Forging a Path for Others
Norma Paulus LLB’62, H’99 keeps a small statue of a lion on a desk in her downtown Portland home. The statue, dated October 1981, was given to her by the northeast Portland Lions Club when she was inducted as their first female member. The next day, Paulus, who was Oregon’s secretary of state at the time, was visited in her office at the Oregon Capitol by the president of the statewide Oregon Lions Club. He had come to ask Paulus to return the Portland club’s gift. He did not think the statue – or membership into the club – should have been given to a woman.
Over the course of her career, Paulus faced many similar battles due to her gender and her determination to challenge the status quo. During her tenure in the Oregon House of Representatives, from 1971 to 1977, she met 11 other female legislators who struggled with similar challenges. The 12 female legislators united across party lines to fight long-standing – and sometimes subtle – forms of discrimination against women. “It was more difficult at that time for women to enter the fields of engineering, medicine and athletics,” she recalled, “and Oregon laws discriminated heavily against women.”
The 12 female legislators took action by voting together on a bloc of legislation of important women’s issues. They made great strides for women’s equality throughout the state, reducing discrimination in a wide range of Oregon laws that encompassed crime, property, affirmative action, pensions, tax and numerous other issues. “Oregon was recognized as a leader in the women’s movement because of what we accomplished so quickly,” Paulus said.
Paulus attributes much of her success in government to the legal education she received at Willamette’s College of Law. Paulus said she was inspired to attend law school while working as a legal secretary for the Oregon Supreme Court. She began taking classes on a part-time basis while also working at the Court. During the years that Paulus attended Willamette, only four other women were attending the law school; she had only one class with another woman. Regardless, Paulus said Willamette provided a friendly environment and that she was treated as an equal by her peers.
Paulus faced significant sexism, however, when she decided to jump headfirst into politics in 1969. She ran for the Oregon House of Representatives in a county-wide election. She said that at the time Marion County was “an eclectic community with Willamette University, a monastery, a nunnery, state workers, farmers, unionized paper workers, Chicanos and old-believer Russians.”
“As a tall, blonde and slender female, I knew that I would lack credibility with many of these groups,” said Paulus. “But my law degree did give me credibility with the all-male audiences that I spoke with.” Paulus credits her law degree with teaching her to think critically. “My legal education taught me the art of analytical thinking,” she said. “In all of my government positions, I saw systems and problems that needed to be realigned. Because of my legal education, I had the skills to do it,” Paulus said. The people of Marion County agreed and elected her to office.
Not only did Paulus possess the skills needed to excel in government, but she also had a passion for the work. “I’ve always been drawn to politics,” she said. “I was class president in school and was always organizing things,” she recalled. In high school, she and other politically minded friends worked on Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign. Not surprisingly, Paulus’ own career in government did not end with her three terms as a state representative.
In 1976, Paulus ran in a statewide race and was elected the first female secretary of state in Oregon. She served two terms – and made history in the process. It marked the first time a woman was elected to a major state office in Oregon. A decade later, Paulus was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to oversee the 1986 Filipino presidential elections – because she had been so successful fighting election corruption as Oregon’s secretary of state.
Paulus missed becoming Oregon’s first woman governor by a slim margin in 1986. After the election, Governor Neil Goldschmidt appointed her to the Northwest Power Planning Council, where she was able to put her passion for environmental concerns to good use. She also had the opportunity to make critical reforms to Oregon’s public education system during two terms as superintendent of public instruction. Her achievements in this position were later recognized by President Bill Clinton, who appointed Paulus to the National Assessment Governing Board for Education.
Paulus’ passion for education is evident when she describes her experiences working as superintendent of Oregon’s public schools. “Prior to my tenure,” Paulus said, “a belief system was imbedded in the schools that there were some kids who just could not be expected to learn. I strongly believe that a student’s ability to learn is based on the quality of instruction he or she receives – not on where he comes from or how poor his family is.” In accordance with her beliefs, Paulus implemented uniform standards of education for every school in Oregon – from the metropolis of Portland to the tiny coastal town of Alsea – a move that was far ahead of its time.
Motivated by a desire to serve the people of Oregon, Paulus also has worked at the Oregon Historical Society and with other organizations to advance education in the state. During her tenure at the Historical Society, Paulus built a cutting-edge history project for kindergarten through 12th-grade students that won a first-ever national award from the American Library Association. Paulus plans to help develop similar programs with the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, High Desert Museum in Bend and World Affairs Council of Oregon.
After 35 years spent serving others, Paulus shows no signs of giving up public life. She keeps the Lions Club statue on her desk to remind herself how much work still needs to be done – and how far she’s come in her own right. Recalling that fateful visit from the Lions Club president who asked her to return the lion statue, Paulus said she stood her ground and kept the gift. She now keeps it as a reminder that “what the legislature gives, the legislature can take away.” Throughout her career, Paulus has remained determined to fight for change when it is needed. By channeling her passions into action, she has left her footprint on Oregon’s history.
Norma Paulus LLB’62, H’99
“In all of my government positions, I saw systems and problems that needed to be realigned. Because of my legal education, I had the skills to do it.”