Betty Cantrell was born the youngest of three children to David Murray and Mary Pearl Higgins Cantrell in Kansas on February 5, 1923. She lived in Texas for most of her childhood, during which time her mother took a laundry job to support the family after her father suffered a disability from drinking tainted bootleg liquor. Growing up during the Great Depression and witnessing the government help the neediest members of society had a profound effect on Betty.
She married Bill Rice, an Air Force drill instructor, in 1942. After World War II, the couple moved to Portland, where Rice was a banker. Betty graduated from Portland State College in 1958 and accepted a high school teaching job in Portland against her husband's wishes. The couple divorced the next year.
Betty's political career began in earnest in 1960 when she was elected to serve on an elementary school board in Portland. She married Frank Roberts that year and earned a masters degree the next year. After losing a primary bid for the Oregon House of Representatives in 1962, Roberts enrolled in Northwestern College of Law (now Lewis & Clark Law School) in Portland, earning a law degree in 1966. She won a seat in the Oregon House in 1964 while still a student.
Roberts served two terms in the House before winning a seat in the Oregon Senate in 1968. She divorced Roberts in 1966 and married Keith Skelton, a fellow state legislator, in 1968. During her legislative career, Roberts gained a reputation as a champion of expanding legal rights for women and minorities. She was a key figure in the 1973 Oregon ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The next year, Roberts mounted an unsuccessful Democratic Party primary campaign for Oregon governor and lost a U.S. Senate race to Republican Bob Packwood in the general election.
Governor Bob Straub, appointed her to the Oregon Court of Appeals in 1977. She was the first woman to serve on an appellate court in state history. Five years later, she marked another first when Governor Vic Atiyeh appointed her to be Oregon's first woman on the state supreme court. She resigned from the court in 1986 to begin an arbitration and mediation career and to spend more time with her husband and family. Roberts also promoted women's and progressive causes and remained active professionally until 2010.
Over the years, she received several awards honoring her role in paving the way for other women in law and the judiciary. She published her autobiography, With Grit and By Grace, Breaking Trails in Politics and Law, in 2008.
Roberts died on June 25, 2011.
(Sources: Oregon Encyclopedia | Oregon Supreme Court)