Few women in Congress have left such a substantial legacy as did Edith Starrett Green, and few have demonstrated such independence of mind and deed. From the time that she was elected to the 84th Congress (1955–1957), through her service in the nine succeeding Congresses, she left her mark on almost every education bill enacted and subsequently gained considerable influence in the Democratic Party despite her refusal to support the party’s Presidents on all issues. Though Representative Green originally supported federal aid to education and the antipoverty programs, she grew disillusioned with what she perceived as an inefficient federal bureaucracy. Her increased frustration with “big government” contributed to her eventual drift from the liberal agenda of the Democrats.
The daughter of two schoolteachers, James Vaughn and Julia Hunt Starrett, Edith Louise Starrett was born on January 17, 1910, in Trent, South Dakota. At the age of six, she and her family moved to Oregon, where she went to public schools in Salem. She attended Willamette University from 1927 to 1929 and later enrolled at the University of Oregon, where she eventually graduated in 1939. While teaching school in Salem, Oregon, in 1933, she married Arthur N. Green. The Greens raised two sons, James and Richard, but later divorced. After 11 years as an educator, Edith became an announcer at KALE radio station in Portland, Oregon, and also served as legislative chairperson of the Oregon Congress of Parents and Teachers for three years. In this leadership position, Green gained experience in state politics, advanced her knowledge of national and regional educational issues, and learned the importance of lobbying—all of which served as a valuable foundation for her future career in Congress.1
Upon the urging of friends and Democratic officials, Green ran for secretary of state of Oregon in 1952. Although unsuccessful in her bid, she garnered enough public exposure to make a competitive run for the House seat encompassing much of Portland, Oregon, and its eastern suburbs in 1954.2 After winning by a wide margin against her closest competitor, C. S. Johnston, in the Democratic primary, Green subsequently defeated the state’s future governor, Republican Tom McCall, in the general election with 52 percent of the vote.3 She became the second woman to represent Oregon in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Nan Wood Honeyman was the first in 1937.) Green went on to win her nine succeeding elections with ease, rarely facing any serious opposition.4 Although offered the opportunity to run for the U.S. Senate on three separate occasions, she opted to continue serving in the House. Citing a fondness for the seniority system, which she believed allowed women the capacity to wield power that otherwise would remain unattainable because of gender discrimination, Green also feared the steep cost of a Senate campaign would require accepting contributions with “strings attached.”5
As a recognized expert on educational policy, Green was appointed to the Committee on Education and Labor during her freshman term in the House. She served on that committee for 18 years, eventually becoming the second-ranking Democrat, a prominent position that enabled her to shape much of the social legislation of the United States. During her final term in Congress, she stepped down from her coveted committee assignment to take a seat on the influential Committee on Appropriations because, according to Green, the latter had more “action.”6 Green also served various terms on other House committees, including Interior and Insular Affairs; House Administration; Merchant Marine and Fisheries; and the District of Columbia.
Green’s legislative interests were focused on education, so much so that she earned the monikers “Mrs. Education” and “the Mother of Higher Education.”7 Due in great part to her own experience with financial hardship that forced her to withdraw from college, Green dedicated herself to drafting and endorsing legislation to provide students of all economic backgrounds the opportunity to pursue higher education. Early in her political career, Green helped secure the passage of the National Defense Education Act (1958), a bill designed to ensure that American students kept pace with their Soviet counterparts by improving science and math education. The measure established a series of loans for impoverished students and allocated graduate fellowships for prospective college instructors.8 According to Green, the deliberate addition of the word “defense” to the bill ensured its success. Conscious of the political climate of the Cold War, Green and other liberal backers of the legislation used the prevailing fear of the Soviet Union to convince conservative Members of the House that additional funds for education would strengthen American national defense. Green later speculated that the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, which set off intense fear in Washington that the Soviets were winning the nascent Space Race, “did more for American education than the Congress was ever able to do up to that time.”9
Green also authored two significant bills that changed the face of postsecondary education: the Higher Education Facilities Act (1963) and the Higher Education Act (1965). Labeled by President Lyndon B. Johnson as the “greatest step forward in the field” in 100 years, the Higher Education Facilities Act allocated federal funds for the expansion and improvement of college and university libraries, classrooms, and laboratories.10 Two years later, Green guided the passage of the Higher Education Act, which authorized the first-ever federal financial assistance for undergraduate students. She also worked to improve the Vocational Rehabilitation Act (1965) by adding a series of amendments (commonly referred to as the Green Amendments) to provide further employment training opportunities for urban youth.11
Despite insisting that she avoided feminist causes because she would “become too emotionally involved,” Green’s legislative record in Congress demonstrated a genuine commitment to advancing the rights of women. Advised as a young woman not to pursue a career as an electrical engineer because of her gender, Green spent much of her adult life attempting to eliminate the social and legal obstacles that prevented women from achieving equality. Because she believed that “a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to prove that she can do the job,” she focused on drafting legislation that would even the scales between the sexes.12 Two of her perennial concerns as a Representative, pay equity and gender equality in postsecondary education, resulted in the passage of landmark legislation that vastly improved the opportunities for American women. Signed into law in 1963, the Equal Pay Act mandated that women and men receive equal pay for equal work. Although pleased by the passage of the groundbreaking bill, Green bemoaned that it took “eight years to persuade Congress that a woman doing identical work with a man ought to be paid the same salary!”13
One of Green’s most enduring legislative triumphs was Title IX, a part of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibited federally funded colleges and universities from discriminating against women. As chair of the Subcommittee on Higher Education of the Education and Labor Committee, Green presided over seven days of hearings in which a wide range of witnesses explained the various ways women faced discrimination in postsecondary education. She set the tone for the proceedings when she exclaimed, “Let us not deceive ourselves. Our educational institutions have proven to be no bastions of democracy.”14 Green overcame opposition from many university administrators, as well as from conservative Congressmen who feared the proposed bill would force school officials to construct unisex locker rooms and admit an equal number of male and female students. When reflecting upon the passage of Title IX, she stated: “I don’t know when I have ever been so pleased, because I had worked so long and it had been such a tough battle.”15 Although Green did much to advance the rights of women, she did not always place this issue ahead of all others. For instance, because of her ardent commitment to civil rights legislation, she voted against the inclusion of the word “sex” in the Civil Rights Act (the only Congresswoman to do so), because she feared it might “help destroy” the bill.16
Early in her career, Green’s liberal record made her a recognized asset to the Democratic Party. As evidence of her high standing within the party, Green seconded the presidential nomination of Adlai Ewing Stevenson III at the Democratic National Convention in 1956, and four years later, she performed the same honor for John F. Kennedy. As a show of thanks for successfully managing his presidential campaign in Oregon, Kennedy offered Green the position of U.S. Ambassador to Canada. Green declined the offer but later accepted an appointment to Kennedy’s President’s Commission on the Status of Women.
Over time, however, Green distanced herself from the Democratic Party agenda. Though originally a vocal supporter of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society social welfare package, Representative Green grew increasingly disenchanted with the expanded role of the federal government.17 Her mistrust of big government caused her to reject much of the legislation she had worked for during the previous two decades. Fearful that federal programs had done little to alleviate the plight of the poor or to improve the quality of American education, Green advocated shifting responsibilities to state and local governments.18
At times, Green even retreated from legislation she helped push through the House, as was the case when she proposed denying federal aid to universities that failed to control student riots. Even though Green considered her suggestion “moderate,” liberal members of the Education Committee branded it repressive.19 Her ideological drift from the mainstream beliefs of her party, as well as her willingness to align with conservative southern Democrats and Republicans, triggered animosity and hostility in many of her former allies, including President Johnson.20 When asked about her shifting political stance, Green protested that she had not become more conservative, but that “ultra-liberals have moved so far to the left that they have distorted the position of all other liberals.”21 Former Oregon Senator Mark Odom Hatfield, a political contemporary and friend of Green, described the Congresswoman as a “political maverick” who crossed party lines, at times to even support the candidacy of Republican candidates such as Hatfield.22
As an independent thinker and as a Congresswoman who believed in remaining true to her principles, Green often represented the minority opinion. Throughout her career, Green had shown a propensity for staking out positions that exposed her to political criticism. As one of only seven House Members to vote against Johnson’s 1965 request for increased funds for the escalation of military involvement in Vietnam, Green remarked, “I cannot in good conscience lend myself to that kind of usurpation of congressional power.” After the measure passed, Green expressed her discontent with her congressional colleagues and with the President: “I find it impossible to understand why an admittedly unnecessary appropriation request need be mantled in a cloak of urgency and secret meaning, with full, free, and frank discussion of its merits denied.”23 Green’s steadfast determination, straightforward approach (as evidenced by her recurring campaign motto: “You Get Straight Answers from Edith Green”), and ability to make stirring speeches frequently worked to her advantage. These qualities, in conjunction with her sharp intellect, oftentimes enabled Green to persuade her colleagues to support her political agenda.24
Although virtually assured of re-election for the indefinite future, Green refused to stand for renomination to the 94th Congress (1975–1977) and resigned from the House on December 31, 1974. Two years prior to her retirement from congressional politics, Green quipped, “One thing is for certain. They won’t have to drag me out of here in a coffin—I don’t have Potomac fever.”25 Determined to leave Congress at an “appropriate time,” Green declared that “twenty years in any one job is a reasonably long time.”26 After leaving the House of Representatives, Green taught at Warner Pacific College, served as co-chair of the National Democrats for Gerald R. Ford, and in 1979 was appointed to the Oregon board of higher education. When asked to comment on her political career, Green succinctly noted, “It was plain hard work.”27 Green resided in the Charbonneau District of Wilsonville, Oregon, until her death in Tulatin, Oregon, on April 21, 1987.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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