People of a certain age are always talking, sadly and nostalgically, about the bright, unfulfilled dreams of their youth.
I’m of a certain age myself—59, to be precise. But I usually draw a blank when the stories about lost youth, failed dreams and tarnished idealism come to the table and claim a chair and the eyes start to fill and the voices break.
We didn’t do big dreams in my family. Dreaming big was a way to get your soul crushed. As my sister and I grew up in Wichita Falls, Abilene and Midland, our family had other concerns. My parents worried about surviving from month to month on my father’s small paycheck, they worried about Communism, they worried about funnel clouds and drought.
No one in my family took the dreams of girls or women seriously—but to be fair, no one really cared about men’s dreams, either. Life was hard. You kept your head low and securely fastened to your shoulders. You worked hard, you didn’t expect much, and you weren’t surprised by disappointment.
In the late ’60s, after I’d gone away to college, I wore tie-dyed T-shirts and hand-strung beads, but I never identified with hippies. They might talk about disdaining materialism, but I noticed they were almost always from families with a lot more money than mine. I didn’t like living in a commune, either, where some freeloader was always stealing my milk.
But the women’s movement! That was entirely different. To me, it was more intoxicating than the drugs everybody else raved about and got stupid while inhaling. Sexism, The Feminine Mystique, The Second Sex—they all explained so much. They made sense of my mother’s crippling depressions and my own sub-zero self-confidence and the whole puzzling male-female universe. Women had been subjugated and marginalized, forced to live through others. No wonder we were so deeply pissed off and ready to change the world.
I started law school at the University of Texas at Austin in 1973, a few short months after Roe vs. Wade was decided. A record 18 percent of our class was female. We talked, we backed each other up, we commiserated about sexism, we formed study groups, we gave each other unsolicited advice.
A problematic husband? “Divorce the son of a bitch!” Paula Latimer, one of the loudest, most ardent voices in our midst would announce.
It was that kind of time—energetic, free-wheeling, rambunctious, heady with sudden change. And, in Texas and in law school, we were in the middle of it. Austin attorney Sarah Weddington had argued and won Roe v. Wade at the impossibly young age of 26. Rape laws were being changed, educational and work barriers were tumbling, female orgasms were being redefined by women, not Sigmund Freud. And, as we often noted to each other, didn’t Texas women have a long and rowdy history of outspokenness and garish color?
Leap—or is it trudge?—36 years ahead and try to make sense of it all. It’s 2009. Almost half the students at UT Law School and UT medical schools are women. The income disparity between men and women has shrunk, though Texas still ranks 40th worst in the nation in this category. A woman is a U.S. senator from Texas, another is state comptroller, and Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama in last year’s Texas presidential primary.
All true. But the income gap persists, statistics show women still do more housework than their husbands, and university faculty tenured positions are still predominantly male. Texas has lost its outspoken, irreverent and feminist version of Mount Rushmore with the deaths of Molly Ivins, Ann Richards and Barbara Jordan—and who’s big enough, eloquent enough and funny enough to replace them? Instead, during the past eight years, the nation saw a very different, soft-spoken representative of Texas womanhood in the White House, as Laura Bush stood quietly and loyally by her man, who steadily moved the Supreme Court rightward and ever closer to overturning Roe v. Wade. Our senior U.S. senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, may be marginally more progressive than, say, Rick Perry, but she’s no Barbara Jordan.
Maybe we’ve come a long way, baby, but are we sure we’re still headed in the right direction? Why didn’t we progress more dramatically after such a quick and promising start? Are Texas women really different (by which we usually mean stronger, funnier, gutsier, more colorful)—or do we just flatter ourselves that we are? Were we all just young and naïve, imagining big, unrealistic dreams that were doomed?
Maybe my family was right. Big dreams are invitations to disappointment and heartbreak, you’re crazy to pursue them, and you might as well get over it. Or maybe it’s time to talk to some other Texas women of my generation, some of whom I’ve known for years, others whom I’ve only read or heard about, to get their views about where we are today.
We’re a bit different because we come out of so many different cultures and contexts. And because we’re Texans, we have this pridefulness that makes some women want to take on bigger challenges.—Mary Sanger, 64, political and environmental activist
Let’s acknowledge this right up front: Anybody who makes flat, all-encompassing statements about Texas women of a certain age should probably get her head examined.
According to Angela Shelf Medearis, 52, author and owner of Diva Productions, the women’s rights movement and the big dreams I’m talking about were mostly shared by a group of affluent, well-educated white women who didn’t create any room for black women. “African-American women were already doing things white women weren’t doing—like working and creating their own businesses,” Medearis says. “The women’s movement didn’t have a huge impact on us. The civil rights movement was much more impactful.”
Juliet Garcia, now president of UT Brownsville, considers herself a feminist because she believes in women’s rights and thinks that women “connect with each other in a very profound way that is not filtered through age, ethnicity or culture. I don’t think any of those categories is more important than the basic issue of womanhood,” she says.
Still, Garcia also grew up dealing with the pressing issue of ethnic discrimination. According to family lore, Garcia’s maternal grandfather had to storm into the school system in South Texas to demand his children be educated in the Anglo schools. “He may or may not have been armed,” Garcia says. “I think it’s very possible, since he did have a shotgun—and since he did get his children into the Anglo school.”
Sarah Weddington, 64, who argued Roe v. Wade, acknowledges that the women’s movement didn’t reach all racial and socioeconomic groups of women. “But it wasn’t from an absence of good will on our part,” she says. “We tried to get more diversity. But some women did feel more pulled by the civil rights movement. We understood that.”
Many Texas women of my generation, though, were inspired by the women’s movement, by the ideals that women should be able to choose to work and be paid equally. It changed many of our lives.
Paula James, who grew up in the West Texas town of Littlefield, recalls her anger at a high school teacher who marked her answer wrong about universal suffrage being attained after black men were given the vote with the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “She said it didn’t matter that women couldn’t vote,” James said, still indignant. “We still had universal suffrage, even without women.”
During the first stirrings of the women’s movement, when she began to read Friedan and other feminist writers, “It really set me on fire,” says James, 66, a retired family lawyer and mediator. “It made me feel for the first time that I wasn’t deficient—it was the system that was deficient and wrong.”
Vivian Castleberry, 87, was one of the women who showed us the way. Refusing to go home and retire gracefully when the men returned from World War II, she persisted and had a remarkable career as features (neé women’s section) editor at the Dallas Times Herald. Sarah Weddington went to UT law school at a time when some professors wouldn’t call on women in class and law firms wouldn’t fly them to interviews. Nearly a decade younger, Sherry Smith, 56, counted herself as a feminist from her high school years on—and watched opportunities open for women in careers and higher education in the early 1970s that hadn’t been available even a few years earlier.
“My options were very different from friends who came of age in the early sixties,” says Smith, who owns an Austin marketing firm. “The women’s movement opened up new worlds to women my age.”
For ambitious Texas women not mired in poverty, options were cracking open at a dizzying clip. In the ’60s and ’70s, “We were making so much progress so quickly,” Vivian Castleberry says. “I would have thought we would have wrapped up total equality in six months with both hands tied behind our backs.”
“The right wing has done a great job of giving feminists the reputation of being ballbusters and castrating bitches. The movement’s been turned into something destructive. Civil rights, for example, was never turned into something destructive the way the women’s movement has.” —Paula James
Thirty years ago, Gloria Steinem predicted that a black man would be elected president before a woman—and no one believed her. Sexism is pervasive, subtle and enormously powerful in our society, says Paula James, with whom I went to law school. (She was Paula Latimer then, and she has no memory of ever exhorting the rest of us to, “Divorce the son-of-a-bitch!” “Are you sure I said that?” she asks. Yes, I’m sure.)
But do sexism and the right wing explain it all—why women in Texas and across the country still struggle to find good child care, still find their right to choose to continue a pregnancy threatened, still earn less than men? Or did our generation assume we’d easily change something as profound as sex roles, which turned out to be far more complicated and ingrained than we ever imagined? Did we just get older and more disillusioned—or older and more realistic—as the years passed, priorities changed, children were born, marriages prospered or ended, and hormones and energy levels took a nosedive?
Susan Combs, 64, with whom I also went to law school and who was in a small study group with Paula James and me, sees it all very differently. She’s now Texas state comptroller and one of the few Republicans I know. She’s also smart, funny and opinionated, with the rapid delivery style of an Uzi. Even when I don’t agree with her, I enjoy listening to her.
First of all, you can ditch your complaints about society and sexism, Combs says. It’s all about individual families and the decisions they make. “I no longer think women can have it all,” she says. “I’m sorry, but I don’t. I know many smart women with Ph.D’s and law degrees who have decided to cut back or stop working. It’s a painful decision. But women are, by nature, more bothered by the anxiety of taking care of children. It’s a limiter.”
Combs tells a story about the eldest of her three sons, who once asked when he could talk to her about his upcoming birthday. Busy at work, she repeatedly put him off—till he asked whether he should schedule an appointment with her. The next day, Combs told the managing partner of her law firm that she’d be leaving every day at 3 p.m. “The only place I was indispensable was at home,” she says. “Nowhere else.”
Yes, but. The point is, Combs kept on working, even if her hours were shorter. That doesn’t make her much different from women like Vivian Castleberry, who continued to work while she and her husband reared five daughters. Or Juliet Garcia, who married at 19, began having children almost immediately, finished a Ph.D when she was 27, and went on to have a brilliant career in higher education. All three women, I should add, also had prodigious energy, supportive husbands and household help. This answers one of my usual, outraged questions: Where are all the men in this difficult equation of work and home life? In these cases, the men were involved. Non-involved husbands and fathers: Now, those are the real limiters.
What conclusions can we draw from the lives of women who are educated, driven, and live in unusually supportive situations? What about most women, who struggle under more limiting circumstances? Vivian Castleberry says it enrages her that her daughters and granddaughters still face the same overwhelming obstacle she dealt with a half-century ago: If you want to work outside the home, where can you find good and affordable child care for your family?
I disagree with Susan Combs about work-versus-family decisions coming down to a matter of individual conscience. Because we haven’t made affordable child care a priority, we still live in a society that makes it harder for working mothers to succeed. You can call it a right-wing conspiracy or entrenched sexism—it doesn’t matter. Texas women with young children face enormous barriers. No wonder their income still lags behind men’s.
I know, too, that sexism lingers and undermines women. Feminism, as Paula James insists, has been demonized by the right-wing and fundamentalist movements. My daughter, Teal, a 27-year-old professional woman with an advanced degree, tells me feminism needs a public-relations overhaul. “It’s equated with being an irrational, angry bunch of women,” she said. “It’s lost its definition of being something about basic equality.” And Angela Shelf Medearis, who’s been enormously successful as a producer and author, still rejects the “feminist” label for herself. “I never liked the women’s movement,” she said. “It had too much anger and hostility toward men. I’m not angry at men.”
But then I wonder: What difference does it make whether you call it feminism or any other term? Movements change, language evolves. Look at the enormous expansion of women’s opportunities in my lifetime. Look at the surge in women attending professional schools—all of which has already changed society and will continue to change it, even if the change is so damned slow we can barely see it move.
“Looking back, after growing up in the fifties, I see incredible progress women have made,” said Sherry Smith, who worked as a researcher for the Texas Women’s History Project in the early 1980s. “Think of how it used to be when we were growing up. Think about the centuries before that. We’ve come so far.”
“There’s a certain kind of self-respect Texas women have. Ann Richards had a tough life, but she could still laugh at herself. Molly Ivins, too. Women who have done well in Texas had to develop a sense of toughness and a sense of humor. They lack the crazy anxiety of women on both coasts. They have a sense of eccentricity, too; I really like that.” —Mimi Swartz
Susan Combs thinks all Texas women grow up imbued with the myths of the state, feeling like pioneers who want to do big things. Sarah Weddington believes we’re influenced by the strong personalities we grew up with in the state, both male and female. “Also,” she says, “we’ve grown up with so much room, grown up so isolated, that we don’t tend to cut each other up the way women in other states do.”
But maybe this is all changing as Texas becomes more crowded and urban, more intertwined with the rest of the world. Joyce Saenz Harris, a 55-year-old longtime journalist
n Dallas, says we love our images of big hair, bragga
ocio and barbecue—but we’re probably more like the rest of the country than we want to admit. “We’re an urban state, dealing with the same realities as every other part of the country,” she said. “We’re not as different as we like to think.”
Mimi Swartz, 54, who’s written some of the most insightful commentary about Texas women over the years for Texas Monthly and The New York Times, finds a certain poignancy to the lives of Texas women we’ve lionized over the years. “Women like Ann Richards, Molly Ivins and Nellie Connally all learned to put the best face on things, but they were more fragile than we knew,” she says. “You have the hand that’s dealt you and you have to make the best of it. Ann Richards always kept her dignity. Molly Ivins, too. They would never let anybody turn them into a joke. They controlled their destiny more than that.”
Maybe, Swartz says, the psychic cost of being a figurehead has gotten too high and too isolating. The public demands too much of its icons and doesn’t want to see their human weaknesses. Perhaps, too, nobody with a crumb of sanity wants to pay that tremendous price of invasiveness and loss of privacy in these days of omnivorous 24-7 news, Twitter, social networking and YouTube.
Or maybe we look around today and fail to see the outsize personalities we’ve loved in the past simply because they’re less necessary than they once were. As more women work, succeed, achieve membership in the insider clubs of law partnerships and corporate boards, do we need the same looming billboard-sized images we worshiped in the past? Maybe, today, we can thrive with the smaller, more everyday images of women around us who are steadily making progress.
“I think a lot of young women are with us in spirit. But they’re in their twenties and thirties, trying to get a job, get health care, establish a relationship. They’re too preoccupied with other things at this time in their lives.” —Sarah Weddington
“I see our daughters’ generation as much more cognizant of the realities women face to make families and marriages and careers work. That was never on my mind when I was their age. I just thought everything would magically work out.” —Brenda Bell
Talking to these women, getting a sense of what’s important and what’s lacking in their lives and the women’s movement, reminds me that we all create our own narratives to make sense of our lives and beliefs. For me, one of the most important tenets of the women’s movement is that meaningful work is vitally important to both men and women.
The privileged women in Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, who suffered from the ennui and dissatisfaction Friedan called “the problem with no name,” had no work or identity outside their homes and families. They yearned, Friedan felt, for a greater purpose in life. I read Friedan’s book when I was in college and it always made me think of my highly intelligent (though not highly privileged) mother, a housewife who suffered brutal bouts of depression. Wouldn’t her life have been far better if she’d had interesting, fulfilling work?
I know, I know. Because of my mother, I probably overestimate the importance of work, which has always been an emotional mainstay in my own life. And I recognize that for most people, male and female, work can be pure drudgery, little more than a way to earn a paycheck. Meaningful work and a job you love may be a rare privilege. But it’s one I’ve clung to all my life—and it’s what I hope for, for both my daughter and son, along with loving, stable relationships and good friends.
At this point, maybe my generation has done as much as we can. Maybe it isn’t our turn any longer. Sarah Weddington talks about being tired after so many years of struggle. “I think Liz Carpenter said it best,” Weddington says, referring to one of the state’s most prominent feminists who was Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary. “She said we’ll never leave the battlefield. But these days, you’re more likely to find us on the sidelines, still cheering the race.”
Brenda Bell, 63, projects editor at the Austin American-Statesman and the mother of two grown daughters, says she often thinks our generation has botched it. “We stumbled through our lives,” she says. “We didn’t understand what it took to make things happen—trying to combine work and family. How could we? We were making it up as we went along.” And Angela Shelf Medearis worries about the world her 32-year-old daughter lives in, “when relationships and marriages are crumbling. There’s more single-parenting than ever before and it’s just a different world morally than the world I grew up in. This whole generation is in a freefall,” she says.
Sure, Brenda Bell is right—those of us who juggled careers and families and marriage were making it up as we went along and quickly figured out that it was a lot tougher than we’d anticipated. I’m pretty sure that when our own two children were young, my husband and I passed through years when we never completed a thought or a sentence.
But I wouldn’t change the life I’ve had over the past decades for anything, however crazy and overloaded and frantic it’s been. I wouldn’t change this world I’ve lived in for the well-ordered emptiness of my parents’ lives for anything. My mother never had a choice. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the choice to work and have a family, however difficult and demanding.
More than anything, I still believe, as Vivian Castleberry does, that feminism remains important because women have to live their own lives and pursue their own dreams. “You can’t live other people’s dreams,” Castleberry says. “You can’t live vicariously through other people.”
We have lived some of our own dreams, however imperfectly.
I look forward to a younger generation succeeding where we’ve fallen short—the young women Sarah Weddington talks about when she says she knows the younger generation is feminist in spirit, if not in title. I think of a conversation with my own daughter, Teal.
“When I was growing up,” I tell her, “women’s and girls’ dreams weren’t taken seriously.”
“I can’t imagine that,” she says.
That’s good. It’s not nearly enough, of course, but it’s still good, it’s still something. Maybe we have done a few things right. Maybe there are many worse things than dreaming big—and falling short.