Given the sexist condescension women faced in Texas political culture, it is ironic that women played a central role in building the state’s Republican Party into a competitive force in the second half of the twentieth century. Affluent conservative women began to flock to the GOP banner in the 1950s and 1960s, in part because they believed they believed the national and local Republican Party supported smaller government and that the Democratic Party’s monopoly of political power led to corruption.
“In the 1950s, the backbone of our effort was the women,” said Peter O’Donnell, a Republican Party leader in Dallas County. “At the time the business community by and large was conservative Democrats and men, but women . . . worked hard. They were dependable . . . We had a huge volunteer effort. We knew that they could perform. There weren’t as many women in the work force then as there are today.”
Republican women played a significant role in the victory of John Tower in the 1961 Senatorial special election. Virginia Eggers, active in GOP circles in both Dallas and Wichita Falls, recalled her time as a so-called “Tower Belle.” “We were all dressed up in our little red vests,” she said. “They were red felt and we had these little red pillbox hats. We would wear our navy blue skirts and our white blouses. We got on a bus and we just drove down the highway. We would stop in any town. We went in the billiard parlor one time. There were groups in the back playing cards. Not one of them did a thing. They just raised their eyes to us and watched as we paraded around the room. We want you to meet John Tower . . . they never moved –- their eyes just followed us around the room. We are lucky they didn’t shoot at us.”
In spite of the state’s long history of sexism and paternalism, Texas became one of the first states to pass the never-nationally-ratified Equal Rights Amendment. Women had become a driving force in the Republican movement, but occupied a key role among liberal Democrats as well. Voters approved the ERA as part of the state Constitution, co-sponsored by Democratic state representatives Barbara Jordan and Frances “Sissy” Farenthold, by a 4-1 margin in 1972.
In spite of the immense political talent displayed by so many women, those running for public office in the late 1960s and 1970s still ran a gauntlet of sexism at the state House. Sissy Farenthold later described herself as “naive” when she arrived in to serve as a House member representing Corpus Christi in Austin. Farenthold initially refused to sponsor a state Equal Rights Amendment in the House, she said, because of her loyalty to the Texas Bar Association, which opposed the amendment. But she quickly lost her innocence after repeated brushes with sexism in the political world.
During her first campaign for the Legislature, a voter confused by her androgynous first name, proudly told Farenthold he had voted for her husband. She told they voter that he had voted for her. “If I had know that, I wouldn’t voted for you,” he replied. Capitol guards, assuming she was not a member of the Legislature, repeatedly blocked her entry to the House and Senate Chambers and questioned her when she tried to use her official parking space. Fort Worth Senator Don Kennard, upon meeting the state representative, asked Farenthold who she worked for. The House sergeant-at-arms marched into her office and removed her male secretary.
When the Constitutional Amendments Committee, which included Farenthold as a member, chose to hold a meeting at the males-only Citadel Club in Austin, fellow committee members took no action as the Club barred her entry. Farenthold’s peers on the committee bought her chocolates, but neglected to tell her what the committee had discussed at the Citadel. Farenthold didn’t laugh this off. She objected loudly and she was never barred from another committee meeting. “In the beginning, I could have been a pet,” Farenthold later recalled. “There was a sort of pethood ordained for you, if you accepted it . . . If I had quietly gone about what was expected of me, I probably would have had a few perks . . . [B]ut I wasn’t up here as a guest. I was up here as an elected representative.”
The persistence of all-male retreats as part of Legislative culture provided a formidable obstacle to the election of a woman as speaker. Garland Representative Anita Hill, who served as a Democrat from 1977 to 1979 and as a Republican until 1993, encountered discrimination for the first time in her life when, in 1981, she was barred as Farenthold had been years earlier from entry to the Citadel Club. Hill had hoped to meet with the rest of her legislative delegation and Garland city officials but was told by attorney and club president Clint Smalls that the Citadel was “just not set up to handle women at noon” and that “a gaggle” of women would sound like “magpies” and annoy the male customers.
Hill said the experience increased her sensitivity to the discrimination suffered by African Americans and Mexican Americans. “I’m just upset enough to look at things very differently,” she said. Hill, Wilhelmina Delco and other women in the House pushed through a resolution pledging that no member would attend a function excluding other members on the basis of race, ethnicity or gender.
On the surface, the 1980s and 1990s represented a watershed politically for Texas women. Travis County Commissioner Ann Richards surprised political pundits by becoming the first woman to win statewide office in Texas, outside of Gov. “Ma” Ferguson, with her capture of the State Treasurer’s office in 1982. Eight years later, Richards became the first Texas woman to win the governor’s mansion in her own right and not as a proxy for a man, as happened when Ferguson ruled Texas as a stand-in for her husband Jim.
In 1986, three women won election to the state Senate when previously no more than one had served in any Legislative session. Democrats and Republicans both nominated women for state Treasurer the same year and the winner, Kay Bailey Hutcheson, became the first Republican woman to ever win statewide office. Three years later, Hutchison again made state history, becoming the first Texas woman elected to the United States Senate prevailing in a special election against Bob Krueger, the man appointed to the Senate by Gov. Richards when President Bill Clinton appointed Democrat Lloyd Bentsen as Secretary of the Treasury. In 1993, Judge Rose Spector broke another barrier with her election to the state Supreme Court. The Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, however, remained an exclusive male preserve.
As the number of women in the House and the Senate grew in the 1990s, the institutional culture nudged forward. As Eddie Bernice Johnson observed, the three B’s of lobbying previously mentioned had been shunted in favor of golfing trips, but women were still not included in the game. In the 1990s, it would be the agenda of conservative women and their male allies that would rise triumphant and not that of their liberal, openly feminist peers. Socially conservative men and women placed as high priorities severe restrictions on abortion, adding an anti-gay marriage amendment to the state Constitution, and restricting the awards litigants could win in the civil courts, even in sexual harassment cases. Equal wages for equal work, affirmative action for women, and legislation helping poorer women obtain childcare would not appear on the legislative horizon.
Even the legislative exclusion of women from decision-making survived in spite of the increased visibility of women in the House. “The [golf] trips [attended exclusively by male legislators] are bad politics,” Johnson said, “but I don’t even hear about them until I read about them in the papers.” Johnson said legislative men still condescend towards women. “When you look at the important huddles, the important power positions, the people the big legislation is taken to and who gets all the big [campaign] checks, they’re all men.” Without those big campaign checks and the other political perks that came with possessing a “Y” chromosome, the speaker’s apartment remained beyond reach for any woman not married to the presiding officer.
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.