Former 3rd District Rep. Jolene Unsoeld dies at age 89 ~ The Columbian

“Jer, I just heard Jolene Unsoeld passed away. She was a remarkable person who made great contributions and every bit Willi’s equal.”

Mike Friedman


Hi Jerry,

Thank you for your post on Jolene Unsold.  She and Willi were two of the first real mentors I had.  Willi was a philosophy professor at Oregon State (then) College and lured me both into the mountains and his courses the two years I was there; leading to me being kicked out of the Forestry School which drove me literally to Colorado in the early winter of 1960.  Many fond memories.  She lead a full and productive life.

Regards, Don Bachman

Jolene Unsoeld talks to a supporter at Clark College on the night before the general election, Nov. 8, 1988. (The Columbian files)

Former U.S. Rep. Jolene Bishoprick Unsoeld died Sunday at her home in Olympia at the age of 89, just a few days before her birthday.

She is survived by three of her four children, Regon, Krag and Terres, as well as many grandchildren and extended family members.

Unsoeld challenged people to get mad in the face of injustice and do something to make the world a better place, according to her family.

A Democrat, Unsoeld represented the 3rd District in Congress from 1989 to 1995, where she furthered environmental legislation. She was the third woman to represent Washington in Congress and was one of 30 women serving in the House of Representatives at the time. While in Congress, Unsoeld worked on three committees: merchant marine and fisheries, education and labor, and the select committee on aging.

While on the merchant marine and fisheries committee, Unsoeld strove toward supporting environmental legislation, as well as preserving fishing and logging industries in the district. Her dedication to her convictions won admiration from both her supporters and those who opposed her.

“My mother was such a dynamo,” Krag said. “Mom was really pushing frontiers and limits. We have better lives because of it.”

Unsoeld lost her seat to Republican Linda Smith after a tough reelection battle in 1994 but continued her public service and advocacy for environmental reform and government transparency. Specifically, she served on the Washington State Fish and Wildlife commission in 1995 for two years before retiring entirely.

Unsoeld also briefly taught at Harvard as a fellow of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1995 before returning to Washington.

She was born in Corvallis, Ore., on Dec. 3, 1931. Unsoeld and her family moved to Vancouver when she was a teenager, where she developed an interest in liberal politics — going against her parents’ Republican values.

Krag Onsoeld said his mom was head strong and firm in her beliefs at a young age. The Daughters of the American Revolution extended an award to Jolene Onsoeld when she was in high school, which she refused because the organization didn’t let Marian Anderson, a Black singer, perform at Constitution Hall in 1939.

She was co-valedictorian of her Vancouver High School senior class, and then moved back to her hometown to attend Oregon State University.


A Tribute to Congresswoman Jolene Unsoeld, Dead at 89, and her ‘Life of Wild Adventure’

By Joel Connelly – November 30, 20215

Former U.S. Rep. Jolene Unsoeld, who died at home Monday at the age of 89, was an individual of boundless energy and enthusiasm. My visual image, from covering her, was of Unsoeld running down the halls in Congress, usually late for a meeting, with a big bag of working papers slung over her shoulder. A poster in the Unsoeld Olympia home summed up a life forever on the move: “A ship in a harbor is safe. But that’s not what ships are for.”

When young, Jolene was the first woman (with husband Willi) to scale the north face of the Grand Teton in Wyoming.  She would later, as a self-described citizen meddler, help pass the state’s pioneering Public Disclosure Act, still in use by AG Bob Ferguson as a weapon against money laundering by Tim Eyman and the Grocery Manufacturers Assn.

She endured tragedy, the death of daughter Devi high on slopes of Nanda Devi, the 25,643-foot Himalayan peak in northern India for which she was named, and later Willi’s death in an avalanche while leading Evergreen State College students on a climb of Mt. Rainier.

She would serve six years in Congress.  Unsoeld refused to be addressed by her title and insisted on being called Jolene.  She declined to be driven, saying being at the wheel gave her time to think. A common sight, in Southwest Washington’s 3rd District, was Unsoeld driving up to a meeting with her top aide Dan Evans (not the governor) uncomfortable in the passenger seat.

“She was quirky in kind of an appealing way,” said ex-aide Paul Elliott. “Just as we’ve long heard of authors who insisted on using a typewriter, Jolene insisted on using the DOS operating system, which I think was obsolete already when she was in Congress.  She used it to write her autobiography a few years ago.”

Nobody questioned her determination. “A progressive before we used the term, an icon to Democratic women . . .  Lucky to have her as a mentor and role model,” State Democratic Chair Tina Podlodowski Tweeted. “Rest in power, the incomparable Jolene Unsoeld.”

Unsoeld had just been elected to Congress in 1988, by a 618-vote margin, when she arrived in D.C., to set up her office and get committee assignments. I came calling as correspondent with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, having been asked to pick up a six-pack of beer at a nearby store. Recycling had come to Washington, but not Washington, D.C. I finished a brewski and went to chuck the can in a waste basket. ‘Felt a vise-like grip on my wrist. Rep.-elect Unsoeld confiscated the beer can and set it in a special basket for recycling.

She had her start in the 1970s as a League of Women Voters activist, helping draft the Public Disclosure Act. Using information submitted to the newly created Public Disclosure Commission, Unsoeld published a small book: “Who Gave? Who Got? How Much?” Numerous investigative stories on money in politics came from its pages.

The life of a meddler was disrupted by twin tragedies, laid out in Unsoeld’s autobiography: “Wild Adventures We Have Known: My Life with Willi Unsoeld.” Willi (Bill to Jolene) had come home to teach at Evergreen. He had made mountaineering history in 1963 with Tom Hornbein by climbing the West Ridge of Mt. Everest and traversing the world’s highest peak. He lost nine toes to frostbite after a bivouac at 27,900 feet.

Thirteen years later, at a 23,000-foot camp, Devi Unsoeld told her father: “I think I am going to die.” She was gone in five minutes, her body in Willi’s words “committed to the snows.” Jolene Unsoeld grieved in public as she organized a “Memorable Celebration for Devi” at Evergreen. Three years later, after an avalanche killed Willi and student Jane Diepenbrook – the other students made it down to Camp Muir in a white-out – it was time for another “Memorable Celebration” at Evergreen.

The ship would not stay in harbor: At Willi’s memorial, Jolene spoke to the P-I’s Mike Layton about someday running for office.  She did, was elected to the Legislature, where she championed a tax on hazardous waste that would fund a cleanup plan. She won a battle of dueling state ballot initiatives against a weaker industry-backed plan.

Unsoeld spent her Capitol Hill tenure in harm’s way.  She quickly signed on as sponsor of an LGBTQ civil rights bill. She defied the fishing industry and cut her teeth on the issue of banning driftnet fishing, in which nets as long as 30 miles killed millions of birds and fish.  Serving a timber-dependent district, she refused to demagogue the spotted owl ruling in which U.S. District Judge Bill Dwyer ordered a halt to liquidation of old-growth forests on federal lands.

“Timber workers in her district were mad as hell over set asides to protect the Northern Spotted Owl. Rush Limbaugh branded her a ‘feminazi.’ Gun control advocates called her a flip flopper. It was the spring of 1994 and Congresswoman Jolene Unsoeld of Olympia was girding for the political fight of her life,” Washington’s official historian John Hughes wrote of Unsoeld’s last campaign.

Unsoeld was one of 30 women of the 435-member House when she was elected. She was not a practitioner of identity politics, but fierce in her feminist convictions. She had a memorable set-to on the House floor with Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, who would become House Majority Leader. In an anti-abortion speech, he mocked women for “self-indulgent conduct” and being “damned careless with their bodies.”

Unsoeld shot back: “Reproductive health is at the very core of a woman’s existence. If you want to be brutally frank, what it compares with is if you had health care plans that did not cover any illness related to testicles.  I think the women of this country are being tolerant enough to allow you men to vote on this.”

Years later, in the autobiography, she shared an intimate story. Already parents of four, Jolene and Willi discovered she was pregnant.  Abortion was then illegal. She flew to Japan to end her pregnancy. In Tokyo on business, her conservative father drove her to the clinic “and was there for me unconditionally when I needed him.”

Jolene Unsoeld was a famous night owl, at her computer into the wee hours of the morning.   Unsoeld was visibly worn down by her service in Congress. The job involved innumerable early morning breakfasts. She had to fight to defend her seat. Once, a shipment of salmon for a fundraiser arrived late on a Friday, was left outside Unsoeld’s office where it stayed for a long weekend. The Longworth Building needed to be fumigated.

Unsoeld would be buffeted from right and left in the “Gingrich revolution” election of 1994, in which 54 Democrats lost their House seats. A gun control candidate drew off votes: Unsoeld was an unlikely 2nd Amendment defender. The victor was State Rep. Linda Smith, a dynamo of the Republican right and product of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum.

Public service for Jolene Unsoeld did not end with the 1994 election. Back home, Gov. Mike Lowry named her to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, to which she was later reappointed by Gov. Gary Locke. She made enemies by calling for restrictions on fishing to restore depleted stocks. Ultimately, a coalition of the State Senate’s Republicans and old-boy Democrats refused to confirm her appointment.

The final act was an autobiography, of life growing up in a conservative Oregon family, meeting and marrying “Bill,” life with babies while he worked as a climbing guide in the Tetons, a sojourn in Nepal when Willi headed the Peace Corps there, and marital tensions surrounding his participation in the 1963 American expedition on Everest.

Unsoeld was unsparing about pains in her life but related an extraordinary moment when the pain went away: “It was several years before some sort of transition took place where that vision of beauty no longer overwhelmed me with grief. And then, one day, I was driving down I-5 and received a blast of beauty from a sunset. There was no more pain. I could feel Bill and Devi in the car with me. We were all together again.”

Each year, on the anniversary of the West Ridge climb, Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein would talk on the phone. Deep in her 80s, she would conclude her autobiography with the words, “I am ready for my next ‘Wild Adventure.’” She died a day short of her 90th birthday.

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