeting for Senator Ron Wyden by handing out tickets to constituents.

Oregon’s part-time legislative session means less money, but Parrish appreciates having more time for other pursuits. “You can go back to your day job. I can work on my company and spend time with my kids, and maybe get time for a family vacation,” said Parrish. She also said that living geographically closer to Salem allows her the opportunity to drive home each night – a luxury that women in rural, more republican areas like Eastern Oregon don’t have.

Despite the challenges, she says her impact matters. “I have 3 boys, and I think the message that I’m sending to my sons is that women can do anything, and a good man supports their partner,” she said. Her sons have grown up spending time in the state capitol over the last 7 years, and have begun to pay more attention to the process and form their own political opinions. “I feel like they are much better citizens of the world because of what we’re doing.”

Bynum’s 8-year-old daughter is impressed with her mom’s position. “She thinks I’m just the cat’s meow.” Her older son helped her knock on doors, her baby boy has been along for the ride and her oldest daughter appreciates the perks, “like my parking spot,” Bynum said, laughing.

For Bynum, having a stable partner has been critical. “I feel incredibly lucky that my husband’s been supportive, as best he can, of me filling this role,” said Bynum. She said she feels privileged because a single mother would likely have a harder time making it work.

It may be up to young women with fewer attachments to keep filling the political pipeline, like Natalie Fisher.

Fisher is a senior in political science and the external vice president of the student body at the University of Oregon, has already begun a promising career in politics, having interned on campaigns for a county commissioner and a United States Senator. She was twice elected to the student government at the UO and most recently served as external vice president.

Fisher’s foray into the field began in an introductory political science class she took sophomore year. “I remember it like it was yesterday: sitting in a dingy classroom in McKenzie Hall, a young man in a beret and a scarf holding a clipboard made an announcement about internships at the Democratic Party of Lane County,” she said. “Before I knew it I was knocking on doors and phone banking for the 2014 midterm elections.”

Natalie Fisher, external vice president of Associated Students of the University of Oregon (ASUO), reads “My Own Words” by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her bed. Fisher aspires to follow Ginsburg’s footsteps.

Overall, she’s encountered the same opposition in the political realm as she has as a woman in everyday society and feels that some of it has even been heightened as a result of last year’s presidential election. “The worst obstacle of all is the glass ceiling and the way in which this past election cycle has given men that I have encountered the validation to speak their mind about the place in society they believe I should inhabit,” she said, “which does not happen to be anywhere near the political realm.”

In order to get more ladies into that world, Fisher says it’s going to the take encouragement and support of others, as has been her experience. “I am now surrounded by incredible women that are dedicated to helping other women become involved and established in politics, education and advocacy,” she said, adding that the key is to be vocal and know that everyone has a place in a political office. “Be that voice. Be that voice in any arena that you can find.”