FURSE, Elizabeth

FURSE, Elizabeth
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


Born in the colonial 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 antiapartheid 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 BA 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 Portland 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 support for abortion rights a prominent feature of her campaign, which contrasted sharply with Meeker’s anti-abortion policy. She also used gender as a campaign theme, capitalizing on the outrage over the Senate’s conformation hearings of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. She echoed Democratic presidential candidate William J. (Bill) Clinton’s promises of job creation and political change in Washington and eventually went on to edge 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 against abortion rights; 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 gay servicewomen and servicemen 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 McKee Spratt Jr. 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, DC,] worthwhile.”6

In 1994 Furse won a razor-thin re-election 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 Robert William 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 Ronald Lee Wyden.

Throughout her three-term House tenure, Furse was an advocate for women’s issues as well as what she called women’s 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 Furse praised the Women’s Caucus as a space where “we could think about things we wanted to do together [and find] cosponsors. We could work as a team there and so that was very, very helpful.”9

Furse 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.10 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. “Children who do not get sufficient health care in their early years have real trouble maturing, and I believe that we need to invest in things like child health because a healthy child can prosper,” she said.11 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.”12

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.13 In 1997 she again pushed for expanded health care coverage for the then-estimated 10 million uninsured American children. Furse proposed adopting 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.”14 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 her daughter Amanda had.15

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 resided in Helvetia, a unincorporated Washington County community northwest of Portland, where she managed a winery with her husband. In 2014 she unsuccessfully ran for the position of Washington County, Oregon, commissioner.16 She died at her farm on April 18, 2021.17


1Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

2Kevin Merida, “Role of House Women’s Caucus Changes,” 15 February 1995, Washington Post: A4.

3Almanac of American Politics, 1996 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 1995): 1111–1113.

4Martin Fletcher, “A Daughter of the Empire Takes Arms Against Britain,” 27 November 1993, London Times. n.p.

5Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong., 1st sess. (11 May 1993): 2351.

6Joel Connelly, “Battles for Women in the House,” 9 June 1994, Seattle Post–Intelligencer: A1; James C. Dao, “Senate Panel Votes To Lift Ban On Small Nuclear Arms,” 10 May 2003, New York Times: 2.

7“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present."

8Interview with Furse and other women Members of Congress published in Redbook, September 1996.

9“The Honorable Elizabeth Furse Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (8 June 2017): 16. The interview transcript is available online.

10Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong., 1st sess. (14 September 1993): 6681.

11“Furse Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 28.

12Congressional Record, House, 105th Cong., 1st sess. (21 May 1997): 3148.

13Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong., 1st sess. (28 April 1993): 2109.

14Congressional Record, House, 105th Cong., 1st sess. (14 May 1997): 2657.

15Marie McCarren, “The Expert and the Activist: When Amanda Briggs Wants to Tell Congress a Thing or Two About Diabetes, She Simply Calls Her Mom,” December 1995, Diabetes Forecast 48 (no. 12): 14.

16Bob Terry, "Washington County District 4 Race: Bob Terry Wins Over Elizabeth Furse," 21 May 2014, The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com/washingtoncounty/index.ssf/2014/05/washington_county_district_4_r_2.html.

17Betsy Hammond, "Former Oregon Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse has Died," 19 April 2019, The Oregonian, https://www.oregonlive.com/politics/2021/04/former-oregon-congresswoman-elizabeth-furse-has-died.html.

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

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Elizabeth Furse" 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 - Armed Services
  • House Committee - Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs
  • House Committee - Commerce
  • House Committee - Merchant Marine and Fisheries
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