For a sociology major, being at the University of Washington in 1968 with 30,000 other human beings under 30 was like watching the seeds of change sprout in a petri dish. Karen Fraser taped a McCarthy for President poster in her apartment window. At 24, it was her first overt political statement. She was in grad school, pursuing a master’s degree in public administration as the campus roiled with debate and dissent during one of the
most tumultuous years in American history.
It played out in demonstrations on the quadrangle; around the black-and-white TV sets in the Husky Union Building where students gathered to watch Walter Cronkite’s reports on the war in Vietnam; in classrooms and residence halls and in the pages of the UW Daily and tyee magazine. So much had changed since 1962, her freshman year, especially for women. Most “coeds” had grown weary of fraternity-sweetheart objectification. They were intent on “leading lives worthy of emulation,” as tyee put it.
Fraser, a soft-spoken yet persuasive feminist, would become the first female mayor of Lacey, a progressive county commissioner and for 28 years an influential state legislator—a Democrat admired on both sides of the aisle for her common sense and civility.
Given her contemplative personality, it’s unsurprising that Eugene McCarthy, the professorial anti-war senator from Minnesota, was Fraser’s pick for president in 1968. “He seemed so genuine,” she remembers. Thousands of other college students across America agreed. The boys cut their hair to get “clean for Gene,” and the girls donned their best dresses. The young volunteers descended on New Hampshire for the year’s first presidential primary.
On March 12, McCarthy turned the political world upside down. His strong runner-up showing to a sitting president underscored Lyndon Johnson’s vulnerability. Two weeks later, LBJ announced he would not seek re-election. The making of the president 1968 became a free-for-all punctuated by assassinations and rioting. For McCarthy, genuineness wasn’t enough. Come November, the “new” Nixon defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was perceived as old news, irreparably damaged by the Johnson administration’s conduct of the Vietnam War. “Looking back, it’s hard to believe it all happened in one year,” Fraser says.
Ever since grade school, Karen Fraser had been studying society and wondering why things were the way they were. Her undergraduate degree is in sociology, with departmental honors.
She was born just before the end of World War II. Her 1950s Eisenhower-era childhood in northeast Seattle was a life-skills class in the sociology of changing times. Fraser lived in the same house from first grade through her graduation from Roosevelt High School. But there were a few twists — and an underlying conflict — she believes helped her become successful in public life. Her father was an Irish immigrant, which gave her an awareness of other countries and some of the challenges immigrants face. Her mother, born on a farm in Duvall in rural King County, was an artist, which contributed to Fraser’s life-long appreciation of the arts. Karen also remembers her mother’s stories about the workplace discrimination women faced.
There was one more thing “of nearly overwhelming” significance: Her parents divorced when Karen and her brother Bill were in grade school. “Divorce was exceptionally unusual in those days,” she remembers. “There was quite a stigma associated with it, including toward children of divorced families, so I always kept this fact to myself. The divorce had a major influence on my sense of wondering about things: ‘Why did this happen to my family?’ It didn’t happen to anybody else’s family that I knew. In the summer, my brother and I would go down to California and stay with our dad. So we kind of grew up with two lives — one here, one there.”
The divorce was not amicable. Karen learned to navigate the tension, here and there.
“Although we lived with him only part of the year, our dad taught us many things. He enjoyed engaging in ‘argumentation and debate.’ It was his favorite class at the University of Washington. I grew up becoming accustomed to discussing differences of opinion and being comfortable engaging in discussions with men.
“After the divorce, our family finances plunged. Bill and I were frustrated when our mother said we couldn’t afford either a car or a TV. I began developing personal scheduling skills by arranging to see my favorite TV shows at various neighbors’ homes. My brother and I were so intent about the car issue that by the time we each turned 16, we owned our own ‘junkers.’ We experienced vastly more personal freedom and independence during our childhood and teen years than nearly all our friends.”
In fourth grade, Karen learned something that to her didn’t make sense. A teacher explained how pronouns worked. Sometimes “he” could mean both male and female but “she” was always female. “I remember wondering, ‘What’s that about?’
“I loved to listen to the news on the radio. One day I realized there were no women newscasters. So I asked my mother why, and she said, ‘Well, it’s because they don’t have authoritative voices.’ It struck me as strange, but I just took it in. That’s kind of been my style all my life: I take it in, think about it and incorporate it later into my perspectives.”
When she was 13, Elvis topped the hit parade with “All Shook Up,” a perfect metaphor for the year’s biggest banner headline: The Russians had launched Sputnik, a satellite that ushered in the space race and raised the specter of a world dominated by communism. “I had a nightmare that Russian soldiers were coming over our back fence,” Fraser remembers with a little shiver and a smile. By her senior year at Roosevelt, things were more ominous. After a tense summit with Nikita Khrushchev, a belligerent bowling ball of a man, President Kennedy told Time magazine he had never met a more frightening person. “I talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill 70 million people in 10 minutes,” Kennedy said, “and he just looked at me as if to say, ‘So what?’ ”
As a high school senior, Fraser researched and wrote a report weighing whether every house should have a bomb shelter. She concluded it would be a good idea. That class, Contemporary Problems, taught by a highly regarded teacher, Earl V. Prebezac, triggered her interest in politics. “Every day we had to read the front page and editorial page of The Seattle Times to be ready for a pop quiz. Another major assignment was to pick an advocacy organization to study.” She selected the American Civil Liberties Union and rode the bus downtown in the middle of the World’s Fair excitement to interview an ACLU staff member. “I was totally fascinated by everything I was reading about national and world affairs and the importance of politics in serving the public interest. It was all new for me, as my family was non-political.”
She never planned to go to college anywhere other than the University of Washington. “Our parents deliberately moved to northeast Seattle for the specific purpose of being close to the university. During my six years at the UW, the world changed dramatically. When I look back on those years and put my life in the context of the times it seems even more remarkable.”
Fraser arrived in Olympia as a Ford Foundation legislative intern on a snowy day in January of 1967, driving an old car with an inoperative heater. Long stretches of Interstate-5 were incomplete, especially along the Nisqually Delta, shimmering in refracted sunlight.
“I had just graduated from the UW. All my worldly goods were in my car,” she remembers wistfully. “And my legislative internship turned out to be totally life-changing” — simultaneously daunting and exciting. She was the only woman among the five UW political science students selected for the program by Dr. Hugh A. Bone, a revered longtime professor and dean of the UW Political Science Department. Launched by Bone in 1956, the internship program soon became a national model. Fraser was doubly lucky that the legislator leading the program was the redoubtable Representative Mary Ellen McCaffree, R-Seattle, a former president of the Seattle League of Women Voters and a master of what she called “politics of the possible.”
With the Legislature set to convene three days later, Fraser went looking for a place to stay. “I went to the YWCA on Union Street because motels seemed awfully expensive for someone on a student budget. All the rooms they had were occupied. However, the woman who answered the door must have taken pity on me. There I was — young and cold, standing there in the dark with my little suitcase. She said I could spend a few nights on the overstuffed couch in the building’s cavernous unfinished basement for $1.50 a night. I could never have conceived then that 50 years later, to the day, I would end up retiring as a senior member of the Senate.”
Read the rest of this story on the Secretary of State’s website, here.
1968: The Year That Rocked Washington looks back at 1968 and its impact on Washington state through the stories of some remarkable people who lived through it. On college campuses, the campaign trail and evergreen peaks, Washingtonians were spurred to action. It was the year when Vietnam, civil rights, women’s liberation and conservation coalesced—the year when tragedy led the 6 o’clock news with numbing regularity. 1968 changed us in ways still rippling through our society a half century later. 1968: The Year That Rocked Washington features a collection of online stories and an exhibit at the Washington State Capitol in the fall of 2018. Legacy Washington documents the activism and aftershocks of a landmark year in world history.
For more information, visit www.sos.wa.gov/legacy/sixty-eight.