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Maurine Neuberger, whose pioneering political career ranged from a legendary margarine-mixing demonstration in the Oregon House to election to the U.S. Senate, died of a bone marrow disorder at a Portland nursing home. She was 94.
Elected in 1960 to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of her husband, Richard, she championed consumer protection, was an early opponent of the tobacco industry and in her long retirement years came to be the venerated elder stateswoman of Oregon Democrats.
A former high school English teacher in Portland, she was the third woman elected to the U.S. Senate and the only one to serve in the legislative body from Oregon.
The Neubergers gained notice in 1951 as the first married couple in U.S. history to serve together in a legislature, he in the Oregon Senate and she in the House.
It was Maurine Neuberger, however, who earned the bigger headlines that year when she battled the state’s then-powerful dairy industry over a law forbidding the sale of yellow margarine in Oregon. Donning a striped apron, she pulled out a mixing bowl in the House and showed her colleagues — all of them men — just how much work it took to mix food coloring into the lard-white butter substitute.
The ban was lifted, and her culinary demonstration became part of Oregon political lore. Friends remembered her as a candid, personable and occasionally tough politician who helped shape the model for how women could successfully serve in public office.
“The one thing about Maurine was, she always said where she stood,” recalled former Gov. Barbara Roberts, a fellow Democrat. “She was very popular. I can remember that people used to say that she could run for anything in the state and be elected.”
After serving a six-year term in the Senate, Neuberger left in 1967 to teach and, two years later, to settle once again in Portland. There, she became mentor to a new generation of political women and supported a number of liberal causes. Her endorsement was frequently sought by Democratic politicians, and she had a lively social life that continued until less than two months before her death.
“Every good cause in Oregon seemed to have Maurine’s name on it,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “She’s been the model of Oregon’s good citizen.”
Neuberger once said it wasn’t easy being a pioneering woman in politics.
“Before she puts her name on the ballot, she encounters prejudice and people saying, ‘a woman’s place is in the home,”‘ she explained in a 1966 interview. “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.”
Early Years in Oregon
Maurine Brown was born on Jan. 9, 1906, in the Tillamook County town of Cloverdale. Her father was a physician and her mother a dairy farmer — an irony noted after her margarine-mixing episode.
She graduated from the University of Oregon in 1929 and became a teacher in Portland in 1932. She taught physical education and then became an English teacher, the kind with impeccable grammar, at Lincoln High School. Years later, after her Senate career, she served on a committee that advised the American Heritage Dictionary on proper usage.
In 1945 she married Richard Neuberger, who before serving as an Army captain in World War II had already distinguished himself as one of the Northwest’s pre-eminent journalists. Neuberger wrote for a flurry of magazines and newspapers about the region’s politicians and its economic, cultural and environmental battles. He had also served in the Oregon House in the 1941 session, and he and Maurine soon turned their full attention to politics.
He won a seat in the state Senate in 1948 and she won her House seat in 1950. Both were elected again in 1952, with Maurine winning more votes. Together, they helped revitalize a Democratic Party that had been all but eclipsed by Republicans, who held every political office of weight in the state.
“There were so few Democrats that Dick used to say, ‘Maurine and I caucus in bed,”‘ recalled Mike Katz, an economics professor at Portland State University who had worked on the Senate staffs of both Neubergers.
While Richard was clearly the most driven and politically ambitious of the two, Maurine campaigned with him every step of the way when he challenged a Republican incumbent, Guy Cordon, in the 1954 U.S. Senate race.
Richard recalled in a 1955 article for Harper’s Magazine that Maurine was the one crowds wanted to see on the campaign trail.
“In the 10 years we have been married, I have yet to see Maurine act deviously,” he wrote. “Although caginess is presumed to be a prerequisite for politics, she has marched to the top of the ballot blurting out exactly what is on her mind.”
Shaking Up the U.S. Capitol
Neuberger won the election, and Maurine joined him in Washington, D.C., after she finished her own legislative session in Salem in 1955. Three years later, she kicked up a national fuss when she participated in a Democratic fund-raiser that featured Senate wives modeling clothes from their home state.
Neuberger, still trim from her years of modern dance and physical education, wore a sleek, black swimsuit from Jantzen. The resulting photo made newspapers around the country as pundits debated whether she had besmirched the solemnity of the Senate.
Even after she became a senator, she still faced questions about her choice of garb.
“Well, what’s so bad about it?” she said in a 1961 interview on national television. “If I go swimming, I do wear a bathing suit, you know.”
Her husband’s Senate career was cut short by a series of health problems that began with testicular cancer and ended in his death from a cerebral hemorrhage on March 10, 1960, at the age of 47.
Then Gov. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Oregon, ignored pleas from Democrats to appoint Maurine to fill the last nine months of her husband’s term. Instead, he chose a caretaker.
She quickly decided to run on her own and, amid the public emotion around Neuberger’s death, swamped her Republican opponent, Elmo Smith, in the November election. She didn’t have a lot of role models. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine, was the only other woman in the Senate (the first woman elected to the post was Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, in 1932).
In office, Mrs. Neuberger followed her husband’s political liberalism while focusing many of her efforts on consumer issues. A reformed pack-a-day smoker, she sponsored one of the first bills to require warning labels on cigarette packaging and even wrote a book attacking the tobacco industry.
She took on meat packers for artificially adding water to hams, bedding manufacturers for selling blankets that weren’t flame-resistant and cosmetics firms for their packaging practices. She also called for pollution controls on autos, years before they became a reality.
“No industry I know of has ever been able to regulate itself to the interest of the consumer public,” she once declared.
T.K. Olson, her former legislative director, recalled that Neuberger, after watching an airline charge her niece extra for overweight baggage, had her staff investigate. They found out that the airlines made a nice profit on the charges, which were no longer necessary because the new jets could easily accommodate the extra weight.
Armed with that knowledge, he said, she pushed the industry into dropping the charges. “And that’s why you don’t have to pay that anymore,” he said. “It was all a result of Maurine seeing her niece off at the airport.”
Still, the Senate wasn’t as intoxicating to her as it had been to her husband, who had rapidly amassed power in his short time there. And while Richard had openly feuded with the state’s other senator, the even more headstrong Wayne Morse, Maurine had a more correct but still chilly relationship with Morse.
Things weren’t helped that Morse increasingly came to oppose the Vietnam war, while Mrs. Neuberger was a largely unquestioning supporter of President Johnson’s war policies. She also found herself at loggerheads over judicial appointments and other issues with Rep. Edith Green, D-Ore., the other woman in the Oregon delegation.
Bill to Create Park Fails
One of her bigger disappointments was her failure to pass a bill both she and her late husband had sought to create a national park at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. She thought it would bring international tourism to the state’s coast, but it was heavily opposed by local residents, and the legislation was blocked by Morse.
She remarried — to Boston psychiatrist Philip Solomon in 1964 — and decided to leave the Senate after one term. She said she didn’t want to be beholden to large campaign contributors in what she expected to be an expensive re-election campaign. Some also thought she had tired of the long hours of the Senate and didn’t relish the prospect of running against Republican Hatfield, who succeeded her.
She moved to Cambridge, where she taught at Boston University and Radcliffe and was part of the social and academic circle surrounding the Kennedy family. She came to oppose the Vietnam War and supported Robert F. Kennedy in the 1968 presidential race.
Her marriage to Solomon ended in 1967, and in 1969 she moved back to Oregon and settled into Northwest Portland.
“She grew old in the most graceful fashion,” said Katz, her former aide.
In addition to serving on a consumer advisory panel for Presidents Johnson and Carter, Neuberger indulged her love of gardening, travel and bridge. Friends say she remained mentally sharp throughout her life and, well into her 90s, could talk at length about current political developments. Wyden remembers seeing Mrs. Neuberger shortly after he peppered tobacco executives with tough questions about the addictiveness of nicotine at a widely publicized congressional hearing in 1994.
“Her exact words were, ‘Stay after them.'”
— by Jeff Mapes, Courtesy of The Oregonian, Portland, February 23, 2000
Politics: Women’s New Frontier
Maurine Neuberger, a member of the First Unitarian Society of Portland, Oregon, wrote an article published in The Christian Register issue of May 1955, from which these lines come:
My direct interest in politics developed when my husband ran for office and was elected to the State Senate. I found it exciting to plan campaign procedure, to attend meetings and talk with voters about legislation. Needless to say, I learned more about my state, its constitution, and its legislative procedure, than I could have hoped to know through any other educational program.
Not every woman has the freedom from home and family that I have; therefore she cannot participate by running for public office. But there are women who can and who do make a great contribution to themselves and their community.
My husband and I have found it a great asset to work as a team in our political life, as well as in our professional life as a writer and photographer pair.
We women in active politics and you women at home cannot live in this “changing world” without having a desire and a duty to let your thoughts be known. You have never before had such opportunities to be informed and stirred by the events of each day. Besides the usual methods of communication of world events, your minister now discusses the topics of the day and ventures to express an opinion in the field of politics. This is a far cry from the days of Jonathan Edwards and the ministration of fire and brimstone.
It is a woman’s world as well as a man’s world, and I see from the evidence around me that women are not going to shirk their part.
Neuberger, Maurine, 1907-2000
Years of Service: 1960-1967
NEUBERGER, Maurine Brown, (wife of Richard L. Neuberger), a Senator from Oregon; born Maurine Brown, January 9, 1907 in Cloverdale, Tillamook County, Oreg.; attended the public schools, Oregon College of Education at Monmouth 1922-1924, the University of Oregon 1928-1929, and the University of California at Los Angeles 1936-1937; teacher in Oregon public schools 1932-1944; member, State house of representatives 1951-1955; writer and photographer; member, board of directors, American Association for the United Nations; elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of her husband, Richard L. Neuberger, and served from November 9, 1960, to January 3, 1961; also elected in 1960 for the term commencing January 3, 1961, and ending January 3, 1967; was not a candidate for reelection in 1966; lecturer on consumer affairs and the status of women; teacher of American government at Boston University, Radcliffe Institute, and Reed College; was a resident of Portland, Oreg. until her death on February 22, 2000.
Neuberger, Maurine B. Smoke Screen: Tobacco and the Public Welfare. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.
Neuberger, Richard L. Adventures In Politics: We Go To The Legislature. New York: Oxford Press, 1954.
— Courtesy of the U.S. Senate Historical Office
Other Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
Chamberlin, Hope. A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress. New York: Praeger Publishes, 1973.
Neuberger, Richard L. “My Wife Put Me in the Senate.” Harper’s Magazine, June 1955, pp 40-45.