Passing the torch
Author: Stephanie Argy
Posted: January 27, 2017

Inspiring the next generation of women leaders.

BETTY ROBERTS ’58 blazed political trails for Oregon women. Starting in the 1960s, she served in both houses of the Oregon Legislature and became the first woman on the Oregon Supreme Court in 1982. Determined and bold, Roberts smashed through the obstacles she faced—from subtle, insidious discrimination to inappropriate touching. More than half a century after the late Betty Roberts was first elected to the Oregon House, women in politics and other positions of leadership still face barriers and need guidance and support.

At Portland State, the Center for Women’s Leadership is training and mentoring the next generation of women leaders. Founded in 2004 by then PSU professor Melody Rose, with counsel from Roberts, the center offers programs in which professional and political women leaders share their wisdom and experience to help prepare high school and college women for positions of authority.

The underlying principle is that every woman is already a leader; the Center for Women’s Leadership simply helps her acknowledge that aspect of herself.

The center’s flagship program is NEW Leadership Oregon (NLO), an intensive six-day symposium open to women enrolled at any college in Oregon. NLO participants live on the PSU campus for the week. They meet with past and current women officeholders, business leaders, policy specialists and activists. Those mentors might include an attorney general, a state senator or a tribal council leader, says Mariana Lindsay, interim executive director of the center. “These are women who have broken through in many different ways.”

“I think young women don’t realize they have access to this network of women who have power,” says Martha Pellegrino, director of the city of Portland’s Office of Government Relations, and the center’s current board chair. “I tell them you are the next generation of leaders, and women leaders in the state want to hear from you. It’s as easy as picking up the phone and saying, ‘I would like to talk with you.’ We’re starting to see the ripple effect of women moving up in their career roles.”

A lot of skill building happens at NEW Leadership Oregon, says Pellegrino. “They work on public speaking, learning how to make an impression, how to follow up, how to thank people. Every time a volunteer does something for NLO, she gets a handwritten note from all these women saying how impactful it was.”

MARIANA GARCIA, a senior studying political science at Portland State, is an alumna of NLO. At the time she participated in the program, Garcia was interning in the Portland mayor’s office, but she doubted herself. “NLO really helped me become more confident,” she says. “I do have the power; I do deserve a seat at the table.”

Since her experience at NLO, Garcia has become the director of Las Mujeres, a student group that addresses the needs of Latina women at PSU and in the community. Garcia plans to work closely with immigrants, on immigration policy or advocacy after she graduates this spring.

The center recently added programs for high school students, including a one-day summit called Girls: Oregon, Action, Leadership, Service (GOALS). 

“We recognize that NLO really enables college-age women, but it’s important to go upstream and start talking to younger women,” says Pellegrino. “A lot of women in high school aren’t sure that’s their path.”

The center also offers ongoing networking, mentoring and educational opportunities for its alumna, including its September Training Day, which addresses issues such as career enhancement, serving on boards and wage negotiation. 

“The conventional wisdom is that women don’t ask for higher wages,” says Mariana Lindsay, the center’s director. “Part of the problem is that they can get punished if they do ask. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach negotiation, but we have to be aware of greater realities.”

WITH ONLY two full-time staff—Lindsay and Bernice Benade, program and communications assistant—the center is a lean operation, funded by the PSU Foundation and private and corporate donors. It offers a full scholarship to NLO to any woman who needs it. 

“We believe in the idea of being of service to women,” says Lindsay. “Each cohort is kept to about 40 to let relationships develop, but with more money, we could do more workshops and help more people. We have many more women who want to participate than we have room for.”

Each participant is a success story waiting to happen. Pellegrino recalls a woman named Chido Dhliwayo, who was originally from Zimbabwe and won a fellowship to work in Pellegrino’s office. “This was a young woman who came in with a lot of potential,” says Pellegrino. “She was extremely thoughtful and meticulous, but not very vocal in staff deliberations.” Then, Dhliwayo attended NLO, and Pellegrino was thrilled to see the change in her. 

“It unlocked something for her. I saw her find her voice,” says Pellegrino. “This is a powerful social movement with Portland State at its center. The work we’re doing is going to transform the future of leadership in Oregon.”

In 2009, the center presented Betty Roberts with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and she told a room full of center alumnae, “I’m not done with my torch yet. Go get your own.” Nationwide about 25 percent of state legislators are women. But in Oregon—thanks in part to efforts like those of the Center for Women’s Leadership—more and more women are picking up their torches. In the incoming Oregon House of Representatives caucus, 19 of the 35 Democrats are women; marking the first time the controlling party has more female than male lawmakers. 

As Roberts wrote in her autobiography, With Grit and by Grace, “In today’s world, every woman should be able to explore her own life, discover her own uniqueness, break her own trails, and pioneer her own destiny.” 

Read about Oregon women leaders

In addition to the work that the Center for Women’s Leadership does to help women develop the skills and confidence to lead, it has also partnered with the departments of History and Black Studies to archive papers from Oregon’s pioneering female political leaders in the PSU Library Special Collections. The Women in Oregon Politics & Policy collection includes campaign materials, correspondence, recordings, photographs and speeches from:

Eleanor R. Davis, who helped form the Oregon Council for Women’s Equality in 1971.

Avel L. Gordly, who was the first African-American woman elected to the Oregon State Senate in 1997 and was a representative in the Oregon House from 1991 to 1996.

Gretchen Kafoury, who served in the Oregon Legislature, and on the Multnomah County Commission and the Portland City Council from 1977 to 1998.

Barbara Roberts, who was elected the first female governor of Oregon in 1990 following six years as Oregon Secretary of State and service in the Oregon House.

Betty Roberts, who was the first woman to serve on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the Oregon Supreme Court (see page 11 for more information).

Nancy Ryles, who served in the Oregon Legislature from 1979 to 1987 and was the first woman appointed to Oregon’s Public Utility Commission in 1987.

PSU Library Special Collections house rare and historically significant materials, which students, faculty and staff are encouraged to use in their work. They are located in Millar Library and can be reached at 503-725-9883 or

Stephanie Argy is a graduate assistant in the Office of University Communications.

Captions: Women from universities and colleges across the state spent a day at the Oregon State Capitol during the 2016 NEW Leadership Oregon, an annual, award-winning program offered through Portland State’s Center for Women’s Leadership. Photo by Katana Triplett.

The late Betty Roberts ’58, pictured here at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, helped start the PSU Center for Women’s Leadership—sharing her experiences as an Oregon politician and judge.