Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 9)

Race and gender scholars since the 1970s have debunked earlier notions that women, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asians, the working class and other marginalized groups were passive actors forced to live life on the terms imposed from above. Agreeing with Foucault that discourses of power generate opposition, feminist scholars in Texas have suggested that distinctions drawn between the choices of assimilation vs. separatism or accommodation vs. resistance are artificial. Elizabeth York Enstam, Judith N. McArthur, and Elizabeth Hayes Turner in particular have been inventive in demonstrating how Texas women subverted assigned gender roles while also seeming to submit to male-imposed limitations. These historians describe how late 19th and early 20th century women redefined the boundaries between the spheres of private and public life, forged alliances across racial lines or helped draw the color line, used women’s clubs as political vehicles, and responded to issues like lynching, Prohibition, segregation, public health and school funding. McArthur’s work was particularly sophisticated as she explores, in "Creating the New Woman", how women utilized male politicians’ neglect of food inspection, sanitation, and infant care to build a grassroots political network that laid a foundation for the later suffrage campaign.

McArthur suggested that while “female consciousness” (an awareness by individual women of their common identity with other women) arose fairly early in Dixie, “feminist consciousness” (an awareness of male oppression and the need for women to organize to gain full rights) developed more slowly in the South because Southern women had no comparable experience to Northern women’s abolitionist and temperance activism. Slavery created a politically oppressive atmosphere that suffocated all manner of political dissent, especially among already marginalized women. Conservatism among Texas male elites dampened not only an indigenous women’s suffrage campaign, but even the spread of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Powerful male preachers attacked WCTU activists for violating gender norms by involving themselves in politics and speaking to audiences including both men and women.

McArthur argued that two events provided entrée for Texas women into the Progressive Movement: the confederation of local women’s clubs into national organizations which put Texas women into more regular contact with their politically active peers in the North and the involvement of women, including those from Texas, in creating a women’s exhibit hall for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892. She suggested that women in Texas in particular benefited from the creation of new academic disciplines, including the rise of “scientific” housekeeping and childrearing. “Fired with the progressives’ passion for efficiency and scientific rationalism, the first home economists sought to free women from drudgery and elevate traditional women’s work into a professional co-equality with that of men,” McArthur wrote. Women’s “scientific” expertise in this traditionally female domains of concern gave women heightened credibility as they gradually nudged into mainstream politics.

According to McArthur, professional housekeeping flowed naturally toward campaigning for cleaner cities. “Learning the dangers of living in a house that drained toward the well, carried drinking water in lead pipes, and lacked vents and fans to move airborne microbes that spread diseases such as tuberculosis was a first step,” according to McArthur. “Discovering the interconnectedness of domestic and municipal sanitation followed.” Women forced open the door to the political world by focusing on so-called “women’s issues” such as improving schools or increasing the accessibility of quality health care. The organizational experience from these “women’s campaigns” smoothed the way for the women’s suffrage campaign which would succeed in the second decade of the twentieth century. Thus women exploited men’s belief that women should concern themselves with hearth and home to stake a claim in the male-dominated world of public health.

McArthur’s account is largely triumphant, but she concedes that the clubwomen she studied entered into municipal politics on the heels of segregation policies that allegedly made it safer for white women to plunge into the state’s urban spaces. Such women, she also found, tapped into xenophobia, employing anti-German stereotypes to promote the temperance campaign. True to the post-modern perspective, the state’s disenfranchised are simultaneously oppressed and are oppressors. In her biography of early twentieth century grassroots suffragist Minnie Fisher Cunningham, McArthur found a woman who strode a “careful line between assertiveness and deference” as she exploited the popular image of Southern womanhood in order to manipulate male legislators to support women’s right to vote in Texas.

Contemporary gender scholars have found that women in 19th and 20th century rural Texas found symbolic power in unexpected places, power that gave them limited autonomy and allowed them to form bonds with other women. Rebecca Sharpless, in "Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices: Women on the Texas Cotton Farms, 1900-1940" (1999), argued that not only African American and Mexican American women, but white ethnics, such as Germans and Czechs, faced prejudice and lives on the edge of poverty as their families struggled with the harsh demands of sharecropping. Sharpless makes remarkable use of both oral histories she conducted as well as archived interviews and reports filed by the social workers sent to cotton farms in the Texas Blackland Prairie in North Central and Central Texas during the 1920s and 1930s. With these materials, she reconstructed the lives of black, Anglo, and Eastern and Southern European descended rural women. As Sharpless points out, in spite of their relative absence in traditional archival sources, these women constituted a majority of the adult population in this region. Sharpless suggested that women contributed perhaps the most important labor to the cotton economy in three ways: their physical labor in the cotton fields; the domestic savings they created through their household work such as sewing and cooking; and their participation in the micro-economy through sales of surplus eggs, butter and so on.

Women contributed significantly to their family income, Sharpless writes. Any food not prepared at home had to be bought on credit, an unsupportable burden for families already buried in debt. Meanwhile, preparation of dinners for holidays, church suppers, cooking contests, etc. allowed women the opportunity to form independent social networks in a context where social isolation posed a serious threat. In preparing meals, women also introduced technology to their sharecropping community, for instance pooling their resources to obtain canning equipment for preserving food products. One of Sharpless’ greatest contributions is demonstrating how common labor and the shared experience of sexism allowed Texas women to cross-racial and ethnic lines. Also, while many gender historians note the contributions of women to the home economy, Sharpless documents the invaluable labor that women contributed to the American and global economies.

Sharpless, Ruiz, and Acosta and Winegarten confirmed the significant role Latinas played in the macro-economy. Agricultural labor depended on the family unit with women pulling a double shift, working in the fields all day while they tended to household tasks when they returned home in the evening. Latinas in the United States transformed gender roles within their communities, supporting Catholic parishes even as their importance to the family economy altered the construction of masculinity and femininity in the Mexican American community.

The new gender scholars portray Latinas from the 1930s on as utilizing their increasing self-awareness and their longstanding networks of kinship to lead the Mexican American labor movement and shape the state’s politics. Women like Emma Tenayuca, the secretary of the Texas Communist Party, braved police tear gas and billy clubs while organizing a pecan shellers union in San Antonio between 1933 and 1938. A strike led by Tenayuca involved 6,000 to 8,000 workers, the largest strike in Texas as of that date. Latinas’ participation in church politics and volunteer organizations gave them an advantage in union organizing, argue recent gender scholars. These intricate female networks proved necessary because women labor organizers ran head first into more traditional, phallocentric ideas of sex roles. For instance, labor historian Patricia Hill found that when mostly Jewish female garment workers attempted to organize an International Ladies Garment Workers Union local in Dallas in the 1930s, middle class men who had sympathized with male-led union organizing in the past, refused to support the women’s campaign for better working conditions. Local newspapers constructed female strikers as guilty of “unwomanly violence.”

Three decades later, Latinas had to battle sexism even within the left, according to Acosta and Winegarten. The Chicano movement, she noted, relied on warlike masculine imagery and Chicano leaders saw women’s issue as an unimportant distraction. Chicanas active in la causa “were often castigated as a threat to the political unity of the Chicano movement,” Acosta and Winegarten wrote. “They were identified as both anti-male and lesbian since, in some individuals’ views, lesbianism was an extreme outcome of feminism.” Chicana feminists faced similar disdain from their white peers who saw Mexican Americans as unsophisticated and lacking in political skills.

Similar to Tejanas, the role of African American women in the state’s civil rights movement was erased from the collective memory and has been uncovered by historians in the past 20 years. Merline Pitre’s "In Struggle Against Jim Crow: Lulu B. White and the NACCP, 1900-1957" (1999) and Stefanie Decker’s East Texas Historical Association essay, “Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Juanita Craft vs. the Dallas Elite” (2001), present evidence that, like Tejanas, black women in the twentieth century also fought the four-front war against racial, gender, and class oppression as well as marginalization within the larger women’s movements. “Within three decades following the civil rights movement, scholars have amassed a rich body of literature detailing the battle for racial and political struggle,” Pitre observes in her well-written account. “Yet, although black women were leaders and activists in crusades against lynching, poll taxes and Jim Crow statutes, very few studies document the major role played by them in the modern movement for social change . . . These women were not only supporters, fulfilling traditional female roles as nurturers and caretakers, but were also major leaders, organizers and strategists.”

In analyzing the life of Lulu White, the one-time executive secretary of the NAACP’s Houston branch, Pitre combines political socialization theory with the “theory of marginality.” Pitre argues that black women never neatly fit within the socially constructed female roles assigned to their white peers. Under slavery, black women were reduced to sex objects by the white ruling class or unsexed as “mammies.” They toiled as the caretakers of not just their own children but those of their white masters, while whites at the same time demeaned them as jezebels. As mothers, daughters and sisters in families that could be destroyed if the slaveowner went into debt, died, got sued, or suffered gambling debts, African American women often found themselves thrust into roles as family heads and spokespersons for their community. Viewed through the lens of contradictory stereotypes and thrust, willingly or not, into a leadership role, African American women in the twentieth century inherited a tradition of independence and assertion that equipped them to battle sexist condescension. While political socialization theory suggests that the political behavior of adult men and women derives from childhood gender indoctrination, Pitre notes that for African American women this theoretical framework is useful only if it is combined with the theory of marginalization. Under the latter approach, scholars acknowledge that highly visible political activism by marginalized groups already defies social expectations. It was seen as defiance to convention for any African Americans to demand justice, equal housing, quality schools and an end to convention. In this context hearing these demands from bold women like Lulu White was not as shocking. The situation faced by all blacks, men and women, required “some measure of unconventionality in thinking and the absence of a clear standard of conduct.”


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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