A Passion for Service
Her sense of justice fuels Elizabeth Furse's activism in politics and life
At 73, former U.S. Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse '74 continues to rattle at the cage of injustice, something's she's been doing since she was a teenager in South Africa.
Social justice activist, labor supporter, advocate for Native Americans, environmental champion and founder of a peace institute, Furse was the first woman elected to represent her Oregon congressional district and the first African-born member of Congress.
Her journey to the House of Representatives and a life of activism began in Nairobi, Kenya, where she was born to a British father and a Canadian mother, and continued through South Africa, where she was raised. When South Africa's National Party came to power in 1948 and instituted the racial policies that came to be known as apartheid, Furse's mother got involved in opposing the draconian system. She helped found the Black Sash, a women's organization that Nelson Mandela described as the "conscience of white South Africa" during the apartheid era.
Instilled with her mother's sense of justice, Furse decided to march in a large anti-apartheid demonstration before the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town when she was 15 years old. The peaceful demonstrators were confronted with police violence. Furse emerged unhurt but not unfazed. "I lived through fear," she says. "Once that happens, you can live through anything."
Furse later moved to the U.S. with the American doctor she married as a young woman in London, where she was attending college. They settled in Los Angeles and had two children, Amanda and John. She volunteered for a project to assist low-income women in the city's Watts neighborhood, as well as Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers, which was organizing strikes and boycotts to improve labor conditions for migrant farm workers.
In the late 1960s, Furse and her family relocated to Washington, where she met Billy Frank, Jr. and other Indian people who were conducting "fish-ins" on the Nisqually River to challenge the state's refusal to recognize Native Americans' treaty-protected fishing rights. To aid their cause, she co-founded Citizens for Indian Rights, a non-Indian support organization devoted to educating the public about the law of treaties. "We really got a lot of training and insight from Indian leaders," she says, "and we pulled together volunteers who were willing to speak out for treaty rights." In 1974, the landmark Boldt Decision reaffirmed Indian fishing rights.
Furse became a U.S. citizen in 1972. She returned to college, choosing Evergreen "because it was so creative and I could do the work I was interested in there," she says. She received her B.A. and later moved to the Portland area to go to Northwestern School of Law, which she attended for two years before being recruited to direct an Oregon Legal Services project that was pivotal in restoring the legal status of several Oregon tribes. She went on to co-found the Oregon Peace Institute, which promotes and teaches nonviolent conflict resolution.
Furse brought her sense of righteous indignation to Washington, D.C., after winning the Democratic primary as a long-shot candidate in northwest Oregon's 1st District-even though she had never served in government. She campaigned on issues she thought were important like military spending, the environment and women's concerns. "I didn't think I would win," she admits. "I was amazed when I won the primary and even more amazed when I won the election." When she entered office in 1993 as a freshman in the 103rd Congress, the number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives rose from 29 to 48.
A liberal Democrat in a historically Republican district, Furse sought to reduce military spending, redirect the nation's spending priorities to domestic needs, protect the environment, defend women's abortion rights and increase funding for diabetes research. During her 1994 reelection campaign, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called her "the antithesis of Congress' traditional play-it-safe politicians."
During her three terms in office, Furse served on numerous committees, including Armed Services, Banking, and Commerce. She voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement and spearheaded the creation of the Congressional Diabetes Caucus, which grew to be the largest caucus in Congress with more than 250 members in the 110th Congress of 2007 to 2009. "Because of that caucus, we were able to double the amount of diabetes research," says Furse. "I am very proud of that work."
She cosponsored an amendment to ban research and development of low-yield nuclear warheads, or mini-nukes. Adopted as part of the 1994 Defense Authorization Act, the law has withstood several attempts to repeal it. "That amendment killed an entire generation of nuclear weapons," she says, "and it has survived." She also cosponsored the Children's National Security Act, which covered a range of initiatives from children's health insurance to caregiver assistance-all funded with Pentagon budget cuts. Framing the country's security as a matter of giving "children a quality education, access to health care, and a safe place to live and learn," she told colleagues, "We cannot continue to invest in outdated Cold War weapons systems while we neglect our children." The bill unfortunately did not become law.
After vacating her seat in 1999 and returning home to her 70-acre farm and vineyard in Hillsboro, Furse founded the Institute of Tribal Government at Portland State University, which she directed until earlier this year. The Institute provides governance training to elected tribal officials across the nation. The idea for creating the Institute came from the training Furse received as an incoming legislator at Harvard University. "I thought it would be valuable for newly elected tribal officials since there's no place to learn what they're doing," she says.
Furse, the public citizen, sits on several boards, including those of One Economy, an organization committed to bridging the digital divide, and The Pixie Project, an animal protection group-remaining actively committed to the issues that move her. As she says of her congressional career: "It's a wonderful honor to serve."