Texas Women

Why we shouldn't mess with 'em.

IT WAS SAID IN THE nineteenth century that Texas was hell on women and horses. I can’t speak for horses, but I am happy to report that Texas women are thriving. Over time, adversity has selected out our strength; what did not kill us made us stronger. The very fact that Texas has been historically inhospitable to its women is what gives Texas women today the chance to become the heroines of their time. Texas has always been a place where people could invent their own destiny, and the women featured in this issue have taken advantage of the opportunity.

Some, like Ruth Simmons, defined their lives in opposition to the harshness of their environments. She grew up under the constraints of segregation, in a state where the intellectual atmosphere was thin, and went on to become the president of Brown University. Some, like Kay Bailey Hutchison, made Texas a cause that continues to propel them through their public life. Some, like Sissy Spacek and Norah Jones, wear the landscape of Texas on their faces and carry the pain and pleasure of our state in their distinctive voices.

There are three main strains of Texas womanhood: Southern, Western, and Mexican. The Southern influence produced women who are mannered, proper, a bit formal, and rooted. Lady Bird Johnson is the embodiment of this strain. Born Claudia Alta Taylor on December 22, 1912, in her mother’s antebellum house near Karnack, in deep East Texas, she looked out her bedroom window onto a view that was completely obstructed by a dense forest of pine, oak, and cypress. She grew up shy and frightened of the world that lay beyond the trees but determined to see its wonders nonetheless. Western women, by contrast, are born extroverts—brash, take-nothin’-off-nobody good old gals like agriculture commissioner Susan Combs, her life forged as much by the limitless horizons of her family’s West Texas ranch as Mrs. Johnson’s was by the density of the Piney Woods. The Mexican strain is represented here by Antonia Ballí, whose daughter Cecilia relates her mother’s journey from Mexican poverty to Brownsville and ultimately to American citizenship.

Over time, the discrepancy between what most women need—shelter from the harsher elements, fair play, a little comfort now and then—and what the state has offered them has pushed many a Texas woman to achieve more than she or anyone else might have expected. Nobody expresses this idea better than novelist Larry McMurtry, whose female characters are complex and excruciatingly true to life. My favorite of McMurtry’s fictional women is Lonesome Dove’s Clara Allen, a frontier woman with a sharp eye for horses and horsemen. Clara is the mythical, true- grit Texas woman. She trades horses herself, stubbornly keeps the money she saved from the sale of her parents’ business, and one day has to store the bodies of her two sons in an icy shed, waiting for the ground to thaw out so she can bury them. At one point in the novel, Clara instructs her daughter not to kill a hen: “I keep those hens to talk to me when I’m lonesome,” she says. “I’ll only eat the ones who can’t make good conversation.” Though Clara is fictional, the story is real. One day, in 1877, a cowboy rode through the JA Ranch, near Palo Duro Canyon, in the Panhandle, and left Mary Ann Goodnight, the wife of famous rancher Charles Goodnight, three chickens. The ranch was so huge and the country so sparsely settled that, rather than cook them, Goodnight kept them as pets. “No one will ever know,” she wrote in her diary, “what pleasure those chickens were to me and how much company they were.”

These women are part of our mother-line. Their message to us through the centuries is that all suffering is local and all suffering can be borne. That message is part of our birthright as Texas women. It’s what distinguishes us from, say, the women of New England, for whom class, family, and status are the guiding narratives, or the women of California, who perpetually seem to be searching for something they never can find.

Each generation of us struggles against the constraints of its time. I’m proud to live in the shadow of San Antonio’s Eleanor Brackenridge, who revived the Texas Woman Suffrage Association in 1913. Nobody gave Brackenridge and her small band of suffragettes the right to vote; they had to fight for the precious victory. On June 26, 1918, the Texas law that prohibited women from voting was erased from the books, a year before Congress endorsed a resolution calling for the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Once Texas women got the right to vote, they never failed to exercise their political will. In 1972 Texas both ratified the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment and adopted its own similar amendment to the state constitution. A long trail of self-reliant and practical female political leaders has come in the wake of the suffragettes: Oveta Culp Hobby, the second woman Cabinet Secretary (Health, Education, and Welfare under Eisenhower); Congresswoman Barbara Jordan; legislative reformer Sissy Farenthold; mayors like Lila Cockrell, of San Antonio, Kathy Whitmire, of Houston, and Annette Strauss and incumbent Laura Miller, of Dallas; right on up to Karen Hughes, who insists on advising President Bush from Texas rather than Washington.

Lady Bird Johnson’s mother, Minnie Pattillo Taylor, believed women should have the right to vote. She died three months after the victory was won, when her only daughter was five years old. “There is no doubt that my mother wanted a bigger life,” Lady Bird told me when I was researching her biography. For the rest of her life, she lived out her mother’s unlived dreams, as is the fate of so many Texas women and daughters. The daughter of a woman who never got a chance to vote became first lady and helped shape the events of her time, by campaigning for her husband, pressing for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and giving birth to the environmental movement.

That’s us.

Tags: THE CULTURE

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