These remarkable women in Portland State history made their mark on Oregon

From the 1990 Viking yearbook, courtesy PSU Library Archives

During Women’s History Month, we salute these remarkable women in Portland State history who went on to make their mark in Oregon and the world.

Judith Ramaley

Judith Ramaley

The first woman to serve as president of a university in the Oregon State System

Dr. Judith A. Ramaley was president of Portland State University from 1990-1997, a pivotal time in the university’s history.

She served as president of Winona State University from 2005-2012, after which she became a distinguished professor of public service at Portland State.

Watch an interview with Ramaley by Liza Schade on May 22, 2020 in the PSU Library Archives, in which she discusses lessons learned during her time as president of PSU, ideas behind the new University Studies curriculum, diversifying student and faculty, and creating safer and more inclusive university spaces.


Gladys McCoy, ’67

From the Spring 1985 issue of Portland State Perspective, courtesy PSU Library Archives

First African American elected to public office in the state of Oregon

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 28, 1928, to Tilman Sims and Lucile Dawson and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, McCoy grew up during the Depression in the Jim Crow South.

The first in her family to attend college, McCoy graduated in 1949 from Talladega College in Alabama. She moved to Portland, married William McCoy, and had seven children before she decided to pursue a graduate degree at Portland State University. She received a master’s degree in social work in 1967.

During her years of service, McCoy focused on issues of diversity in public workplaces, public health programs and social services for low-income populations, and justice and human rights.

In 2018, the Multnomah County Commission adopted the Gladys McCoy Standard, which directs the county to interview qualified candidates of underrepresented groups for leadership roles in county departments.

Gladys McCoy died in Portland on April 11, 1993. Each year, the Multnomah County Office of Community Involvement presents the Gladys McCoy Lifetime Achievement Award for “volunteer service dedicated to improving the county community.”


Avel Gordly, ’74

First African American woman to be elected to the Oregon Senate

From Senator Avel L. Gordly Papers

Born Feb. 13, 1947, Avel Gordly served in the senate from 1997 to 2009. Previously, she served for five years in the Oregon House of Representatives.

Gordly graduated from Girls Polytechnic High School in 1965 and worked at Pacific Northwest Bell until 1970, when she enrolled at Portland State. She earned a degree in the administration of justice in 1974, the first person in her family to graduate from college. She went on to work for the Oregon Corrections Division as a women’s work-release counselor and later as a probation officer.

She was elected state representative from north and northeast Portland in 1992. In 1996, she was elected to the Oregon Senate, where she served from 1997 to 2009.

In 2008, OHSU opened the Avel Gordly Center for Healing, which provides mental health and psychiatric services. Gordly has also served as a professor of black studies at PSU.


Nancy Ryles

First woman to serve on the Public Utility Commission

Nancy Ryles served in the Oregon House of Representatives, the Oregon Senate and as one of three members of the state’s Public Utility Commission. She was known as an advocate for education and for equality for women and minorities. An elementary school in Beaverton is named after her.

Born Nancy Ann Wyly, she graduated from Jefferson High in Northeast Portland and was chosen as Portland Rose Festival Queen in 1955. Ryles attended Portland State and Willamette University, but did not graduate from college.

Nancy Ryles

Ryles served on the Beaverton School Board from 1972 to 1978. The Oregon Education Association gave her its Human Rights Award in 1974, and she was named Beaverton’s “First Citizen” in 1979. She was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 1978, the Oregon Senate in 1982, and was appointed to the Oregon Public Utility Commission in 1987.

In July 1990, Ryles was diagnosed with brain cancer. She died in September at age 52. Her early death gave her farewell speech to the Senate added poignance: “The challenge then is to do the best we can … wherever we are … in whatever time we have. I hope I have done that.”

Before she died, a group of Ryles’ friends decided to honor her legacy by creating a scholarship in her name. She insisted that it go to students who returned to school at PSU after their education was interrupted.


Betty Roberts, ’58

From Honorable Betty Roberts Papers, courtesy PSU Library Archives

First woman to serve on the Oregon Supreme Court and the Oregon Court of Appeals

Betty Roberts was the 83rd Associate Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, the highest state court in Oregon.

She was the first woman on the Oregon Supreme Court and the first woman on the Oregon Court of Appeals. Roberts served from 1982 to 1986 on the high court and from 1977 to 1982 on the Court of Appeals. She graduated from Portland State College in 1958.

A native of Kansas and raised in Texas, Roberts had previously been elected to both chambers of the Oregon Legislative Assembly, but lost bids for the governor’s office and the United States Senate, both in 1974. She was married three times, including to Frank L. Roberts and Keith Skelton, both of whom she would serve with in the Oregon Legislative Assembly.

She was a private mediator and senior judge until her death due to pulmonary fibrosis.


Margaret Carter, ’72

Senator Avel Gordly (left) with Representative Margaret Carter (center) from Gretchen Kafoury Papers, courtesy PSU Library Archives

First African American in the Oregon House

Born December 29, 1935, Margaret Carter was the first black woman elected to the state’s legislature. She served in the Oregon House of Representatives from 1985 to 1999, and the state senate from 2001 to 2009.

Born Margaret Hunter in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Dec. 29, 1935, she was one of nine children. Her father was a Baptist minister, and her mother was a cook at the school cafeteria. After getting married she had five daughters by the age of 28, and moved to Oregon in 1967 to escape abuse by her then husband. In 1970, she enrolled at Portland State, graduating in 1972 with a bachelor of arts degree in education. She earned a masters of education in psychology from Oregon State University in 1973.

She resigned from the senate in 2009 and took a post as deputy director for human services programs at the Oregon Department of Human Services.


Tawna D. Sanchez, ’12

From the Spring 2017 issue of Portland State Magazine

Second Native American to serve in the Oregon legislature

Born and raised in Portland, Sanchez is Native American, of Shoshone, Bannock, and Ute descent. She is currently serving in the Oregon House of Representatives, for the 43rd District which covers parts of north-central Portland. She is the second Native American to serve in the Oregon legislature, and the first to represent Portland.

Sanchez graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Marylhurst University and with a master’s degree in social work from Portland State University in 2012.

Sanchez served on the Oregon Child Welfare Advisory Commission and the Oregon Family Services Review Commission, and has worked with the Native American Youth and Family Center for much of her life.


Deborah Murdock

Deborah Murdock with friends and family

Debbie Murdock was known and widely respected for her tireless belief in and dedication to public service and Portland State University. She worked tirelessly at PSU for 14 years serving as lobbyist and strategic advisor to the president. Her intellect, passion and powers of persuasion led to tens of millions of dollars in funding for PSU and policy directives that helped transform the University into the largest in the Oregon Higher Education System.

During her time at PSU, Murdock helped secure funding for several major projects, including the Native American Student and Community Center.

Murdock died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 52. Her colleagues and friends established the Deborah Murdock Scholarship to honor her memory in a way that she would have loved: by helping PSU students reach their educational goals.

The Memorial Clock Tower in Urban Plaza is named after Murdock, and is said to represent her energy and vitality.


SOURCES: pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu, wikipedia.org. oregonencyclopedia.org.
All images courtesy of Portland State University Special Collections & University Archives

5 thoughts on “These remarkable women in Portland State history made their mark on Oregon

  1. It would be an honour if you added my sister, the late Deborah Lynn Murdock. Her 14 yrs. of service to PSU and to the community of Portland is something I am very proud of. Thank you though for erecting the memorial Clock Tower. How we miss her.

      1. Thank you very much. I know that she touched many lives and she would be very happy to know that her efforts made a difference. I thank all women that show such dedication and service and love as they fuel the changes for the future.

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