“If he won a victory, he was disguised as the lady from Oregon.” A Congressional colleague of Edith Green, after overhearing another member trying to take credit for helping to pass anti-poverty legislation.
Title IX is a requirement that many are aware of today. It prohibits federally funded colleges from discriminating against women. but there is a great history behind it. Student loans and university libraries and research centers are seen today as second nature in the gigantic university environment but, there is a name behind that as well. It is Edith Green, a longtime Congresswoman from the state of Oregon.
OregonLive observed that while Green is not a household name when it comes to Title IX, “her tenacity gave millions of women access to school sports teams, and even the chance to simply attend college.” But promoting equality in education was the hallmark of her entire career.
Edith Green was known as “Mrs. Education” or the “Mother of Higher Education.” Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield once called her The Encyclopedia of Oregon called her “Independent, tenacious, and firm in her convictions…” It was known that she wanted to deal with big things. Her maiden speech was condemning the praises by fellow lawmakers of Groundhog Day.
Green was an educator, and she made that a hallmark of her tenure in Washington. By the time she retired after a 20 year career, her fingerprint was on virtually every major education initiative that had come before the lower chamber.
There may have been a reason Green had such a passion for education: both of her parents were teachers and politics was often prominent at the dinner table and Green would be valedictorian of her high school class. But she would realize early that teaching was a passion, and she did so for 11 years. But succeeding to that endeavor came after a struggle. Green’s financial difficulties forced her to drop out of college. That empathy would stick with her for her entire legislative career.
Green was a South Dakota native but moved with her family to Oregon when she was six. Eventually, she would become legislative chairperson of the Oregon Congress of Parents and Teachers and legislative director for the Oregon Education Association (in between, she was a radio announcer).
Green used her knowledge of the political system to mount a bid for Oregon Secretary of State in 1952 (she had intended to file for the State Senate) but lost narrowly. But by 1954, she captured a House seat, beating Tom McCall. It proved to be a blessing for both. Green had earned a seat in Congress, while McCall would go on to be among Oregon’s most popular Governors. Her slogan was “You Get Straight Answers From Edith Green.” After her initial 52% win, Green wouldn’t fall below 62% in any of her nine subsequent elections, sometimes exceeding 70%.
Perhaps it was because Green was one of few women in the House, but Green had that persuasive appeal that is a gift to only a few lawmakers. Marilyn Stapleton, her Chief of Staff in the 1970s said, “I was always very proud of the fact that the assembly hushed when she got up to speak.”
A glimpse of the headline of a 1967 New York Times profile of Green, “Tough Lady Politician: Edith Starrett Green,” may imply surprise that a female politician, rare in those days, could be as tough as her male counterpart. But a read of the opening paragraph would change that: “She toils at her political tasks,” it said. “She pursues a highly personalized, often baffling course. She is very ladylike and polite and, in the political sense, very tough. The description would fit the presidents of many of the nation’s Parent-Teacher Associations, where the politicking can rival Tammany Hall at it’s toughest. It fits the tiny, soft-voiced Representative from Oregon’s Third District — the PTA’s gift to Congressional Politics.”
The first major initiative that Green proposed was the Library Service Bill, which broadened library services in rural areas. But by 1958, Sputnik had made Green disillusioned with America’s competitiveness with the Soviet Union, and so she proposed the National Defense of Education Act of 1958. By providing additional science and math support for college and grad students would help American students keep pace with their Soviet counterparts. She opposed her colleague Martha Griffith’s bill to add “sex” to the Civil Rights Act, the only female member to do so, for fear that it would kill the whole bill, which she strongly supported.
There were many other education related endeavors. One was the Higher Education Facilities Act, which, as Women in Congress notes, ” allocated federal funds for the expansion and improvement of university libraries, classrooms, and laboratories. It was the first time this was covered. The same went for financial aide. Her Higher Education Act of 1965 gave financial assistance was called by President Johnson “the greatest step forward in the field” in 100 years. Green’s persistence gained her notice. She would give the seconding speeches for both Adlai Stevenson and JFK and would chair RFK’s campaign in Oregon.
Green shepherded Title IX for eight years, until it was successfully passed as part of the 1972 Higher Education Act. By that time, she chaired the Subcommittee on Higher Education of the Education and Labor and chaired seven days of hearings. “Let us not deceive ourselves,” she said. “Our educational institutions have proven to be no bastions of democracy.”
Many opposed her bill on the basis of concerns that, among other things, it would force people of different genders to share locker rooms. And indeed, it was controversial enough that she didn’t want supporters to lobby on it’s behalf. She felt that might attract more attention to it. Her colleague from Hawaii, Patsy Mink, and Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, were the other major players on the bill.
Education wasn’t the only issue on which Green made a mark. She had a major hand in the the Equal Pay Act, which also took eight years to pass. It’s objective was to ensure that men and women doing the same work would receive the same pay. It is still an issue that Congress has not been able to reconcile today and, were Green around, she’d surely have a thing or two to say. She helped steer to passage a major anti-poverty bill by breaking up the usual coalition of southerners and Republicans.
And in 1965, she’d became one of just seven House members to oppose Johnson’s funding request for the war in Vietnam, saying she could not “in good conscience lend myself to that kind of usurpation of Congressional power.”
After 18 years in office, Green shifted to the Appropriations Committee in what would be her last term. There was more “action” and she figured she could do more for Oregon from that perch. Providing for Oregon was one reason she resisted at least three entreaties to run for the Senate. She thought the seniority she had accumulated would be of better use in the House, and she feared becoming indebted to big donors.
She also demurred when Kennedy offered her the Ambassadorship of Canada. “I guess I really decided on the basis of my own temperament and interests,” she said. “First, I would have been bored to death with the ceremonial functions and receptions. And second, over a long period, my interest in certain fields is too great to leave when I might be able to make certain contributions in those areas.”
But she hinted she would not stay on much longer, saying “they won’t have to drag me out of here in a coffin — I don’t have Potomac Fever.” Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield said “she did not run again when she could have been re-elected for life.”
As her career went on, Green became disillusioned with many of the public improvement programs that she had championed, fearing that the bureaucracy was taking it over. As such, out of office in 1976, she backed Gerald Ford, with whom virtually entire House tenure had overlapped, over her party’s standard bearer, Jimmy Carter (she had backed her fellow Northwesterner, “Scoop” Jackson in 1972. While Gene McCarthy drained votes from Carter, Green’s backing of Ford may have provided him him the crucial difference. His 1,700 vote win in Oregon was the closest contest that year.
After retiring, Green taught at Warner Pacific College and served on the State Board of Higher Education. She died in 1987 at 77 of pancreatic cancer.
Hatfield called her, “probably the most powerful woman ever to serve in the Congress. On any important legislation, such as women’s rights or education or dealing with minorities or poor people, she could switch people’s votes on the floor through the power of her intellect and her ability to persuade. People listened because when Edith Green spoke, she spoke from the heart as well as the mind.’
Copyright 2013 The Moderate Voice