Mary Wendy Roberts

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Mary Wendy Roberts
6th Oregon Commissioner of Labor
In office
January 1, 1979 – January 2, 1995
Preceded by Bill Stevenson
Succeeded by Jack Roberts
Oregon State Senate
In office
Oregon Legislative Assembly
In office
Personal details
Born (1944-12-19) December 19, 1944 (age 72)
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Alma mater University of Oregon
University of Colorado Boulder
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Mary Wendy Roberts (born December 19, 1944) is an American politician from the U.S. state of Oregon.

A fifth-generation Oregonian, she was the youngest woman, at 27, ever elected to the Oregon Legislative Assembly. She was elected to the Oregon State Senate in 1974. In 1978, at 33, she became the first woman Democrat to win Oregon statewide office, serving for 16 years as Oregon Commissioner of Labor, the chief executive of the state agency that enforces the state civil rights and wage-hour laws, and oversees apprenticeship programs.[1] She was the first woman to be elected to such a position, traditionally held by men, in the United States.

She is a member of the Roberts political family of Oregon, based in Portland.

Early life and career[edit]

The first child of Oregon politician Frank L. Roberts and his first wife Mary Louise, Roberts attended Portland grade schools and graduated from West Linn High School in Clackamas County in 1962. She attended the University of Oregon as an Honors College student, earning a BA degree in political science in December 1965. She studied at the Chinese-Japanese Language Institute, University of Colorado Boulder on a full fellowship. She received her MA degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Roberts worked as a caseworker with the State Public Welfare Department in Portland and then as a counselor for the Multnomah County juvenile court.

Legislative career[edit]

Roberts was elected in 1972 to the Oregon House of Representatives and was appointed in her freshman term to the Joint Ways and Means Committee which controlled the state's budget. She was elected to a term in the Oregon State Senate in 1974.[2] Her legislative achievements included: 1) The repeal of the Tip-Credit law, thus ending the practice of employers counting employees tips to reduce their obligation to pay the state minimum wage, 2) The Natural Death Act which enabled a person to file a “living will” to make binding their wishes on end of life decisions, including prohibiting artificial means to extend life (even though, brain dead, for example). 3) The ban on discrimination on the basis of pregnancy in employment. 4) The Independent Living Subsidy Act, for continued support for teenagers leaving out-of-home placements, such as foster care, transitioning them for independent living if in full-time school or employment and 5) create, site and fund the state's first secure mental health facility exclusively for children and teens, separate from adult institutions.

In the Senate Roberts was one of only three women, the most who had ever served there at once. She noted that it was very much a "men's club" but that the women worked to raise the consciousness of their colleagues. In recognition of Roberts' earnest feminism, the Senate President Jason Boe presented her with one of New York Congresswoman and feminist icon Bella Abzug's famous hats, autographed, and presented with Senate proclamation in front of the entire Senate. Her colleagues on the Ways and Means committee joined her in ridding civil service of job classifications under which males were paid more for performing the same duties as women.

Oregon Commissioner of Labor[edit]

Roberts was elected Oregon Commissioner of Labor in 1978 and reelected in 1982, 1986 and 1990.[3] She wrote the law in 1985 creating the first Wage Security Fund in the United States. It guaranteed workers up to $4,000 of owed wages left jobless by business closures.[4] She sponsored the Oregon Family Medical Leave Act, which guaranteed up to 12 weeks job-protected leave to workers—to allow time off for illness, injury or death of a family member.[5] In 1989, she fought for passage of parental leave, enforced by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. Roberts’ final orders on parental leave cases were upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court on appeal, firmly established case law. Roberts testified on the act in the United States Congress—and the federal act was patterned in part on the state law.[6] When President George H. W. Bush twice vetoed the national bill, Roberts was often quoted in The New York Times, which also published her op-ed column on the subject.[5] Roberts was in the advisory committee to the United States Department of Labor for shaping the national act and it was the first one signed by President Bill Clinton when he took office in 1993.

Roberts was an early champion of civil rights protections, on the basis of sexual orientation, winning state awards for leadership. She worked against abuses of migrant labor, getting legislation passed to address needs for better inspection of farm labor camps, civil rights protections, and more housing.[7] Other awards came from Hispanic, human resources and women’s rights groups.

Roberts was a member of international delegations: the United States Department of Labor delegation to the International Conference on Innovations in Apprenticeship in Paris, the United States delegation to China, 1980 and 2000, sponsored by the American Council of Young Political Leaders, at the behest of the United States State Department—and a school-to-work apprenticeship program in Germany, which she created, in partnership with the state of Upper Saxony.[8] She was a speaker at President Jimmy Carter’s re-election kickoff dinner and at the 1980 Democratic National Convention.[9] Roberts was president of the National Association of Government Labor Officials and of the National Apprenticeship Program Board. She was profiled in the 1983 book Images of Oregon Women, by Ellen Nichols.[10] Roberts ran for Oregon Secretary of State in 1992, and lost to incumbent Democrat Phil Keisling.[1]

Two years later, in 1994, Mary Wendy Roberts was defeated for Labor Commissioner by Republican Jack Roberts, no relation.[11]

Post-elective career[edit]

After elective office, Roberts managed real estate investments, operated a health and personal development business with her husband, and worked as a consultant to law firms on wage/hour and civil rights law. Roberts helped found and served on the Board of Directors of Green Village Schools (, a nonprofit that built and funded primary schools (for boys and girls) in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.[8] She has given speeches to help raise money for breast cancer exams for low-income women.

Personal life[edit]

Roberts married Richard Prentice Bullock in November 1976, had one child, Alexandra, born in 1980, while she was in office as Oregon Commissioner of Labor, but divorced her first husband in 1984. She married Edward E. “Rhett” Simpson in December 1994. She battled breast cancer in 2002.

The Roberts political family of Oregon[edit]

A number of Oregon state legislators and statewide officeholders in the last half of the 20th century bore the surname Roberts, including Mary Wendy Roberts. Based in Portland, they started with Frank L. Roberts and either were his spouses or children, or the spouses of clan members.

The abundance of people with the Roberts name was often confusing to the public and media. Those related to Frank Roberts were liberal Democrats, but one, Mary Wendy Roberts, was defeated in a statewide office by a Republican opponent named Roberts (Jack Roberts, who was not related. Here is a list of the related family members:


  1. ^ a b Oregon Blue Book, Oregon Secretary of State, retrieved 9-28-2013.
  2. ^ William G. Robbins, Women in Oregon Politics, The Oregon History Project, Oregon Historical Society, 2002.
  3. ^ The Oregonian, “10 Run for Labor Commissioner”, May 16, 1978.
  4. ^ Report of the Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries to the 64th Legislative Assembly Regarding the Administration of the Wage Security Fund Under 1985 Oregon Laws, Chapter 409, 1987.
  5. ^ a b Mary Wendy Roberts, “What’s Bush’s Problem With Family Leave?” The New York Times, August 30, 1991.
  6. ^ U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Subcommittee, Washington. Family and Medical Leave hearing, Feb. 2, 1989. Testimony of Oregon Labor Commissioner Mary Wendy Roberts,
  7. ^ Nicola, George T. (October 22, 2010). "Early Attempts at Oregon Gay Civil Rights". Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest. Retrieved December 11, 2013. 
  8. ^ a b Green Village Schools, Portland, Oregon. Bio of Mary Wendy Roberts,
  9. ^ Official Report of the proceedings of the Democratic National Convention: Madison Square Garden, New York City, New York, August 11 through August 14, 1980 / Dorothy Bush, secretary ; Sandra P. Perlmutter, Elizabeth C. Burke, editors.
  10. ^ Ellen Nichols, Images of Oregon Women, Madison Press.
  11. ^ Kate Brown, Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries Administrative Overview, 3-2009.