Real Women of Texas

by Published on

Like most folks who weren’t born in Texas—and took their time getting here—I’ve spent more of my life imbibing stereotypes and myths than absorbing actual information about this big, confounding state. Take Texas women. As a lifelong political nerd, my knowledge of approximately one-half of the Texas population relied mostly on observations of Ann Richards, Laura Bush, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Molly Ivins, Barbara Bush and Barbara Jordan, the pioneering congresswoman from Houston.

From just this small sampling, one thing was clear enough: The stereotypes weren’t going to cut it. As Ruth Pennebaker writes in this issue’s cover story, “Anybody who makes flat, all-encompassing statements about Texas women … should probably get her head examined.”

As she puzzled over the legacy and future of feminism in Texas, Pennebaker talked to more than a dozen successful, outspoken women—including progressive legend Sarah Weddington, the Austin attorney who argued Roe v. Wade at 26, and Susan Combs, the Republican state comptroller. If there’s anything that knits these very different women together, it’s the ferocity with which they hold their views—a certain outsized stubbornness to match their ambitions. Political and environmental activist Mary Sanger speculates about the roots of that quality: “Because we’re Texans, we have this pridefulness that makes some women want to take on bigger challenges.”

Apparently so. Long before the feminist movement sprang up in the ’60s, prideful Texas women were taking up huge challenges—including two who played pivotal roles in the early history of the Observer. Frankie C. Randolph, one of the magazine’s original founders and its longtime publisher, was also one of the state’s toughest and most effective progressive activists and organizers. In the ’50s, Randolph helped form the Democrats of Texas, which fought with the conservative state Democratic executive committee for the soul of the party. “Some politicians feared and disliked her,” wrote founding Observer editor Ronnie Dugger, “for she minced no words when they came to her seeking her support. Earthy, blunt, and honest, she had more independent political power than any woman in Texas history.”

Another Observer founder, Galvestonian Minnie Fisher Cunningham, was already a pre-feminist legend when the magazine launched. She’d been the first Texas woman to run for U.S. Senate, way back in 1928, and had finished a distant second while carrying the liberal banner for governor in 1944. Even earlier, Cunningham had become nationally known as a leading suffragist—the kind of “blunt” woman who’d write a letter like this to a congressman in 1916, urging him to support the 19th Amendment: “We respectfully call your attention to the fact that our National Government is supported by the taxes collected from women citizens as well as men citizens … going directly against that cry for political liberty which our fore fathers threw into the very teeth of their oppressors—’Taxation without representation is TYRANNY’!”

Ninety-three years after Cunningham’s letter, as we were putting the final touches on this issue, another outspoken ideologue with a habit of speaking her mind was declaring her candidacy for governor in 2010. And no, I don’t mean Sen. Hutchison, who is challenging Gov. Rick Perry for the Republican nomination. I mean the woman challenging both Perry and Hutchison, Ron Paul Republican Debra Medina of Dallas.

Medina might be every bit as “earthy and blunt” as Randolph or Cunningham, but her ideology owes more to Rush Limbaugh. At a “Sovereignty or Secession” rally on Aug. 29, Medina declared: “We are aware that stepping off into secession may in fact be a bloody war. We are aware that the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.” Earlier in August, at a campaign stop in Gatesville, Medina said that America was experiencing “full-blown fascism.”

In a strange but very real way, Medina owes her ability to spew this paranoid nonsense partly to progressive pioneers like Randolph and Cunningham. It’s one of the paradoxes of social progress: Every door we open, we also open for those whose views we consider noxious.

So, thanks in part to those feminist pioneers who made it unremarkable to have a women running for governor of Texas, Medina is free to voice the fantastical fears and resentments of her fellow Tea Party Patriots. Hutchison is free to campaign on her milder brand of Chamber of Commerce conservatism. And the rest of us are free to dream about the next bigger-than-life progressive woman who’ll rise up in Texas politics. A Latina version of Barbara Jordan, perhaps (let’s dream big), who will find fresh ways to echo Jordan’s 1976 keynote to the Democratic National Convention—an antidote to Medina’s separatist message that resonates today in a whole new way:

“This is the great danger America faces: that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups—city against city, suburb against suburb, region against region, individual against individual,” Jordan said. “Who will then speak for the common good? Are we to be one people bound together by a common spirit sharing in a common endeavor or will we become a divided nation?”