Born a colonist in the British Empire, Elizabeth Furse became an anti–apartheid activist, an advocate for migrant farm workers and Native Americans, and founder of a peace institute. She claimed her first elective office in 1992, representing a U.S. House district that encompassed suburban Portland, Oregon. Through a series of legislative initiatives, Representative Furse sought to turn the national dialogue away from its old Cold War focus to domestic reforms.
Elizabeth Furse was born a British subject in Nairobi, Kenya, on October 13, 1936. Her grandmother, Dame Katherine Furse, established the Women’s Royal Naval Service (the “Wrens”) during World War I. Her father was a naval lieutenant who later settled in the then–British colony of Kenya as a coffee planter. The family moved to South Africa, where Furse’s mother established an anti–apartheid women’s group, “Black Sash.” Elizabeth Furse marched with the group at the age of 15. In 1955, she left South Africa to live in London, where she met and married an American doctor. They moved to Los Angeles, and Furse became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1972. The couple raised two children, Amanda and John, though they eventually divorced. Furse later married John Platt. In 1974, Furse earned a B.A. at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington. In California, Furse had been active in the United Farm Workers movement led by Cesar Chavez. When she relocated to Oregon in 1978, she worked as the director of the Oregon Legal Services Restoration Program for Native American tribes from 1980 to 1986. In 1985, Furse founded the Oregon Peace Institute for nonviolent conflict resolution. With her husband, she also became the owner and operator of a vineyard.
In 1992, when suburban Portland’s Democratic Representative Les AuCoin left the House to run for one of Oregon’s U.S. Senate seats, Furse entered the race for his seat as a long–shot candidate. The district stretched from the city westward along the Columbia River to the Pacific coast and took in Washington and Yamhill counties. Furse defeated Gary Conkling, a former AuCoin aide, in the primary 60 to 40 percent, largely with support from women voters and groups, including EMILY’s List. In the general election, she faced a well–known state politician, Oregon treasurer Tony Meeker. Furse made her pro–choice position on abortion a prominent feature of her campaign, which contrasted sharply with Meeker’s pro–life policy. She also used gender as a campaign theme, capitalizing on the outrage over the Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings. She echoed Democratic presidential candidate William J. Clinton’s promises of job creation and political change in Washington and eventually went on to edged out Meeker 52 to 48 percent.1
When Furse took her seat in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), she received assignments on three committees: Armed Services; Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs; and Merchant Marine and Fisheries. In the 104th Congress (1995–1997) she resigned from her initial assignments to join the Commerce Committee. In 1995, Furse quit the Women’s Caucus to protest a Republican Member’s politicking on behalf of her 1994 election opponent who was running as an anti–abortion candidate; she expressed special contempt because her GOP colleague shared her own abortion rights position.2
Furse supported the Clinton budget in 1993 and the 1994 crime bill but opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, citing its danger to small businesses in her district. She also secured funding for Portland’s Westside Light Rail Project. During her first term, Furse introduced an amendment requiring European allies to pay for a large portion of the bill for American troops stationed on the continent.3 She also supported one of Bill Clinton’s lightning rod campaign issues: the recognition and further incorporation of gays and lesbians into the military.
From her seat on the Armed Services Committee, Furse spoke out about the problem of nuclear proliferation. She brought attention to the longtime American–British collaboration on weapons development, noting the existence of more than 40 joint working groups that had carried over into the post–Cold War era. She accused U.K. Prime Minister John Major’s government of undercutting American nuclear nonproliferation efforts. “We feed the British nuclear weapons complex, and right now they are biting the hand that feeds them,” Furse declared. “It’s a tragic irony that I, as a Member of Congress and the Armed Services Committee, can be better informed on U.K. defense matters than a British Citizen or MP.”4 After the House voted on a nuclear test ban bill in 1992 to take effect in 1996, the Pentagon pushed to lift the moratorium to allow tests of nuclear weapons under one kiloton yield. Furse, in opposing that allowance, cited the nearly half– billion yearly price tag for nuclear tests and paraphrased a line from George Orwell’s book 1984: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, a small nuclear test is not a nuclear test.”5 In 1993, she joined forces with House colleague John Spratt of South Carolina in cosponsoring an amendment to ban research and development of low–yield nuclear warheads; the measure became part of the 1994 defense authorization bill. “I introduced an amendment last year that killed an entire generation of nuclear weapons,” Furse recalled. “If I do nothing else, it makes going [to Washington, D.C.] worthwhile.”6
In 1994, Furse won a razor–thin re–election campaign against Republican Bill Witt, beating him by 301 votes out of more than a quarter–million votes cast. She raised $1.1 million in campaign funds—more than twice Witt’s total—but nearly succumbed to Witt’s strong organizational base and an electorate that widely supported the Republican “Contract with America.” In 1996, she again faced Witt but won by a more comfortable margin of 52 to 45 percent.7 She surprised political observers in 1995 by entering the Democratic primary for the seat of resigned Oregon Senator Bob Packwood, of whom Furse had been highly critical after charges of sexual harassment were made public by some of his former aides. The nomination eventually went to U.S. Representative Ron Wyden.
Throughout her three–term House tenure, Furse was an advocate for women’s issues as well as what she called their unique perspective on the meaning of “security”—both national and domestic. “The whole matter of security…men see it in terms of national defense. But what about domestic violence?” Furse said. “A woman who is living in a home where she is battered is living where there is a real war going on. We have to decide whether we’re going to continue spending too much on the Pentagon and too little on domestic security—things like safer streets and shelters for victims of domestic violence.”8 She also supported the 1993 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act after a spate of violence outside abortion clinics. “While the decision is difficult, once it is made, women should not be prevented from or harassed while exercising their rights, and physicians must be allowed to practice medicine without fear for their lives,” Furse said on the House Floor.9 In 1997, Furse cosponsored the Children’s National Security Act, an omnibus bill that included initiatives ranging from health insurance for children to health care research and education, assistance for caregivers, firearm child safety lock requirements, school construction, and economic security for families. The bill would be funded with cuts from the Pentagon budget. “I believe it’s time to change the focus of our priorities, to reflect that national security means providing children a quality education, access to health care, and a safe place to live and learn,” Furse told colleagues. “We cannot continue to invest in outdated Cold War weapons systems while we neglect our children.”10
Furse became a major proponent for affordable health care coverage and greater research into women’s health issues. As early as 1993, she supported government–funded health care, speaking out in support of the American Health Security Act.11 In 1997, she again pushed for expanded health care coverage for the then–estimated 10 million uninsured American children. Furse proposed adoption of an Oregon state program that insured children in low–income families for as little as $35 per month. Again, she cast her argument in appropriated military language: “I think what we are dealing with is a national security issue. If we do not have healthy children, we do not have healthy adults, we do not have people who can be the best and the brightest that they could be.”12 In 1996, she introduced the Women’s Health Environmental Factors Research Act, which proposed greater funding for research into synthetic compounds in the environment and their effect specifically on women. Furse also pushed for greater research and funding for diabetes, a disease which afflicted her daughter, Amanda.13
Furse, who supported term limits, announced during her third term that she would not seek re–election in 1998. After she retired from the House in January 1999, she worked as the director of tribal programs at the Institute for Tribal Government in Portland. Furse resides in Hillsboro, Oregon, where she manages a winery with her husband. In 2014, she unsuccessfully ran for the position of Washington County, Oregon commissioner.14
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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