Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


Jolene Unsoeld’s passion for the environment and government transparency shaped a public service career that eventually took her to the U.S. House of Representatives. Serving a Washington state district that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Cascade Mountains, each of Unsoeld’s congressional campaigns tested her ability to serve a constituency of diverse business and environmental interests. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in a marathon relay race,” Unsoeld once said of her grueling campaigns. “I’m running alone, but they keep sending in replacements. I wipe them out, and they send in more.”1

Jolene Bishoprick was born on December 3, 1931, in Corvallis, Oregon, one of four children born to Stanley and Cora Bishoprick. Her father was in the timber business and moved his family between Oregon, China, and Washington State with each new job assignment, finally settling in Vancouver, Washington. From 1949 to 1951, Jolene Bishoprick attended Oregon State College in Corvallis. There, she met mountaineer and environmental advocate William (Willi) Unsoeld who, together with Tom Hornbein, was one of the first climbers to ascend Mount Everest’s treacherous West Ridge. Unsoeld and Bishoprick announced their engagement at the top of Mount Saint Helens before marrying in Vancouver, Washington. Jolene Unsoeld, also an accomplished mountaineer, became the first woman to climb Wyoming’s Grand Teton via its north face.2 The Unsoelds eventually raised four children, two girls and two boys: Nanda Devi, Regon, Krag, and Terres. Willi Unsoeld directed the Peace Corps in Kathmandu, Nepal, and served with the U.S. Agency for International Development from 1962 to 1967. Jolene Unsoeld worked as director of an English-language institute. The family returned to the United States in 1967 and settled in Olympia, Washington, in 1970.3

While living in the state capital, Jolene Unsoeld took an interest in politics as a self-described “citizen meddler,” recalling, “We had moved to Olympia, and there was the state Capitol, so I set out to see what was happening under that dome.”4 Unsoeld successfully lobbied for a 1972 bill in the state legislature that created Washington’s public disclosure act. Subsequently serving as a self-appointed watchdog for special interest groups, she authored two editions of the book, Who Gave? Who Got? How Much?, which revealed major interest groups’ contributions to politicians in the Washington legislature.

Tragedy marked her early life in public service; twice, in a span of less than three years, Unsoeld lost family members in mountain-climbing accidents. In September 1976, 22-year-old Nanda Devi died while ascending the Himalayan mountain for which she was named.5 In March 1979, Willi Unsoeld was one of two people killed in an avalanche while climbing Mount Rainier.6 ”Living beyond grief is probably as hard a thing as you ever tackle,” Jolene Unsoeld observed years later. “It does toughen you, which is necessary if you’re going to be in this type of [public] service.”7 In 1984, Unsoeld won an open state legislature seat, where she specialized in environmental issues. From 1980 through 1988, she also served as a member of the Democratic National Committee.

In 1988, building on support from her grassroots environmental activities, Unsoeld entered the race for the open seat in a western Washington district when seven-term incumbent Representative Don Leroy Bonker, a Democrat, ran for the U.S. Senate. The district encompassed much of southwest Washington. Its boundaries stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Cascade Mountain range further east, and from the state capital Olympia in the north to the Columbia River and border with Oregon in the south. Fishing and lumber production were the primary industries in the largely Democratic district, populated by a number of blue-collar workers. However, the district was increasingly divided between moderates concerned with job creation and liberal reformers and environmentalists.8 In the Democratic primary, Unsoeld captured 50 percent of the vote, defeating John McKibbin, a Clark County commissioner and a moderate who portrayed Unsoeld as being too liberal for the district.9

In the general election, Unsoeld faced Republican Bill Wight, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and native of the area who had returned in 1988 after a long tour of duty at the Pentagon. Wight ran on an economic development and anti-drug, anti-crime platform. He portrayed Unsoeld as an environmental extremist and an ultra-liberal feminist. Unsoeld countered by stressing her local ties to the community and highlighting Wight’s carpetbagger status as “the hometown boy from the Pentagon.”10 She also ran an energetic campaign, driving her own car from stop to stop around the district (usually unaccompanied by staff) to address town meetings, business gatherings, or union groups. Her willingness to stick to her convictions, especially on the environment, eventually won the admiration of even those who opposed her.11 The election was the closest House race in the country that year. Unsoeld prevailed with a 618-vote margin of victory, out of more than 218,000 votes cast; she was declared the winner after a recount, five weeks after election day.12

In the House, Unsoeld received assignments to three committees: Merchant Marine and Fisheries; Education and Labor; and the Select Committee on Aging. The Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee was particularly important to Unsoeld’s career-long goal to support environmental legislation while protecting the fishing and logging industries important to her district. She focused much of her energy on saving U.S. Pacific salmon runs from Japanese fishermen, who used controversial drift nets (some 30 miles in length) which swept vast ocean areas of all marine life. In 1989 Unsoeld told a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that foreign fishing operations were “stealing” $21 million in U.S. salmon annually.13 In late 1989, when the U.N. banned all use of drift nets, Unsoeld hailed it as “a major breakthrough.” She added, “The next step is to ensure strict enforcement. Drift nets are a horribly destructive technology.”14

Unsoeld also advocated restrictions on the timber industry, to prevent what she described as “over-cutting” in old-growth forests in order to sustain the business and also to protect the natural habitats of endangered species. She backed a ban on timber exports also supported by the George H. W. Bush administration, noting that as much as 25 percent of all exported logs never passed through American mills. With environmental regulations threatening several thousand jobs in her district alone, Unsoeld attempted to appease the timber industry by pushing for federal money to retrain laid off lumber workers. “Our over-cutting, our mismanagement of the forest, our export of raw logs, all are to blame for the situation we’re in,” Unsoeld said, noting that her grandfather and father worked in the industry. “It’s a difficult and complex situation. People criticize me because they are emotional, they feel threatened. I understand that.... Nobody who knows anything about the forest believes we can continue cutting the way we have.”15 In 1991 she sought a ban on oil and gas drilling off the coast of Washington state, eventually achieving a nine-year moratorium.16

Unsoeld’s environmental positions made her an endangered incumbent during her 1990 bid for re-election. “I know we’ll have to put together an obscene amount of money,” she told the New York Times months before the race.17 That instinct was correct, as Unsoeld raised a record $1.3 million and took part in the most expensive House race in state history.18 Unsoeld faced Gomer Robert Williams in the general election, a former Washington state legislator and the 1988 GOP candidate for governor. Williams had strong backing from both fundamentalist Christian groups and the timber industry. One of the most contentious campaign issues was the federal intervention to save the endangered spotted owl and its old-growth forest habitat. It was an environmental preservation policy that directly threatened the logging industry. Unsoeld supported protecting the bird and Williams capitalized on this unpopular position while also pegging her as a “tax-and-spend liberal.”19 In addition, Unsoeld had problems with her liberal base when she switched her position on the gun control debate midterm. After supporting restrictions in 1988, she opposed a strict assault weapons ban, instead authoring a successful amendment that banned only assault weapons assembled in the U.S. with foreign parts.20 Despite her odds, Unsoeld eventually defeated Williams by about 13,000 votes out of nearly 178,000 cast, a 54 percent margin. In 1992 riding Democratic presidential candidate William J. (Bill) Clinton’s coattails, Unsoeld defeated Republican Pat Fiske with her largest plurality—56 percent.

Unsoeld faced a tough battle for re-election in 1994. In a bruising open primary she weathered an assault by Republican Tim Moyer, a millionaire businessman and moderate who painted her as a model for a big-spending Congress. Moyer’s campaign eventually fell apart when his tax record was called into question; however, in the general election, Moyer’s mentor, the conservative populist Linda Smith, took up his slack. Smith was a champion of tax limits and maintained statewide recognition as the proponent of a measure that placed caps on state spending. She also had a large base of fundamentalist Christian backers, who campaigned actively on her behalf. Running on the “Contract with America,” Smith won by a 14,000-vote margin out of more than 192,000 votes cast, 52 percent to Unsoeld’s 45 percent. A third-party candidate who supported gun control won three percent of the vote.

After leaving Congress in January 1995, Unsoeld has continued to advocate environmental reform and government transparency. “I believe all activism comes about because you see something that drives you crazy, and you want to do something about it,” she once told an interviewer.21 Jolene Unsoeld died on November 28, 2021, in Olympia, Washington.22


1Michael Paulson, “Always a Fight to the Finish for Unsoeld; Liberal Incumbent Is ‘A Good Target,’ Says Longtime Supporter,” 25 October 1994, Seattle Post-Intelligencer: A1.

2Paulson, “Always a Fight to the Finish for Unsoeld”; “Flag Guided Everest Pair Up West Ridge,” 26 May 1963, Los Angeles Times: F1.

3“Willi Unsoeld, Mountaineer, in Mount Rainier Avalanche” 6 March 1979, Washington Post: C4; “Democrat Jolene Unsoeld,” 23 October 1994, The Columbian (Vancouver, WA): A8.

4See Dennis Farney, “Unsoeld, Her Mountains Climbed and Tragedies Past, Is Again Caught Between Man and Nature,” 19 September 1990, Wall Street Journal: A24; quotation is cited in Paulson, “Always a Fight to the Finish for Unsoeld.”

5“U.S. Climber Dies on Peak Whose Name She Bore,” 18 September 1976, New York Times: 4.

6“Willi Unsoeld, Mountaineer, In Mount Rainier,” 6 March 1979, Washington Post: C4.

7Paulson, “Always a Fight to the Finish for Unsoeld.”

8Politics in America, 1990 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1989): 1582.

9David Ammons, “Two Congressmen Battle in Democratic Senate Primary; Republican Coasts,” 21 September 1988, Associated Press.

10Politics in America, 1990: 1582.

11Paulson, “Always a Fight to the Finish for Unsoeld.”

12Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

13Philip Shabecoff, “Pact Reached to Monitor Japan’s Fishing Practices,” 18 May 1989, New York Times: A29.

14Paul Lewis, “Agreement Is Reached at the U.N. To End Use of Drift Fishing Nets,” 14 December 1989, New York Times: A5.

15Timothy Egan, “Debate Over Logging Means Trouble for Incumbent in Washington State,” 25 September 1990, New York Times: A18.

16“U.S. Seeks To Limit Oil Drilling Off Washington State Coast,” 23 August 1991, New York Times: D18.

17Robin Toner, “Freshman Legislator Girds for Bruising Campaign,” 22 August 1989, New York Times: A20.

18Paulson, “Always a Fight to the Finish for Unsoeld.”

19“The 1990 Campaign: The Next Congress, in the Making—West,” 8 November 1990, New York Times: B9.

20Martin Tolchin, “Battle Over Assault Weapons Bill,” 15 October 1990, New York Times: B7.

21“Jolene Unsoeld: ‘An Awe of Nature,’” February 2000, https://web.archive.org/web/20030307160216/http://www.olywa.net/speech/march00/Jolene.html.

22Lauren Ellenbecker, "Former 3rd District Rep. Jolene Unsoeld Dies at Age 89," 30 November 2021, The Columbian, https://www.columbian.com/news/2021/nov/29/former-rep-jolene-unsoeld-dies-at-age-89/.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

The Evergreen State College
Special Collections

Olympia, WA
Papers: ca. 1971-1988, 82 cubic feet. The collection contains pre-congressional papers, documenting Jolene Unsoeld's service as a lobbyist, her Congressional service, and Democratic Party activities. The collection is currently unprocessed but a preliminary inventory is available: http://archives.evergreen.edu/SpecialCollections/HomeUnsoeldJ.htm. .

University of Oklahoma
The Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive, Department of Communication

Norman, OK
Videocassettes: 1990, 5 commercials on 3 videocassettes. The commercials used during Jolene Unsoeld's campaign for the 1990 U.S. congressional election in District 3 of Washington, Democratic Party.

Washington State Historical Society

Tacoma, WA
Papers: In the Curt Pavola Papers, 1980-2000, 10.5 linear feet. Correspondents include Jolene Unsoeld.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Jolene Unsoeld" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Education and Labor
  • House Committee - Merchant Marine and Fisheries
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Aging
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