In Oregon, Women Take the Lead

Oregon has long had more women in top political positions than practically any other state. There may be several reasons why.
by | November 2015
Oregon state Rep. Val Hoyle is the former House majority leader and one of several women to serve in leadership positions in her state. (AP)

Val Hoyle became majority leader of the Oregon House just three years after joining the chamber. That’s pretty impressive, but it might be less important than the fact she has been succeeded by another woman. Hoyle stepped down as leader this summer to concentrate on a race for secretary of state and was replaced by Rep. Jennifer Williamson. “My being there was not an anomaly,” Hoyle says.

Indeed, Williamson is one of four women holding top legislative leadership posts in Oregon. That’s a record only Colorado currently can match. In addition, three women hold statewide office in Oregon, including Gov. Kate Brown. Competent women, Hoyle says, “bring a different style and a different set of priorities.”

Political scientists have long sought explanations as to why women have traditionally won more power in Western states than in the rest of the country. Some like to cite history: Women got the vote out West earlier than in much of the rest of the country. “The first women legislators were elected in Colorado and Utah,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “There is a culture of men and women working side by side.”

Hoyle herself talks about the “pioneer spirit” that afforded women necessary roles along the Oregon Trail. But she also suggests a more recent and practical explanation. Once women started getting elected to office in Oregon back in the 1970s and 1980s, they did their best to bring other women along behind them, establishing an ongoing political action committee that funds women candidates and a “campaign school” to recruit and train them. “We’ve set up an infrastructure on the Democratic side,” Hoyle says.

That seems to be necessary. Women often require more cajoling than men to seek office. Studies have shown that women with the same résumés as their male counterparts are less likely to give it a go. Hoyle offers a case in point. When her local representative announced he was stepping down in 2009, Hoyle looked all around to find someone who might succeed him. It took considerable prodding from other women to convince Hoyle to pursue it herself. “We’ve seen that when we get one or two women in, they bring the others in,” says Andrea Dew Steele, president of Emerge America, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that trains women to run for office in Oregon and more than a dozen other states. “You get a couple of women in and they are your best recruiters.”

Women make up 31 percent of Oregon legislators, as opposed to 24 percent nationwide. They caucus regularly when the legislature is in session. They have helped to push legislation that appears to be of specific concern to women, such as a pair of bills this summer that expanded access to birth control, as well as other major efforts that include background checks on private gun sales and the state’s first-in-the-nation automatic voter registration system.

“Women prioritize different public policy issues, simply because we see them in a different light,” says House Speaker Tina Kotek. “Policies to ensure more workers can earn sick days and to raise the minimum wage were at the forefront of the conversation because the women in power have had first-hand experience with those topics and how they impact people’s lives.”

Kotek’s counterpart to the south, California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, will be replaced next year by Anthony Rendon. Most of the other women legislators being forced out by term limits in California have already endorsed men to succeed them. That could happen anywhere, but as Hoyle’s career shows, it’s less likely to happen in Oregon.