Mothers, Sisters, Daughters, Wives

In 2011 the Legislature slashed family planning funds, passed a new sonogram law, and waged an all-out war on Planned Parenthood that has dramatically shifted the state’s public health priorities. In the eighteen months since then, the conflict has continued to simmer in the courts, on the campaign trail, and in at least one PR disaster. Meanwhile, what will happen to Texas women—and their fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands—remains very much unclear.

different kinds of sonograms,” Alvarado said, trying again to explain. “The abdominal, which most of our colleagues may think [of as] ‘jelly on the belly’—that is not what would be done here. A woman that is eight to ten weeks pregnant would have a transvaginal procedure.” Miller stammered a response, but Alvarado was not done with him. She continued the grilling for several more minutes, keeping Miller on the ropes with a sustained barrage of icky female anatomy talk. Ultimately, however, the room was stacked against her. 

On March 7 Miller’s bill passed 107–42. 

Over the next few months, as the Senate passed its version of the bill, which was sponsored by Houston senator Dan Patrick, and as Governor Perry signed the legislation into law at a solemnly triumphant ceremony, the exchange between Alvarado and Miller stood as a glaring reminder of the peculiar way in which women could be largely boxed out of decisions that were primarily concerning them. (A number of female Republican legislators supported the bill too, but the overwhelming majority of the votes cast in its favor were from men.) Of course, women have rarely held the reins of power in Texas, but there has also seldom been a season as combative on the subject of women’s health as the one we have experienced in the past eighteen months.

Miller’s bill was only the beginning of what turned out to be the most aggressively anti-abortion and anti-contraception session in history. In the words of one female reporter who covered the Legislature, “It was brutal.” Not only did the sonogram law pass, but drastic cuts were made to statewide family planning funds, and a Medicaid fund known as the Women’s Health Program was sent back to Washington, stamped with a big “No thanks.” When the dust settled, Texas had turned down a $9-to-$1 match of federal dollars, and the health care of 280,000 women had been placed in jeopardy. And that wasn’t all. Earlier this year, around the time that the new laws began to take effect, an epic, if short-lived, fight broke out between Planned Parenthood and the Susan G. Komen Foundation, pitting two of Texas’s most powerful women against each other and highlighting the agonizing, divisive nature of the debate over women’s health. No sooner had this conflict subsided than the Legislature’s decision to kill the Women’s Health Program was dragged into the courts for a series of reversals and counter-reversals that is still not resolved.

These conflicts could all be seen as the latest in a long struggle, as women in Texas try to gain control over not just their own health care decisions but their own economic futures and those of their families. This is the state, after all, from which the modern abortion wars originated in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, a case, let’s not forget, that pitted a 21-year-old Houston woman and two upstart lady lawyers from Austin against formidable Dallas County district attorney Henry Wade. It’s a decades-old battle between the sexes over who knows best and, more importantly, who’s in charge. And over the past year, the fighting has intensified. On the one side are the Carol Alvarados of the world; on the other, the Sid Millers. The outcome will determine nothing less than the fate of Texas itself. 

For most of Texas history, even during the seemingly halcyon period that was Ann Richards’s governorship, the goal of Texas women to achieve parity with Texas men has been out of reach. The men who settled the state were a tough bunch. They had to survive a harsh, unforgiving climate; murderous Comanche; soil that was in many places relentlessly resistant to cultivation; rattlesnakes; bandits; long, lonely cattle drives; and more. But women—to paraphrase Richards—had to do most of that barefoot and pregnant and without any of the liberties or rights that men enjoyed. As the saying goes, “Texas is heaven for men and dogs, but it’s hell for women and horses.”

Many frontier women learned quickly that they were effectively on their own—the downside to hooking up with a rugged individualist far more comfortable with his cattle than with his wife. They bore, raised, and, too often, buried their kids. They figured out how to make do in the face of cruel poverty. Women had to contend with a challenging contradiction: on the one hand, the clearly defined sex roles of the nineteenth century dictated a courtliness and paternal protectiveness on the part of Texas men that survives to this day. On the other hand, the state was settled in most cases by force, fostering a worship of physical strength and a visceral contempt for anyone too weak to make it on his or her own. 

Modern Texas history is filled with stories of women who were held down by what academics like to call “the patriarchy” and the rest of us might simply call “macho white guys.” When trailblazing federal judge and legislator Sarah Hughes ran for reelection to the House in 1932, for instance, her opponent suggested that her colleagues “oughta slap her face and send her back to the kitchen.” 

Governor John Connally’s Commission on the Status of Women, established in 1967, found numerous inequities in education and the workforce—but also noted that “overly enthusiastic soapboxing oratory can do the feminine cause more harm than good.” It has been frequently pointed out that Kay Bailey Hutchison, one of the most successful females in recent Texas history, became a television reporter in the sixties because, after finishing law school, she couldn’t find work as an attorney. During Barbara Jordan’s entire term in the Legislature, which lasted from 1967 to 1973, she was the only woman in the Senate; across the hall, there was only one female in the House: Sue Hairgrove, followed by Sissy Farenthold.

What their male counterparts seemed slow to grasp was that, having endured the same adverse frontier environment as their husbands, fathers, and brothers, Texas women developed many of the same characteristics: the indomitable independent streak, the persistent optimism in the face of

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