Vicki Berger

Representative Vicki Berger was elected to represent House District 20 in the Oregon House of Representatives and has been reelected to that position in subsequent elections.

On Wednesday February 15, 2012 Representative Vicki Berger responded to questions regarding woman suffrage by interviewers Meagan Beisley, Christopher Freeman, and Allison Barker. Representative Berger focused on her personal experiences as an office holder, as well as the inspiration she drew from various women in her family. Coming from a long line of Salem-based Oregonians, Representative Berger offers Oregon a unique vision both as a woman and as a dedicated public servant.

Q:  Please share your views on the importance of a woman’s vote. What has been important in the past and how does that compare to the present?

Response: Representative Vicki Berger grew up in Salem, Oregon next door to her grandparents, who were also longtime residents of Salem. Berger expressed how this contributed to closeness with her grandparents. She then shared a personal story regarding her grandmother, May Steusloff and her grandmother’s sister Dorothy Steusloff. According to Berger, both women attended and graduated from Oregon State University. However, upon graduation there was no federal amendment guaranteeing women across the nation the right to vote, and there wouldn’t be for the next three years. Berger recalls being astonished that two college-educated women were not granted a federally guaranteed right to vote, though they were lucky enough to have gained the right in Oregon.

Regarding the current importance of woman’s vote, Representative Berger emphasized that half of the population are women and have different issues than men. Not necessarily more important, but different nonetheless and need to be heard in order to have a participatory democracy. As she stated, “…If you don’t have everyone participating, it’s not working. So … it couldn’t be more important both on a policy level, on a personal level, and also on sort of this human level of inclusionary democracy.”

Q: What and who inspired you to run for office?

Response: Representative Berger never saw herself becoming a politician. In our society, politicians have been given a bad reputation, which Berger believes is unfair “because we have to have politicians. It’s… like the lawyer thing, everybody likes to rank on lawyers, but you wouldn’t go into a courtroom without one … Politicians are a part of our democracy.” Berger cites her previously mentioned grandmother as a source of inspiration, but her mother, Kay Chambers, was a major influence on her decision to run for office.

Having grown up in the 1950s in a traditional family with a working father and stay-at-home mother, Berger notes that it was a very authoritative era. Her mother however, was very vocal and active politically. When Berger was eleven, her mother ran for Marion County Commissioner as one of twelve candidates. It was a very different time for women in politics.

When women ran for office it was generally for the seat previously held by their husbands. Berger notes that there were certainly some very courageous women running for office at the time, but it was “not the model.” As a result, when her mother placed sixth in the election, Berger was both self-conscious and very proud. In part from this experience, when it came to running for office there wasn’t an issue of gender. In addition, her father, Richard Chambers, was active as a citizen advocate in the Oregon State Legislature. Representative Berger noted that both sides of her family, mother and father, were key inspirational figures; her mother as a woman running for office and her father for introducing legislative experience as an option.

Q: What are the challenges and rewards for women who participate in politics through campaigns and office holding?

Response: Representative Berger stated: “I think everybody should run for public office in the United States at some point.” She explained that running a campaign both gives a person a different perspective of American politics and helps the individual learn more about their own self and core values. Berger wishes there were more elections like the twelve-candidate election in which her mother ran, noting that her mother learned a great amount about herself even with a losing ballot.

Regarding issues for women candidates, Berger names one of the biggest issues as child rearing. Women in the past had thought they could “have kids and do it all,” but that is not always the case. Representative Berger at one point wanted to attend law school, but made the choice to support and care for her first child. Berger had been interested in politics since her college years. She made the choice to raise her children and work to help pay for their college instead of immediately pursuing her political ambitions. She feels it is very taxing to take energy away from activities centered around children and put it to running a campaign. “[This] is equally hard for men, but for women it just becomes sometimes insurmountable.  And it’s a personal choice thing.”

Representative Berger held her first political office as a school board member beginning in 1988 and served four years, after which she realized something was missing. While the job skills she learned were useful and her job was very important, Berger knew that she was missing out on her children’s lives and events, and they were missing her in turn. Berger then made the personal choice not to run for reelection.

One of the things Berger faced as both a challenge and a reward was public speaking.  She recalls, “I was so shy in high school… you couldn’t have gotten me to speak up for anything. And here I am in this full public sphere. I learned that, and I learned it deliberately.”

Berger noted that public speaking is something that holds many people back in American politics, especially women. She cites self-consciousness and body image as contributing factors that can lead women to fear public speaking. She emphasized that if public speaking is the only thing holding a woman back from running for office, “change it. You can change it… The person that stands up and articulates the vision is the leader, and if women want to be seen as leaders in any venue, they need to be the people that stand up and articulate the vision.”

Q: What have you done and what can Oregonians do to promote civic participation?

Response: Representative Berger talked about the “ugly dynamic of partisanship” and how in our current political arena a person must wave some sort of partisan flag rather that discussing themselves and their ideas as a whole. Because of our present means of information gathering, people look for “news sources” to reaffirm their own opinion rather than challenge their thoughts. Berger spoke to the nature of this, saying that if we “continue to just affirm ourselves into little locked cabinets, we don’t have a consensus-building dialogue. And that’s where we get the gridlock that we see.”

Berger names Washington D.C., as a “poster child” for this behavior. She is sure to note that those in D.C., are not stupid, nor do they refuse to compromise, but they have been “locked into these ideologic[al] cabinets” through the election process. Instead of it being possible for politicians to be open minded, they are trapped by “promises” or “commitments” to a particular issue, which reduces their ability to compromise and collaborate.

Recognizing that there is no easy solution to this problem, Berger cautions the electorate to reassess how they think of sound-bytes they may read or hear on the news, and look into the character of a politician rather than basing all judgment on a single policy position, and be wary of affirming media that seeks to take place of thoughtful dialogue.  Berger noted that it is a dangerous time for American democracy for both men and women. We haven’t come to terms with how advances in technology have changed both how our traditional democratic process functions and how it is viewed by society.

Q: In the past you ran against Jeanne Deane and Connie Garcia. Was it different running against a woman candidate rather than a male candidate?

Response: Representative Berger reiterated that she believes everyone should run for office at some point and expressed her appreciation of the willingness of Jeanne Deane and Connie Garcia to take on an incumbent and run for office. As for noticing any difference regarding campaigning against male or female candidates, Berger did not think it made any difference. She explained that campaigning is not so much about beating a specific person, but rather an opportunity to stand up and present her own views and accomplishments. Berger did mention this on the topic of Deane’s and Garcia’s respective campaigns as well as gender differences in male versus female candidates: “For me, it’s great: two woman candidates, [be]cause I like more women candidates. But as individuals, or as components in an election, [I] don’t see it [gender] as particularly distinguishing.

Q: Do you have any other comments you would like to share?

Response: “Only that I’m glad you are doing this, for my grandmother’s sake … We take so much for granted in terms of our political… ability to affect things… My grandmother was an important part of my life and . . . for her sake I just am glad that we’re beginning to renew our … understanding of the importance of this [woman suffrage]. This is the first step to solving some of these other problems that I was talking about in terms of ideas being taken off the table and put in cabinets and opinion holding sway over ideas… So thank you for doing this.”

It was a pleasure interviewing Representative Vicki Berger. She was welcoming and well-spoken and provided us with strong information about what inspired her to become a candidate and office holder.

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