The Mother of Higher Education
“The Mother of Higher Education” was many things to many people, but in the beginning she was just a young woman from South Dakota who had to drop out of college due to lack of money.
Born Edith Starrett to James Vaughn and Julia Starrett—both teachers—in Trent, South Dakota, in 1910, Edith moved with her family to Oregon when she was six. The Starretts settled in Salem, and, with an eye on becoming a teacher like her parents, young Edith later enrolled at Willamette University to pursue her degree.
Finances caused her to withdraw from school. But rather than get deterred, this became the source of Green’s passion for improving education and making it more accessible—a passion that saw her become one of the most legendary figures in politics.
Green returned to school in 1939, enrolling at the University of Oregon and graduating in 1940 with a bachelor of science in education. She then followed in the footsteps of her parents and taught for eleven years, before leaving to blaze her own trail.
Green served as the director of public and legislative relations for the Oregon Education Association and the legislative chairwoman of the Oregon Congress of Parents and Teachers until, after much encouragement from her peers, she ran for office. In 1954, she was elected as the representative for Oregon’s third congressional district, becoming just the second Oregonian woman elected into the US House of Representatives. In her first year in D.C. she was appointed to the Committee on Education and Labor, and remained on it for eighteen years.
During the ten terms she served, she created and implemented legislation that advanced education, women’s rights, and social reform, often in innovative ways. After the USSR launched the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile and the first satellite, Green helped pass the National Defense Education Act, directing more than a billion dollars towards improving math and science curriculums and providing support and assistance to graduate students in both fields; she argued that by funding education the US would strengthen national defense, as American students would be able to progress past their Soviet counterparts and develop technological advancements.
In 1963 she authored the Higher Education Facilities Act, which allocated federal funding for college libraries, classrooms, and labs—an Act president Lyndon B. Johnson called the “greatest step forward in the field in 100 years”—and two years later introduced the Higher Education Act of 1965; the two measures created federal financial aid for undergraduates and universities for the first time.
Edith Green’s biggest triumph in reform and legislation may well have been the work she did leading up to the creation of Title IX in 1972. Title IX explicitly prohibits federally-funded higher educational institutions from discriminating on the base of sex, and included as sanctions exclusion from education programs, activities, benefits, and federal financial assistance.
As the chair of the Subcommittee on Higher Education, Green was responsible for conducting the week of hearings that led to the development of Title IX. She preceded the series of hearings by stating, “Let us not deceive ourselves. Our educational institutions have proven to be no bastions of democracy.”
The week of hearings was arduous, with university administrators and congressmen alike protesting the bill, saying it would force schools to build unisex bathrooms and admit equal numbers of male and female students. After Title IX passed, Green said, “I don’t know when I have ever been so pleased, because I had worked so long and it had been such a tough battle.”
In addition to Title IX she was responsible for the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which established that women receive equal pay for doing the same work as men. Green later expressed her visible frustration with Congress’ slow action, saying that “it took over eight years to persuade [them] that a woman doing identical work with a man ought to be paid the same salary!”
Nicknamed “the mother of higher education” by her peers, Green became the second highest ranking Democrat in Congress, and seconded the Democratic presidential nominations in 1956 and 1960. John F. Kennedy offered her the position as US ambassador to Canada, but she declined; when he later appointed her to his Committee on the Status of Women, she accepted.
Over time, Green became discouraged with the lack of improvement in public and higher education, and felt pessimistic that the government would ever proactively change. She gradually strayed away from partisan positioning and liberal standpoints and was criticized for abandoning alliances when she crossed party lines, such as when she opposed a request for increased military funding for the Vietnam War.
Green retired in 1974, and became a professor of government at Warner Pacific College. She was appointed as co-chair of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education in 1979, and was later appointed by Ronald Reagan to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships in 1981.
In 1987, at the age of 77, Edith Green died of cancer. In her New York Times obituary, son James stated, “She realized she had to work with the men before she knocked them over. ‘The key is to work with them,’ she said, and she was very good at it. I think her colleagues would testify to that.”
And they did, readily, with late senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR) saying “She was probably the most powerful woman ever to serve in the Congress. On any important legislation, such as women's rights or education or dealing with minorities or poor people, she could switch people’s votes on the floor through the power of her intellect and her ability to persuade. People listened because when Edith Green spoke, she spoke from the heart as well as the mind.”
- by Mina Naderpoor, BS ’16