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Documenting the Life of Norma Paulus

May 11, 2017

Author Gail Wells joins us today to reflect on her and Pat McCord Amacher's work to help tell the story of Norma Paulus, the first woman to be elected to state-wide office in Oregon. The Only Woman in the Room provides an unprecedented look into Paulus's life and work-- a career in public service that spanned nearly 30 years-- with lively anecdotes that will appeal to everyone from historians to everday citizens.

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When Jennifer Viviano called me in the spring of 2013 and asked me to collaborate on a biography of her mother-in-law, Norma Paulus, I eagerly accepted. I admired Norma, and that would have been reason enough. I also relished the prospect of another tour through that brief, bright time in Oregon politics, the mid-1960s through the mid-'70s, when Governor Tom McCall and a forward-thinking legislature seemed to be moving our state into a new era of equality, prosperity and environmental health.

I came of age in Oregon during those years, a bookish, idealistic high-school girl. I'd revisited the territory four decades later when I collaborated with Betty Roberts on her autobiography, With Grit and By Grace (also part of OSU Press's Women and Politics in the Pacific Northwest series).

Betty was a Democrat and Norma is a Republican, but they were sisters across the aisle-- key members of a feisty legislative women's caucus that helped pass landmark laws that ensured women's and consumers' rights and established an enduring (so far) land-use planning system. They were women I looked up to. I was grateful to be invited into their world long enough to help each tell her story.

I discovered, however, that telling Norma's story presented a distinct challenge. She had recorded many hours of oral history, and there were boxes and boxes of documents-- newspaper clippings, floor notes from her time in the legislature, campaign memos, transcripts of speeches, meeting minutes, and other materials. But she had not written a manuscript, and by the time Pat and I got to work she was in poor health and was unable to sit for any more interviews.

So, with her and her family's blessing, we reconstituted her story from the oral history and other materials, augmenting these with interviews of friends and family members. We did not try to "be" Norma; we didn't feel comfortable ghosting ourselves in a false first-person narrative. So we told the story in the third person, using our own words, but always striving to infuse the storytelling with Norma's spirit.

With all due modesty, we think it's a terrific story. Norma gets the credit for that, of course. She was certainly a pioneer for women in public life, but she is also a complex and extraordinarily interesting person. We did our best to let Norma's light shine through the simple, prescribed contours of "role model."

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