The Right Stuff

In Nancie Peacocke Fadeley’s first term in the Oregon House of Representatives, she cast her vote in favor of Oregon’s historic bottle bill—the first in the nation to require a five-cent deposit on cans and bottles. Two years later, in 1973, as chair of the House Environment and Land Use Committee, she helped shepherd through Senate Bill 100, visionary land-use legislation that would leave its mark on the state for the next several decades. 

Clearly, she was a woman in the right time, at the right place, and with the right political instincts. 

“At the time, I didn’t know that S. 100 would make the difference that it has,” says Fadeley, now 87, of Oregon’s pioneering land-use law. “I’m amazed and gratified at the effect it has had on Oregon.” The law created the Land Use Conservation and Development Commission, and its zoning requirements have been instrumental in preserving agricultural and forest lands, containing sprawl, and regulating industrial development—or, in the words of Governor Tom McCall, in “keeping Oregon lovable and livable.” The law has been a model for states trying to develop land-use planning legislation. 

Fadeley wasn’t a political greenhorn when she took office. She was married to then Oregon senator Ed Fadeley, and for 10 years had worked as his aide. “I knew where the bodies were buried,” she says of the state’s political players. 

But even so, when the law was being hammered out, its passage wasn’t a given, Fadeley remembers. The Senate Environment and Land Use Committee was “stacked” with members hostile to land-use planning. The bill barely squeaked through the divided committee. When the Senate committee chair sent S. 100 to the House, he feared any proposed amendments would kill the bill. He raced to Fadeley’s desk and warned her to not let her committee “change a comma, not a f--king period.”

The committee did as they were instructed, and S. 100 passed with bipartisan support. In the House, the vote was 40 to 20, with 25 Democrats and 15 Republicans voting in favor. In the Senate, 11 Democrats and seven Republicans supported the bill. All 11 women in the legislature, regardless of party affiliation, supported the bill. 

Women legislators supported environmental issues because of the impact on children’s futures, Fadeley says. At the time, most male legislators didn’t realize that the environment was about to become a lightning-rod issue statewide. “Men [in the legislature] didn’t take environmental issues seriously,” she says. “It was perfectly okay with them for women to be environmentalists—they thought that was the height of their ability.”

Fadeley’s support for S. 100 didn’t end at its passage. “Nancie was an active part of community support for Senate Bill 100 for 45 years,” says Janet McLennan, who was legal counsel to the House committee that Fadeley chaired. “She was very important to keeping S. 100 alive and vital.”

Land-use advocate Henry Richmond came up with the idea of creating a statewide land-use support group, and enlisted Governor Tom McCall’s support. Since 1974, 1,000 Friends of Oregon has pushed back against repeal efforts and brought legal cases against attempts to bypass land-use restrictions. Fadeley, he says, fought hard against each repeal effort, “and none of them were successful.”

During her 10-year tenure as a legislator, Fadeley had her fingers on the pulse of more than one big idea. She became an outspoken advocate for women who found themselves on the fringes of society. She introduced her fellow legislators to the concept of “displaced homemakers”—divorced or widowed women who were faced with supporting themselves after years at home raising children. 

Fadeley first heard the phrase “displaced homemaker” from two California women, Tish Sommers and Laurie Shields, who coined the term and were trying to raise awareness of this growing, yet invisible, population. Fadeley hopped on their bandwagon. She sponsored legislation that provided financial support for displaced homemakers in the University of Oregon’s Widowed Services Program, and for similar programs throughout the state. 

The early 1980s had Fadeley coping with transition and challenges. In 1981, she lost her seat in the House. In 1984, she and Ed Fadeley, who later became an associate justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, divorced. 

 Fadeley persevered. “Optimism is genetic with me,” she says. She joined the board of 1,000 Friends of Oregon and became a charter member and a national board member of the fledgling Older Women’s League, or OWL, founded by Sommers and Shields. The league brought to the public’s attention the fact that “growing older as a woman is not the same as growing older as a man,” Fadeley says, and focused on issues this demographic faces, such as poverty, cultural stereotypes, health-care and wage inequities, midlife career obstacles, and the dilemma of family caretaking. Those issues have higher visibility now, Fadeley says, but in the 1980s they weren’t on the public’s radar. 

“People didn’t know about caregivers who were suffering in silence and isolation,” Fadeley says. “OWL was responsible for raising people’s awareness of caregiving and long-term care issues.” For several decades, OWL released a report on Mother’s Day focused on one of the issues confronting older women. Each year, Fadeley wrote an op-ed column on those issues for the Register-Guard.

 Fadeley says her activism is rooted in her upbringing in Methodist parsonages in small, rural towns across Missouri. Methodism has a tradition of moving ministers from community to community. “The minister’s family knew everybody, and was aware where there were problems, or people who were hurting,” she says. “We were supposed to do something about them. I didn’t really have a choice.”

Along with optimism and purpose, Fadeley is blessed with determination. Prior to her career as a legislator, Fadeley took courses at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism, choosing only those scheduled when her youngest child, Shira, was in preschool. “I always thought I was a writer, but I couldn’t get published,” she says. During her first class with UO journalism professor Roy Paul Nelson, she realized why: she didn’t know how to structure a journalism article. One class led to another. It took several years, but eventually she earned her master’s in journalism. 

Fadeley’s postlegislature résumé includes service as the director of public affairs for KWAX radio, which at the time was an NPR station, and assistant vice provost at the UO. 

Today, Fadeley lives with her watchful pooch, Dexter, in her house in east Eugene. OWL recently disbanded, and this past May was the first time in years she didn’t write a column based on the group’s annual report. But she has other demands on her time. She is a mentor for Sponsors, a local program for men and women released from prison. She schedules speakers for the League of Women Voters’ monthly forums, and is still an enthusiastic member of 1,000 Friends of Oregon.

When motivated, she still speaks up. In a recent op-ed, she addressed the high-profile political shenanigans surrounding a 1932 ballot measure that would have merged the UO with Oregon State University—in Corvallis. Her story sketched the public takedown of the state’s first chancellor of the Oregon State System of Higher Education—former OSU president William Jasper Kerr and mastermind behind the school consolidation effort—by a political upstart named Wayne Morse. 

Fadeley learned early on that politics was a high-stakes game, and she learned to play her cards well. “My memories of political life are all good,” she says. “Maybe it’s like childbirth—you don’t remember the pain.”

—By Alice Tallamdge

Alice Tallmadge is Oregon Quarterly’s contributing editor.