SOMEWHERE IN THAT LARGEST OF editions of the Platonic Dictionary, next to the definition of “political wife,” there is probably a small photograph of Opal Warren Yarborough, the gracious widow of former U.S. senator Ralph Yarborough, Texas’ legendary liberal politician. Opal, who passed away in November at age 99, worked quietly at her husband’s side for decades, even though she had told Ralph early on, “I won’t marry a man in politics.”
And really, who would want that thankless life? Political spouses come in all types. There are those who say, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, that they will not simply stand by their men and bake cookies. (Though Clinton has, against all odds, stood by her man.) They see their roles as larger, as more politically active, and often use their positions to champion important causes.
Others, like Margaret Burns Biaggne, take a less political but no less active role. She was the wife of fifties-era Galveston County sheriff Frank Biaggne, the man who once told a legislative panel that he had never raided the infamous Balinese Room casino because, well, it was a private club and he wasn’t a member. Whenever Mrs. Biaggne heard someone speaking ill of her husband, she would hit the offender with her purse. Hard. It was a big purse, and heavy.
But more traditionally, there have always been those who see their role as standing quietly by, and Opal fit that mold. She famously passed the time with needlepoint. She did a lot of needlepoint. “I think we’re the only family that actually has needlepointed phone book covers,” recalled the Reverend Doctor Clare Yarborough, one of her granddaughters.
Opal was born in Murchison, a few days and a few miles apart from Ralph, who hailed from Chandler; they married when they were both 25, in 1928. Their many campaigns together, which began in 1938, when Ralph ran for state attorney general, were strenuous, and the attacks on Ralph tended toward the brutal. At one point in his career, Governor Allan Shivers accused him of being supported by communist labor unions. But if you asked Opal about those angry days, she would say, “I don’t talk about that.” Don’t let the silence fool you, though. Those who knew her came to appreciate her intelligence and strength. Like most political spouses of her era, all the way up to Eleanor Roosevelt, she simply chose to express her influence behind the scenes. “Ralph would talk and talk,” said her friend Lynda Gammage, the wife of former congressman and Texas Supreme Court justice Bob Gammage, “but she would end up having the last word, if she wanted to.”
I happen to know a little myself about this behind-the-scenes approach to being a political wife. My mother, Marilyn, followed the path favored by Mrs. Yarborough. My father, A. R. “Babe” Schwartz, was a longtime member of the Texas Senate, and when people would call the house, angry over some position or other of Dad’s, she would politely but firmly cut them off. “I don’t take complaints,” she’d say. “I only take compliments.” I learned from her that niceness can be an effective form of strength. As for needlepoint, which my mother also practiced, she says it was a tool of patience for both her and Opal Yarborough: “You can sit there and needlepoint and look down, and you don’t have to get mad. You don’t have to say anything.”
Clare Yarborough told me that her grandmother’s “ministry on earth” was “to create a home, wherever it was, so Ralph always thought he had a stable base from which to go out and conquer the world—so he knew there was always going to be comfort for him at the end of the day and a friend.” This kind of quiet political wife may be a vanishing breed in an age when women’s opportunities in politics are approaching those of men. Few would argue that this is a regrettable change, but it shouldn’t discount the work of dedicated wives like Opal who simply grew up in a different generation.
“It’s just like the end of an era,” said Caryl Yontz, who worked on Senator Yarborough’s staff in Washington for five years. “It’s just kind of a final thing.” She was speaking of Opal’s passing and the generation of Texas liberals that Ralph epitomized. But she could have been talking about a lot more.