By Tanya Monthey ::
The first female senator to be elected into the US Senate was Hattie Wyatt Caraway from Arkansas in 1932. Twenty-eight years later, Oregon elected Maurine Neuberger to become the third woman ever to be elected for the US Senate. Though many women before Neuberger had served as US Senators, they did so through appointments to fill vacancies, often those left by late husbands or fathers. As Oregon’s first elected female US Senator, Maurine Neuberger holds a place in history as one of the first few women to mount their own successful political campaigns.
Maurine Brown was born on January 9, 1906 in Cloverdale, Oregon to a country doctor and a schoolteacher. Neuberger graduated from the University of Oregon in 1929 with a degree in English and physical education, then furthered her graduate studies at UCLA. She worked as a teacher in both public and private schools before marrying Richard (Dick) Neuberger shortly after WWII.
Richard served in the Oregon House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1941 and was later elected to the Oregon Senate in 1948. Maurine sharpened her interest in politics while working on her husband’s campaigns. Maurine then won a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives in 1950 also running as a Democrat. The Neubergers were both re elected in 1952 and they were the first married couple to serve simultaneously in the house legislature.
Though both Neubergers were successful in their campaigns for the state legislature, they were outnumbered by their Republican colleagues. Their success in the Oregon legislature outlines a resurgence of the democratic party in Oregon. Part of this resurgence is attributed to a rise in female legislators. In an article published in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, Melody Rose and Tara Watson argue that the Democratic party in oregon had a hard time finding men with the time and the economic means to work for low pay in the state legislature. Starting in the 1950’s, more and more women, like Maurine Neuberger, began launching their careers in politics.
During her time in the Oregon legislature, Maurine is best remembered for her work to repeal the state ban on colored margarine. Oregon was not alone in their ban of coloring margarine. Many are unaware of the tenuous history butter has had with margarine. Margarine, being cheaper and better to keep than butter, presented a threat to the dairy industry. Margarine brought suspicion from consumers and ultimately regulations from state governments. Since uncolored margarine can look unappetizing, margarine producers took to adding yellow coloring to appear more appealing. Oregon, among other states, enacted color restrictions to protect the interests of the dairy industry. Margarine eventually became consumed more often. Especially after the financial hardships of the Great Depression and the diary shortages of WWII. Maurine Neuberger, realizing the hardships of the out of date statutes, worked to repeal the state ban. To promote her cause, Maurine wore an apron on the floor of the state legislature and demonstrated with a mixing bowl and sticks of margarine, the strenuous process of mixing coloring into margarine by hand.
In 1954, Richard beat the Republican incumbent for the US Senate. He served nearly his entire 6-year term but unfortunately, months before the end of his term, Richard, who had cancer, passed away from a brain hemorrhage. It was thought that Governor Matt Hatfield would appoint Maurine to fill her husband’s seat. Maurine had widespread bipartisan support to fill her husband’s seat. Governor Hatfield decided against it, stating that he didn’t want to appoint anyone who was running for the seat in November. Hatfield appointed instead long time Oregon Supreme Court Judge, Hull Stoner Lusk.
Originally, Maurine was unsure whether she wanted to run for the US Senate. In an interview to The Saturday Evening Post she stated:
I couldn’t think of anything except going back to Washington and getting Muffet, our cat, closing the office, and moving out of our apartment. But as I thought more about it, I began to realize I was probably as qualified as any other potential candidate. And above all, I knew in my heart that Dick would have wanted me to run.
Despite not getting appointed to fill her husband’s seat, Maurine succeeded her husband anyways when she won the Senate seat by 54% of the vote. She took office the day after the election to finish out the year of 1960, and was elected to a full 6-year term starting in 1961. Some of her most memorable work as a senator dealt with consumer rights and equal pay for equal work bills. Maurine, a former smoker herself, devoted her work in the US senate to enact regulations on the powerful tobacco industry.
Senator Neuberger served on the committees of Agriculture and Forestry, Banking and Currency, and Commerce. She was also appointed to the special committee on aging and the Committee on a parliamentary conference with Canada. After leaving the Senate, she was appointed by President John F Kennedy to serve alongside Eleanor Roosevelt on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.
She ended her career by teaching courses on consumers’ rights and American government at Boston University, Radcliffe institute, and Reed College. Maurine Neuberger died in Portland on February 22nd 2000.
Want to Learn More? Check Out:
Dick and Maurine’s book published in 1954: Adventures in Politics: We go to Legislature
And her book published in 1963: Smoke Screen: Tobacco and the Public Welfare
Eleanor Roosevelt’s margarine commercial on YouTube
- History, Art, and Archive of the US House of Representatives
- Kimberly Jensen, “Maurine Neuberger 1906-2000,” Oregon Encyclopedia
- Rebecca Rupp, “The Butter Wars: When Margarine was Pink,” National Geographic
- Gerry Strey, “The Oleo Wars: Wisconsin’s Fight over the Demon Spread,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History
- Robert Cahn, “Madam Senator from Oregon” The Saturday Post, Jan 7 1961
- Tara Watson and Melody Rose, “ She flies with her own Wings: Women in the 1973 Oregon Legislative Session,” Oregon Historical Quarterly
“Feasting on the Flowers” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Tanya Monthey, Project Manager
Taylor Bailey, Fact Checker
Contributor, William Schneider