Dorothy McCullough was born in Oakland, California, on April 1, 1901, the only child of Flora Hill and Frank McCullough, who rose to the rank of rear admiral in World War I. She saw much of the world as a child moving with her father who was stationed in Hawaii, Asia and Europe over the years.
After graduating from a Rhode Island high school at the age of 16, she earned a bachelor's degree in 1921 and a law degree in 1923 from the University of California, Berkeley. The next year she married William Scott Lee, a chemical engineer. The couple moved to Portland where he became an executive with the Standard Oil Company and she opened a small private legal practice. She later joined another female attorney to form the first all-woman law firm in the state.
Lee's political career began in 1929 with two terms in the Oregon House of Representatives. She then won a seat in the Oregon Senate, where she served until 1943, resigning to fill a vacant seat on the Portland City Council. During her time in the legislature and on the city council, Lee was the only woman serving in either body. Her role as public utilities commissioner for Portland earned her a reputation as an effective administrator.
By 1947 Lee was strongly considering a run for mayor in the 1948 election and was gaining support. A litany of news stories about local political corruption and vice finally fueled her resolve and that of Portland voters. Running under the promise to "enforce the law," she defeated incumbent Mayor Earl Riley in the primary by a landslide vote of 85,045 to 22,510. In the process, she became Portland's first female mayor and only the second female mayor of a major city in the United States.
Lee took her mandate to clean up Portland seriously and soon shut down gambling parlors, brothels, burlesque houses and similar operations in the city. She shook up the police bureau leadership and enforced the law equally regardless of the political consequences. Thus, Lee forced many established institutions such as the American Legion, Press Club and even the prestigious Multnomah Athletic Club to remove their profitable slot machines. Over time, Lee had mixed results with her anti-crime efforts. The vice industry suffered and many mobsters moved away, but an increasing number of downtown businesses complained about declining revenues and property values.
Lee easily survived a 1949 recall campaign and sought reelection in 1952 but by that time too many voters had tired of her strong focus on morality. Nicknamed “Dottie Do-Good," she lost to opponent Fred Peterson, who enjoyed the support of the business community.
The next year, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Lee to the U.S. Board of Parole in Washington D.C. She later served on the Subversive Activities Control Board before resigning in 1962 to resume her law practice in Portland.
Lee died in Portland on February 19, 1981.
(Sources: Lipman, Meryl. "Dorothy McCullough Lee, "Do Good Dottie" Cleans Up". Portland State University | Oregon Encyclopedia)