12 Historical Women Who Changed Portland

Each year, we take a moment to pause and give our appreciation to the women of the world who have made waves in life as we know it. Women all across the globe have risen to face challenges, opened their mouths to speak about equality and change, and emblazoned their nature of being an inspiring force. Portland has had numerous of its own citizens create lasting impressions on our society and culture, so this Women’s History Month, teach your children about the women who helped shape our city into the modern day wonder it is today. Take some time and spread a little knowledge amongst your family with the following female pioneers.


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Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary

Remember Ramona Quimby? I sure do. The genius story-teller behind this widely successful series grew up in Portland, Oregon and has scattered her books with pieces of the city. Whether or not you’ve walked down Klickitat or Tillamook street, live in the Grant Park neighborhood, or even attended Beverly Cleary School, it is well worth your while to spend an afternoon exploring! Grab a copy of Ramona Quimby and herd the kids to Grant Park for an afternoon spent living in the imagined reality of Ramona by Beverly herself. Don't forget to visit the statue of Ramona Quimby while in Grant Park.

Lucille Beck

Lucille (Lou) Beck was born in Portland, Oregon in 1925 and lived out the extent of her life in this wonderful city. After graduating from Stanford in 1947, she moved back to Portland and established a life with a husband and four children. On top of her duties as a parent and an active member of PTA, Lou fell into an interest in community service and the stars aligned. With help from her partner-in-crime, Jean Siddall, they lobbied the public and political support to induct Tryon Creek Nature Preserve as Oregon’s first urban state park! They established a board of people to be involved in park programming, known then and today as Friends of Tryon Creek, and Lou remained involved in oversight of the park for 35 years. Subsequently, she was asked to join the State Parks Commission and will go down in history as the first woman to serve in such a role. Honoring Lou this month is best done by honoring Portland’s parks, so take your children out to Tryon Creek and spend the afternoon appreciating her dedication to preserving such a beautiful space.

Oregon Historical Society

Hattie Redmond

Born in Missouri, Hattie Redmond and her family moved to Oregon in 1886 on a sponsorship from a white family. She and her siblings attended Portland Colored School in southwest Portland, and as she got older, she began accompanying her father, Reuben, to meetings for the Portland Colored Immigration Society where he was secretary. This fueled Hattie’s inclination to advocate for black women’s right to vote. Beginning in the early 1900s, Hattie held suffrage meetings in her southwest neighborhood and eventually became president of the Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage Association, a pivotal piece of the Black Civil Rights movement. Did you vote this year? You can thank Hattie: she and her counterparts were instrumental in the passing of Oregon Measure 1, the Women’s Suffrage Amendment, in 1912. You may visit her grave at the Lone Fir Cemetery in SE Portland.

Tawna Sanchez

Tawna Sanchez

Tawna Sanchez is nothing short of a pioneer: her position in the Oregon legislature is preceded by only one other Native American, and Tawna is the first to represent the city of Portland. Her work as a member of the Oregon House of Representatives centers on human rights issues, targeting child welfare and foster care systems. She founded Healing Circles, a nationally recognized program whose mission stands to prevent and disrupt domestic violence situations. Tawna is a force doing great work on behalf of Portland’s children. And she walks the talk, too – Tawna Sanchez has raised eighteen foster children!

Oregon Historical Society

Mercedes Deiz

Mercedes Deiz grew up poor, the eldest of 10 children. While working during the day, she attended law school in the evenings, becoming the first Black woman admitted to the Oregon Bar, as well as the first Black woman to serve as a district court judge, and the first to be elected as a county circuit court judge. Mrs. Deiz served 22 years as a Multnomah County judge and was well known in the Albina Neighborhood for her civic action in the Urban League of Portland and the NAACP Portland.

Oregon Historical Society

Leah Hing

Leah Hing was the first Chinese American woman to earn her pilot's license, later becoming an instrument mechanic during World War II at the Portland Air Base.

Ms. Hing was a lifelong resident of the Ladd's Addition neighborhood. Ms. Hing served as president of the Portland Chinese Girls' Club and founded the Portland Chinese Girls' Orchestra, as well as serving as the general manager of the Chung Wah Hoopers, Portland’s female basketball team. She also played the saxophone and performed internationally as part of The Honorable Wu's Vaudeville Troupe.

Ms. Hing is shown in a mural of female Oregon aviators at the Portland International Airport, and her first plane is on display in the Pearson Air Museum.

Israel Bayer

Gretchen Kafoury

Being involved in the community is second nature for this history-paving woman. Gretchen served in the Oregon House of Representatives from 1977-1982, the Multnomah County Commission from 1985-1991, and on the Portland City Council from 1991-1998. She was always knee-deep in the going-ons of the city she called home. Further, Kafoury helped found the Oregon division of the National Organization for Women in 1970, as well as the Oregon Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. She spent her entire professional career advocating for the rights of women in the state of Oregon, and in 1999 joined Portland State University’s (PSU) faculty teaching courses regarding community development and houselessness. Accomplished enough? Not for Gretchen – she received her Masters in Public Administration from PSU in 2008. 

Gretchen Kafoury Commons, a nine-story apartment community, is located downtown near Portland State University. Gretchen Kafoury is also part of the Women Making History mural, located on the exterior of the building at 2335 North Clark Avenue.

Oregon Historical Society

Beatrice Morrow Cannady

Beatrice Morrow Cannady was the co-founder and vice president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP. Mrs. Cannady was also editor and owner of The Advocate, a Portland-based newspaper that reported on issues relating to racial minorities in the 1920s and 30s. Mrs. Cannady worked to remove racist, exclusionary language from Oregon's constitution and advocated for the passage of civil rights bills. Mrs. Cannady attended Northwestern College of Law and became the first Black woman to graduate from law school in Oregon and the first Black woman to practice law in Oregon.

The Beatrice Morrow apartment building, named after Beatrice Morrow Cannady can be found on NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd in the Eliot neighborhood.

Oregon Historical Society

Lola Baldwin

Does your child want to be a police officer? So did Aurora (Lola) Baldwin. She pushed back on convention and challenged gender norms by becoming America’s first female police officer on April 1st, 1908. She commanded space within the Portland Vice Commission, Portland’s Domestic Relations Court, and was named a Special Agent of the state. Her entire career was motivated by her ambition to provide equal treatment for women, in the force or behind bars. When she retired from her law enforcement duties in 1922, she continued to participate on the Oregon Board of Parole and the National Board of Prisons and Prison Labor. Want to be a police officer? Follow Lola’s lead and do whatever it takes!

Oregon Women Lawyers

Mary Gysin Leonard

Mary Gysin Leonard immigrated alone from Switzerland to Portland in her twenties. She studied law and passed the bar exam, however, the Oregon Supreme Court denied her application to the Oregon Bar because she was a woman. Mrs. Leonard persevered, and, after 10+ years of petitioning and legislative action, was finally admitted to the Oregon Bar in 1886. She was a successful attorney in Portland for decades, offering free legal advice women to help them be successful, too.

Cathy Cheney

Kim Stegeman

Kim "Rocket Mean" Stegeman is the founder and Executive Director of the Rose City Rollers, a women's flat track roller derby league and 501(c)3 non-profit. The Rose City Rollers has trained thousands of skaters from around the world and hosted hundreds of skating competitions. Rose City Rollers has over 400 members participating in recreational programs, and adult and junior skating programs with skaters ranging in age from 7 to 60 years old. Rose City's all-star travel team has won the Women's Flat Track Derby Association Championships four times. Rose City Rollers continues to train athletes, host events, and offer pop-up roller skating activities throughout Portland.

Vera Katz

Does power always have to be masculine? Vera Katz thought not, as one of her go-to slogans was “feminization of power”. And boy, did she mean it! As dominating force of the feminist movement in Oregon, she excelled through the ranks of the state legislature, elected first in 1972 and serving as mayor of Portland from 1993-2005. She was one of two women in the nation to hold the position of speaker for the Oregon House of Representatives, but was the first female to be elected presiding officer in the state of Oregon. Vera used her massive intellect and zeal for connecting with the community to push agendas for gun control and rights of minority groups. She advocated for women and gay rights, and urged progressive urban planning in the city of Oregon. Vera was instrumental in Oregon’s history; she is survived by her son Jesse Katz. 

—Hannah Judge

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