Maurine Neuberger; One of First Women in Senate


Maurine Brown Neuberger, the third woman elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate, has died at 94.

The elder stateswoman of Oregon Democrats had first attracted national political notice as an Oregon legislator, demonstrating to the state’s otherwise all-male House of Representatives the silliness of a ban on sale of yellow margarine.

Neuberger died Tuesday in a Portland, Ore., nursing home of a bone marrow disorder.

She served a single term in the U.S. Senate, from 1961 to 1967, becoming the 10th woman (several were appointed or elected to fill out unexpired terms) to serve in the body and only the third elected to a full term. The first was Arkansas Democrat Hattie W. Caraway, who served from 1932 to 1945, and the second was Republican Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, whose numerous terms encompassed Neuberger’s.


A high school English teacher, she married future U.S. Sen. Richard L. Neuberger in 1945 and became interested in politics as an outgrowth of working with children. That focus prodded her into strong consumer advocacy in Oregon and later in Washington.

In 1951, when she was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives and her husband was in the Oregon state Senate, the couple became the first married team of legislators in the nation’s history.

Maurine Neuberger made her mark quickly that first year, walking into the Legislature in a striped apron, carrying a mixing bowl. With those props, she graphically demonstrated just how difficult it was for consumers to mix food coloring into lard-white oleomargarine to give it the palatable appearance of real butter.

The powerful state dairy industry had won a ban against the sale of commercially colored margarine, fearing that a substitute that looked like the real thing might cut into dairymen’s profits.

The ban was lifted, and Neuberger’s memorable illustration of her point helped launch her as one of the state’s most popular politicians of the 20th century. Former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts said Wednesday that voters would have elected Neuberger to any office she sought.

In the Legislature, Neuberger also proposed bills to aid retarded children, ban a chemical bread softener and streamline state taxes.

In addition to her own work, she was a popular political wife, campaigning for her husband and participating with him in a weekly radio program and a newsletter. She also shocked (and delighted) the staid Washington, D.C., establishment by choosing to model a bathing suit (made in Oregon, she pointed out) in a charity fashion show.

When her husband died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 47 in 1960, Oregon Gov. Mark O. Hatfield, a Republican, ignored pleas from Democrats to appoint her to his unexpired term. Hatfield named a caretaker instead.

Unperturbed, Maurine Neuberger launched a campaign for election to the next full term for the seat, and swamped her Republican opponent.

In Washington, the prescient politician called for pollution controls on automobiles and took on meatpackers for artificially adding water to hams, bedding manufacturers for selling non-flame-resistant blankets, and cosmetic companies for poor labeling practices.

A former pack-a-day cigarette smoker who once underwent surgery for a throat cyst, she also was among the first in the Senate to warn of the dangers of smoking and to work for regulation of cigarettes.

In proposed legislation and her 1963 book, “Smoke Screen,” she called for education of adolescents and adults about the health problems smoking could cause, expanded research about tobacco, reform of cigarette advertising and warning labels on cigarette packages. The reforms should be funded, she said, with an increase in cigarette taxes.

“Remedial action,” she wrote, “is both justified and tardy.”

In a lighter bit of history-making, Neuberger became the first female senator to make a filibuster speech--a lengthy monologue designed to delay voting on a piece of legislation the senator opposed. Decades before political correctness came into vogue on Capitol Hill, she was headlined as “the petticoat senator,” and news stories noted that she wore a red and black print suit-dress with a black velvet collar and took off her high-heeled shoes for the last hour of her 4-hour, 30-minute talk.

Neuberger declined to seek a second term, partially, she said, because she lacked private funds and didn’t want “to be beholden to some groups for campaign money.” Remarried in 1964 to a Harvard professor, she also wanted to return to teaching.

In a 1966 interview shortly before she left the Senate, Neuberger was asked if being a woman had been a handicap in politics.

“Definitely,” she said. “This is most apparent in the campaign itself. A woman enters into a man’s world of politics, into backfighting and grubbing. Before she puts her name on the ballot, she encounters prejudice and people saying, ‘A woman’s place is in the home.’ She has to walk a very tight wire in conducting her campaign. She can’t be too pussyfooting or mousy. Also, she can’t go to the other extreme: belligerent, coarse, nasty.”

Asked about reaction from female constituents, the ever-candid Neuberger said: “Some of the meanest, most nit-picking opposition comes from women. They’re jealous of you.”

Memorial contributions can be made to the Portland State University Foundation for the Richard L. and Maurine B. Neuberger Scholarship or to Planned Parenthood of Columbia/Willamette, Ore.