Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Novkov reviews memoir of Betty Roberts, first woman justice on the Oregon Supreme Court

With Grit and by Grace: Breaking Trails in Law and Politics - A Memoir by Betty Roberts is reviewed for the Law and Politics Book Review by Julie Novkov. Novkov finds the book a "fascinating personal account" of Roberts'

liberal feminist journey from a hardscrabble existence in Texas as a child to the Oregon Supreme Court. While Roberts is telling her own story, she narrates two other stories as well: one of a state and its sometimes tumultuous political development, and another of the path of professional American women from the era of the feminine mystique to an era of equal rights under the law. Roberts is justly proud of the progress she identifies in both of these narratives, but she is by no means complacent that feminism has completed its work. Overall, the book is a lively, arresting read in which Roberts establishes herself as a tireless worker and keen political strategist, but also speaks in a no-nonsense, lightly humorous, and quintessentially Oregonian voice....

Overall, the reader gains a sense of her as a relentless optimist, a woman who never allowed others’ negative attitudes or the adverse circumstances she faced to prevent her from moving forward. Her tone is deceptively conversational and down-to-earth, at times almost obscuring the extraordinary nature of her accomplishments: her repeated breaking of gender barriers with electoral successes in the state house and senate, her near capture of nominations for two state-wide offices, and her service as an appellate, and then supreme court judge. She achieved these milestones not just as a woman, but as a divorced woman with children in a time when both divorce and motherhood were seen as political millstones. While Roberts does not reflect extensively on why she was able to overcome these barriers, attributing it mostly to her persistence and good fortune, her narrative suggests that both elite Oregonians and Oregon voters appreciated her straightforward, matter-of-fact attitude.
Liberal feminism – the belief that women are inherently equal to men – has been a lifetime lodestone for Roberts. She writes frankly about her own path toward extending her personal liberal principles of equality to incorporate sexual orientation; she eventually performed Oregon’s first same-sex marriages in Multnomah County. She has less to say about race, but most of her active political career encompassed a period in Oregon’s politics when racial struggles tended to be more local and often occurred outside of formal political structures. The liberal feminist principle of choice also characterized Roberts’ active career, both in her decisions to run for various offices and her decision in 1985 to step back from active engagement in high-level law and politics. Some might frame her choice to follow her husband into retirement as an anti-feminist act, but Roberts clearly understands it as representing her own secure capacity to choose her life path with wisdom and sensitivity toward achieving an appropriate balance for herself and her family.
I recommend Roberts’ memoir as an engaging read for anyone interested in the real world of law and politics. In particular, it would make a great gift for a starting law student or for someone who has just completed the bar exam.
The full review is here. Justice Roberts' website is here.