For some unexplained reason, the Pacific Coast has been more willing than most other parts of the nation to entrust real political and governmental power to women. From San Jose, where Janet Gray Hayes was one of the first big-city woman mayors, north to Olympia, Wash., where Dixy Lee Ray served as governor in the late '70s, the voters have been willing to judge women politicians on their merits.
San Francisco, which has Dianne Feinstein as mayor and Sala Burton and Barbara Boxer in the House of Representatives, is the center of feminist power. But now Oregon, which sent Maureen Neuberger to the Senate in the '60s after the death of her husband, Dick Neuberger, may be about to outdo even San Francisco in the feminization of its politics. Norma Paulus, an able Republican lawyer who stepped down as secretary of state at the end of 1984, is one of the strong contenders to succeed lame-duck Gov. Victor Atiyeh, a Republican, next year. Her old job is held by Democrat Barbara Roberts, a former legislator.
And the speaker of the state house of representatives is a feisty 51-year-old Portland Democrat named Vera Katz, whose personal and political saga is as unique as her role.
Katz is the only woman speaker in any of the 50 states. According to the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, she is only the second house speaker in the history of this Republic, after Democrat Tish Kelly of North Dakota, earlier in this decade.
Women have become more numerous in the legislatures during the past two decades. But in 1984 just about half the states had no women serving in any legislative leadership post. In some respects, it has been harder for women to gain leadership in legislative bodies than it has for them to win isolated statewide offices. The electorate is more than 50 percent female, while the membership of the legislatures is still more than 87 percent male.
It took 101 ballots for Katz to defeat the last of the male challengers for the Oregon speakership in the Democratic caucus balloting last November. But that was, in a way, the easiest part of her long struggle for recognition and survival.
Before Katz's birth, her parents fled from Russia to Germany to escape the communists; they fled from Nazi Germany to France when she was an infant; and when she was nine, they walked out of occupied France through the Pyrenees to Spain and then Portugal, eventually making their way to New York City.
After college, she moved west, started a family and became involved in politics for the first time as a volunteer in Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 Oregon presidential primary race. After his death, she joined other liberals in lobbying the legislature on behalf of migrant workers, one of Kennedy's favorite causes, then worked in the burgeoning political organization that made Neil Goldschmidt a reform mayor of Portland.
Katz won her first term in the legislature in 1972, and quickly gained a reputation here as a hard-working, sometimes abrasive battler for liberal causes, ranging from gay rights and tenants' rights to unit-pricing and alcoholism treatment.
Looking back, she said, a 1977 assignment to the house ways and means committee -- which handles the state budget -- was the start of her transformation as a legislator and her rise to the speakership.
Oregon's timber-based economy had suffered reverses, reducing revenues, and from 1981 on, President Reagan's budget cuts slowed the flow of federal aid. The legislature found itself constantly struggling to meet competing spending claims.
Katz focused her energy and intelligence on testing the arguments of state agencies, including the schools, and impressed her colleagues by her willingness to challenge their positions in endless hours of hearings. "The press established my credentials over the years," she said, "by my work on the budget," and her own philosophy of government underwent what she called "a painful metamorphosis." The onetime Kennedy liberal now says, "Reagan's New Federalism was hard to take, but it forced us to move toward new policies and weigh a great many old claims."
The new speaker is now guiding the house toward passage of a sales tax bill, long anathema to the state Democratic Party, and she is doing it with a combination of political muscle and tact that is earning her good reviews from her colleagues.
As an example, her first action after her election was to reclaim the power for the speaker to appoint both majority and minority members of all committees and their chairmen; she softened the blow to the Republicans' pride by bringing them into her legislative strategy sessions.
Though armed with a broad sense of humor, Katz says she is still aware that "I'm not one of the good old boys." Her gender was a barrier to her election "because some people just couldn't believe a woman was tough enough to be speaker. But it's not a problem now. . . . The problem now is that I'm not a conventional liberal Democrat." She is also not a conventional speaker of the house -- but there will certainly be more like her.