I recently came across a roast of Ann Richards on C-SPAN that took place in Port Arthur in 1992. It seemed like something out of another era—that brief time when George H. W. Bush was president and Richards was governor. It had been four years since she wowed the Democratic convention with her gibe that the forty-first president had been “born with a silver foot in his mouth,” and she was well on her way to icon status. But this southeast Texas event was clearly one held among friends, mostly among the good ol’ boys whom Richards had tolerated and cajoled and bullied to get her way in the statehouse. Once-powerful Democratic state senator Carl Parker was there, as was the crazy-rich East Texas plaintiff’s lawyer and Democratic donor Walter Umphrey. Bum Phillips, former coach of the former Houston Oilers, gave a testimonial; then-congressman Jack Brooks, the longtime dean of the Texas delegation, got a hot-mic dressing-down about a crime bill from Richards just before the proceedings began. Of course, Richards’s BFF, Molly Ivins, was there, claiming her rightful place on the dais.
This was not a group who could ever be mistaken for, say, denizens of a posh Connecticut suburb. A lot of the men were kind of tubby, pasty white, and poorly tailored. Unless you had an assertive Texas accent, you might have been denied admission. Many of the jokes were the kind you couldn’t tell today without attracting a lawsuit. But Ann and Molly—that’s what everyone called them, whether they knew them personally or not—fit right in, giving every bit as good as they got. Ivins, slathering on her thickest Texas patois, began by saying, “I’ve known Ann Richards since both Ann and Exxon were still Humble.” After the applause died down, she added that Richards was “one of the finest public officials Texas ever sent to California for treatment.”
Richards began her portion of the evening by stepping to the podium, picking up the yardstick used as a pointer by a previous speaker, and casually putting it aside. “There’s nuthin’ big enough [here] to measure with that,” she muttered, breaking up the place before she’d even started her speech, one she proceeded to deliver with expert comic timing.
It was easy to see from even a musty old performance why the two women had become Texas legends: they were hilarious and sharp, of course, but more important, they had a way of bridging all the gaps that can separate us. They were of Texas but also outside it, in a way that could win friends and disarm potential enemies. Whatever difficulties these women had in their lives—and they had them—they were successes by any measure, and in a male-dominated world that, as Richards’s most famous metaphor put it, required them to follow like Ginger Rogers, dancing backwards in high heels. I was well into middle age before I understood that their histories are my history, and that of so many Texas women before me.
Growing up in San Antonio in the sixties, I didn’t have that many female role models to choose from, or it seemed that way to me at the time. I was sure, in fact, that the Richards/Ivins option was the sole alternative to the obvious if impossible path many of my girlfriends had selected: the Farrah Fawcett route. If you are older than, oh, thirty-something, you remember Farrah: the breathless, stunning blond star of the first iteration of Charlie’s Angels and the poster that fueled the fantasies of countless teenage boys. She was the personification of Texas beauty, the gorgeous, fresh-faced sorority sister type, the one who inspired severe self-image problems for any female who wasn’t blue-eyed, long-legged, and expertly flirtatious. (Mine were the Paleolithic days; pre-Selena, pre-Beyoncé, much less Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion.)
My high school, like most Texas high schools of its time, was dominated by mini-Farrahs, often but not always cheerleaders who seemed to possess some secret knowledge of makeup application, hair color, and whatever feminine wiles it took to get the attention of the cutest guys in school. I didn’t so much envy them as I just didn’t see the point. I was pursuing other interests; I wasn’t going to wear lipstick or color my hair. I was reading Siddhartha and protesting the construction of a freeway through town. My high school game plan was to get the hell out of Texas and never come back. As it turned out, I did come back, and over the years I came to realize that the only person who thought I had to pick just one of the role models was me.
Maybe surveying the list of Most Popular Texas Women would cause anyone to go a little binary, to set up an either/or equation. Either Richards and Ivins and the stentorian-voiced Barbara Jordan were representative, or victory went to the Farrah type. To my mind, Group A was smart, flinty, and funny, while Group B was beautiful, sexy, and well groomed. Of course, anyone who bothered to carefully examine the lives of both groups would quickly see that some of their qualities overlapped and that both flourished because they’d found ways to exercise power in a world still controlled by men.
Certain qualities that have made Texas women so noteworthy are also ones they share with Texas men: resilience, shrewdness, a boundless if sometimes ill-advised optimism, along with the ability to hold the floor just by virtue of being great company. I would submit too that Texas women have had to pick up the pieces of so many dunderheaded men over the years, including 2021, that they have honed these qualities to a fine art.
These women weren’t reserved like New Englanders and eschewed (with some contempt) the fragility of Southern belles. People were drawn to Ann Richards because there was no one else like her—the snowy white hair, the merciless humor, the quickness, the fearlessness. Whatever demons and insecurities she battled privately couldn’t deter her from being anyone but herself. I love to imagine the Houston-born super-hostess and philanthropist Lynn Wyatt in her mansion in the South of France, more cleverly dressed than all those other jet-setters, her voice and accent unmodulated (“Well, haaaaaaaaa!!!!!! How RRR yew?”), surely knowledgeable of but incapable of kowtowing to all the unwritten rules of European society.
One other thing: most of these women we now call icons came of age when Texas was making that epochal transition from a rural to an urban state. In them you can see (and hear) vestiges of a past that did not include video games or shopping malls or quickie weekends in Cozumel or Aspen. Molly Ivins went to Smith College, in Massachusetts, when few of her River Oaks contemporaries even considered venturing out of state. Houston still had Black and white water fountains when she was a kid, a factor that, along with that overbearing daddy of hers, no doubt shaped her politics. When there were still places on the West Side of San Antonio where bad drainage caused houses and streets to flood after every rain, Rosie Castro was taking her twin sons Julián and Joaquin to the polls and teaching them to pass out leaflets for Raza Unida candidates.
In short, most of these women came of age at a time (before, say, the oil boom of the late seventies and early eighties) when jokes about backward Texans contained more than a grain of truth. Anti-intellectualism flourished because it comforted the vast number of folks who were uneducated. Rich people were celebrated (and celebrated themselves) because there weren’t very many of them; most people knew exactly how hard life could be. Texas was a place where people had to learn to entertain themselves, to find beauty and joy amid harshness. This job fell to the women, of course. Not for nothing were Richards and Wyatt famous for their parties. Richards’s entertaining tips included (a) never washing her floor beforehand and (b) never feeding her guests until it got really late. She served homemade bread and vegetables from her organic garden; egg dishes came courtesy of her yard chickens. She kept a box of costumes at the ready, and she wasn’t above dressing as Santa Claus, Dolly Parton, or, famously, a Tampax. Wyatt gave seated dinners for as many as sixty guests with themes like “Denim and Diamonds,” “Think Pink,” and the “Gypsy Party.”
“Your life sounds like so much fun,” I once said to Wyatt, whom I was interviewing for one story or another and who had probably just finished telling me about visiting with Prince Charles or Elton John. “Oh,” she said, her voice softening, “if you only knew.” Her tone suggested that her life hadn’t been all fun and games—she was, after all, married to a man many considered the Darth Vader of the oil patch. But maybe that was the secret of so many Texas women I admired: Focus on the good times. The hard times will come again soon enough.
Most of us don’t recognize the veins of ore running through our own pasts—I for one was too busy rebelling against my hometown to see that anything there could possibly have any lasting value. But now I understand that I was always surrounded by unconventional women—that the iconography of Texas females came not from those at the top but evolved from the ground up, from women who learned to create, by whatever means necessary, not just a room of one’s own but a world more suited to one’s dreams and desires. It’s no accident that my childhood neighbor Robert Hammond would go on to develop the High Line, in Manhattan; his mother, Pat, turned their house into a world of wonders that could stir even the most stunted imagination. She collected everything—kites, brooches, cicada shells stored in jars. There were strings of lollipops as window treatments, old magic tricks she bought from a closing shop on Broadway.
My best friend’s mom offered ballet and tap lessons on her patio, which doubled as a recital stage. (There’s a picture of me in a tutu with a very Texas-like sequined bodice. I do not look happy.) Someone else’s mom taught us to batik in her garage with dyes she’d ordered from India; another friend’s mom made hand-carved melons for elaborate Chinese dinners. My mother used to take me to the junk shops on McCullough Avenue, where we’d pick through piles and piles of stuff, until I learned to spot genuine treasures amid all the Asian souvenirs San Antonio’s soldiers brought back from overseas. She taught me to restore neglected furniture and to tell the difference between loquat and kumquat trees, mesquite and hackberry. She put me on a horse when I was six or so—without a helmet, of course—and I learned that falling off and getting back on was the most essential life lesson of all.
If I surprised myself by hightailing it back to Texas after college on the East Coast—to then-booming Houston—it was equally surprising that the women I was drawn to were not East Coast exiles but those, like myself, who had grown up here. They had a gift for self-preserving—as opposed to self-deluding—optimism. We didn’t have to always be storming the barricades; it was okay to enjoy ourselves. A friend of mine once broke up a tedious dinner party by showing everyone how to wipe their spoons clean and then stick them so they hung from their noses. “I was brought up to be decorative and amusing,” another friend mused the other day. Which may have been true but didn’t stop her from becoming an attorney.
I am still ashamed when I think of how I initially discounted my friend Sally, whom I met when we were coworkers at a law firm more than forty years ago. She seemed to me a dark-haired, taller version of Farrah—a Group B type—who even in her twenties was stylish beyond her years; she had a whiskey-and-cigarettes laugh that carried down hallways. I imagined Sally had been given every sort of advantage as a child of old Houston; it was only later that I learned that her upbringing had been as full of trials as anyone’s. She just wore them with grace and humor, the same way she wore a cape embroidered with the Virgin of Guadalupe to stodgy River Oaks soirees. When my mother died, eleven years ago, Sally brought me a gigantic rosemary plant, with branches twirling every which way, that exuded an intoxicating woodsy aroma. The message was clear: sometimes all we can do in the face of loss is breathe in as much beauty as we can.
I wonder if young women growing up have anyone to tell them such things. I don’t think we will ever see the likes of Ann or Molly again, or their surrogates in small towns and suburbs. Texas has become so much more connected to the rest of the country and the world, and women are, maybe, not quite so thwarted that they have to obscure their dreams and ambitions behind costumes and pointed humor. They can work in oil fields and big law firms; they have the diction of Ivy League professors. And now they have so many homegrown role models to choose from: Beyoncé and Lizzo, Simone Biles and Eva Longoria, Cecile Richards and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, just to name a few—women who haven’t been bound by all the rules and biases of previous generations. But maybe there’s a little of Wyatt’s tasteful flamboyance in Queen Bey, Ivins’s nose-thumbing in Lizzo’s posturing. Lina’s resolve may be polite, but she’s as relentless as Rosie Castro. And no one could ever doubt that Cecile Richards is her mother’s daughter; thanks to the likes of Ann, Cecile now dances ever so gracefully, not backwards in high heels, but forward no matter what. In whatever shoes she likes.
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Strong Texas Women.” Subscribe today.