Thursday, May 05, 2011

The World's Biggest Frat House: Sexism, Family Life and Growing Up in the Texas Capitol

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe the incredible pressures speakers' families faced living inside the state capitol and the misogynistic atmosphere often prevailing at Texas' political nexus.

The Speaker of the Texas House is the only presiding officer of a legislative body to live inside state capitol. In the 1980s, Speaker Gib Lewis sensed that the accessibility of that office's official apartment was a weapon in his political arsenal.

"We utilized that apartment a great deal. We held election watches up there all the time. Members really utilized it. I even had a bar set up. We had members there at night . . . I’d have a Christmas party every year for all of the staff people in Capitol . . .

[W]e had a kitchen staff that worked for the speaker’s office . . . certain mornings, we would have breakfast meetings with various members of the Legislature. We’d always have lunches in there all the time with various people . . . [M]y wife was probably as good as anybody as far as entertaining members. Members’ wives like to come to the Capitol, because they could always go back to the speaker’s office and hang around and do whatever they wanted to do and feel free to do it."

The apartment’s accessibility sometimes resulted in embarrassing encounters with the public for the speaker’s family. In the days before entrances to the residence were locked, and because most tourists were unaware that the Capitol included two private apartments, the threat always existed that a stranger might wander into the speaker’s residence at an inconvenient time.

“If I ever had complete privacy, I wouldn’t know how to cope with it,” Martha Barnes told the Dallas Times Herald in 1969 as her family prepared to move from the speaker’s apartment to the lieutenant governor’s residence across the Capitol. According to the Times-Herald, the Barnes family was the first to live in the speaker’s apartment year-round.

One time Barnes ran into a state representative who told her that she had made him feel “real at home” that morning. “I couldn’t remember seeing him that morning, so I asked him what he meant,” she said. The legislator told her that he had been in the House post office that morning and could hear Barnes scold one of her children. “It reminded me of home,” he said. “You don’t do anything but that everyone knows about it,” Barnes told a Times Herald reporter.

In his book, "Texas Politics in my Rearview Mirror," Waggoner Carr recalled a time when he got too casual in the official residence.

There was a metal plate sign on the speaker’s apartment door to identify those quarters, but the general public sometimes paid no attention to the sign and just walked in unannounced if the door was not locked.

"After a long day of presiding, early in my first term as Speaker, I was sitting alone in the apartment enjoying some much needed relaxation. I had stripped down to my undershorts, was having a cool drink, and watching television, when I was startled by the sound of strange voices. Some public visitors had obviously entered the apartment and were headed my way. I quickly crouched behind the largest chair, hoping for the best, and trying to think of something witty in to say in my defense.

Fortunately for me, the uninvited guests only paused a moment and continued on their way. Unfortunately for them, they missed what could have been the highlight of their tour."

The inconveniences of living in a public building continued through the twentieth century. Pipes in the 1880s building at times thunderously rattled. “[T]he first night we were there in the apartment I worked till about three-thirty or so, working on committee appointments, and we finally got to bed, got to sleep,” former Speaker Jim Lindsey remembered “Just as we got to sleep, about five o’clock in the morning, the heat came on. Well, they’re these great, huge pipes and they were reverberating and made this clanking, terrible noise. And we woke up. We didn’t sleep much that night.”

Even well intentioned Capitol staff sometimes posed a hazard for the speaker and his family. Because of space limitations in the 1950s, the Lindseys plugged a deep freeze refrigerator into a socket controlled by the bedroom light switch.

["W]e didn’t have any money much to buy things with, so [friends] . . . would send us occasionally a brace of pheasant or some quail or venison if they killed a deer. And we had a cook who had been with Governor Moody years ago and she could marinate that venison and make it taste like good steak.

So we’d serve that. Well, we went on a trip somewhere, and we were gone two nights. And while we were gone the guard of the rotunda saw the light burning in the bedroom. So he went in and turned the switch off. But it was the switch to the deep freeze. We got back, and of course you know how all that smelled. What an odor there was. We got back and my wife like to have never gotten those odors out of there. She had a tea planned for the next afternoon, with all the ladies coming in from everywhere . . . and here’s that tremendous odor."

Constant noise joins a lack of privacy as constants in the lives of speakers’ families under the dome. A recent resident, Speaker Tom Craddick's wife Nadine, put it in a February 2005 interview, “It is a building that never sleeps. There is something going on all night long. There are either the mail people coming, or they are refurbishing or refinishing or restoring or doing whatever they do here. It is pretty noisy to live here.”

The embarrassments and inconveniences of living in a public space seem to have been magnified for the children of speakers, who lived lonely lives in the adult-centered, empty caverns of the state Capitol. Slightly more than a year before Reuben Senterfitt assumed the speakership in 1951, the state representative and his first wife, Maurine, adopted three children, Shirley, 5, Linda, 4, and Ronnie, 2. The pressures of gaining an instant family, having a husband acquire a position that required his attention from sunrise to after midnight, and managing the family in the public limelight placed extraordinary pressure on Maurine Senterfitt and the children. As the youngest in the family, Ronnie Senterfitt had the toughest time adjusting to life in the Capitol. “He misses our home in San Saba,” Maurine Senterfitt told the Dallas Morning News. “He says, ‘Mamma, please – back home – now,’ but he will get used to it.”

Rueben Senterfitt recently admitted the family found itself under more pressure than it could bear. “Well, I had marital problems,” Senterfitt said. “. . . [Y]ou know, it’s not easy to be in politics . . . And I think . . . the pressures of those three adopted children [added to our stress] . . . Their parents were in the service, and they just abandoned them, and they were in foster homes. So we took them all and I think the pressures of the children and the pressures of politics was a little too hard for her [Maurine] to handle . . . [It was an] atom-smasher.”

In numerous cases, the Capitol proved a less-than warm place for children to grow up. “The lack of playmates is the biggest drawback for the children,” Martha Barnes told the Dallas Times Herald in 1969. “They think it would just be the greatest thing in the world to live in a regular house in a regular neighborhood –- they think that children would just come out of the woodwork. We try to raise them as normal as we can –- but we have to try twice as hard here.”

In another interview, she admitted that the pressures of public life at times caused her children to withdraw. “Gregg and Amy both went through periods when they wouldn’t talk to anyone,” she told the Houston Chronicle. “They wanted to be left alone and would just tune everybody out. They both did it at about the same age. There are days when I walk out in the hall and feel like Amy and Gregg, days when I don’t want to talk to anybody or smile at anybody. But you have to be friendly. You never know who will be out there . . .”

Gregg Barnes worried that a picture of him in a tuxedo during his father’s inaugural as lieutenant governor might end up in the hands of cruel classmates and “make him the laughing stock of Casis Elementary.” Gregg relieved boredom by playing loosely organized games of catch in the hallways or by going to his father’s office where he volunteered (for allowance money) as a page, filed documents and learned to run the “robotype machine.”

David Carr said that when he was a child during his father’s speakership, he stretched his imagination to turn the Capitol into a playscape.

"Well, it was pretty empty. It was an empty feeling because it was a large place, with high ceilings . . . My parents were usually gone to some party or some banquet or some speech or sometimes a trip. So I was there lots of times with some baby sitter, just staying by myself. And then that place was huge! After everybody leaves every day it becomes a great big huge building with nobody in it, except the guards in the rotunda.

So to keep myself occupied, I would just simply roam the Capitol at night. And one of my favorite things to do, when the guards would go to sleep down in the bottom of the rotunda, I’d get on about the fourth floor banister, and drop some Dixie cups full of water down there and try to hit them on the head. And they knew I was up there and they’d try to find me. But they couldn’t find me because I had more places to hide than you can imagine.

The other thing I used to do was take paper airplanes and get as high up there and open up the windows in the House of Representatives and fly them out the window and see how far I could get them to fly down to the Capitol grounds. And the other thing was getting a bicycle and just riding around and around and around the Capitol grounds."

A lack of neighborhood children meant that Carr struck up friendships with the adults in the Capitol and with the pageboys who were closer to his age.

"And during those days, too, it was a big deal ostensibly to have some cigars. I went to Pease Elementary and I would come home [and] there wasn’t anything to do back in the Capitol, so I would just be a page boy and not get paid for it. But I’d sit with the pageboys until the light would come on, and then I’d go see what the representatives needed. Then I’d run an errand, just to have something to do.

That was cool, because all my memories of that are pretty vivid, because I remember a lot of activity. Smoke everywhere, cigars just going full-blast . . . Spittoons, brass spittoons, below each member’s desk so he could spit his snuff in there . . . [and] Stetsons hanging everywhere. You have no computers. A bathroom going toward the speaker’s apartment that had swinging doors on it. And you go in there and there’d be a shoeshine going on all the time, and guys [were] doing shoeshines for all the representatives. There’d be spittoons everywhere, and people spitting and chewing tobacco and cigarin' and (laughs), it was a whole different time."

An old joke says that Texas is “hell on horses and women.” The women living in the speaker’s apartment shared with their children the hardship of loneliness, and in addition faced a heavy burden managing a very public household and serving as an unpaid campaigner and consultant for their husbands. They did all this even as they faced the daily condescension of a male-dominated, macho-saturated world of Texas politics and the Capitol press corps.

Speaker’s wives received loaded compliments from newspapers that seemed to have required writers to make an assessment of any women’s attractiveness, whether they occupied public office or married a politician. Thus, readers learned that Joyce Manford was a “beautiful brunette,” that Jim Lindsey’s wife Moja was a “petite brunette,” that Ben Barnes first wife Martha was “pretty [and] bubbly,” and that Ben Barnes’s second wife Nancy Barnes looked “tiny” next to her 6-4 husband and was a “fragile-looking, blue-eyed blonde.”

Such descriptions literally diminished speakers’ wives, depicting them as vulnerable and physically weak, and weighed the physical appearance of these women as more important than their ideas. Light feature stories on speakers’ wives also marked most of the rare occasions that women reporters from the 1940s to the 1970s got to venture near the heavily male world of the Capitol press corps. Women reporters got to ask speakers’ wives about childrearing, recipes and what they planned to wear on inauguration day. If these women expressed ideas about integration, public schools or tax policy, these thoughts were never shared with the reading public.

The Houston Post asked “Mrs. James Turman” (the Post followed a typical press convention of the day by referring to women by their husband’s names, a practice which eroded individual identity for women) “to what extent does your husband influence your opinion on political issues?” The Post did not ask Marlene Wallace Turman if she influenced her husband. Readers found out that the Turmans “generally agree” on political issues, but the newspaper never shared specific opinions held by the Turmans or the couple’s areas of disagreement. Readers were informed in detail, however, about Jimmy Turman’s favorite recipe, which was for lemon pecan cake. (The Post asked all the wives of lieutenant governor’s candidates in 1962 to share their favorite recipes.) Mrs. Turman then offered that her “share” in her husband’s campaign was “Encouragement, a good listening ear, and accompanying him whenever he deems it best.”

Of course, even the insipid press coverage revealed that speaker’s wives contributed much more than passive wifely support. “The first time he ran, I worked my heart out,” Martha Barnes told the Austin American in 1969. “ . . . I even made speeches for him and handed out cards.” Barnes made campaign appearance although she disliked making speeches, the newspaper reported. “I thought it would be terrible working door to door . . . But everybody was so nice and invited me in for a Coke or a coffee,” she said. She ended up handing out 65,000 cards as her husband beat his better-known opponent by a 5-1 margin.

Barnes’ second wife Nancy also brought extensive political involvement and experience to the marriage. Nancy de-Graffenreid majored in political science at the University of Texas when she met her first husband Scott Sayers, a senior law school student. She married Sayers and earned a political science diploma and took graduate courses in education before the couple moved to Fort Worth, where she started a career as a political science teacher. Her husband won two terms in the House as a representative from Fort Worth. Nancy Sayers served as Tarrant County Democratic Chair and became Gov. John Connally’s administrative assistant.

While in Austin, Scott Sayers opened a private law practice before his death in 1968. Nancy resumed her busy political career, serving on all of Connally’s inaugural committees and as state Democratic Executive Committee member from Travis County from 1966 to 1968 and chair of Texas Employment Commission, the first woman to ever head a major state commission, before she became “Mrs. Barnes,” wife of the new lieutenant governor. Nancy Barnes briefly forced the state press to temporarily re-evaluate its stereotypes of political wives, although the media reverted to form after the high point of feminism in the mid-seventies.

In 1925, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson shattered a barrier as one of the first women elected governor in the United States, and the first in Texas. In her wake, women won terms in the state House and Senate, served as chairs of Legislative committees, captured seats in the United States Congress and the United States Senate. By 1991, Ann Richards became the second woman to occupy the governor’s mansion. Yet, not only has the state House speakership remained an exclusive Anglo preserve, as of 2008 all 73 speakers in the state’s history have been men.

Part of this no doubt stems from the boy’s club atmosphere that has sometimes reigned in the House chamber and in the social networks created by the members. Women who defied conventional gender roles and ran for office themselves faced a far more brutal reception from their male political peers and from the press. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who served in the Texas House from Dallas between 1983-1987 and in the Senate from 1987-1993, said that “booze, beefsteak, and broads” represented the “three B’s” of lobbying. The three Bs also served as a formidable barrier blocking women to the House speakership.

Women entering politics joined a world that by definition provided a hostile environment. “The opinion seemed to be that any woman who would get out and run for public office would have to be a sort-of fish wife type with a sharp tongue,” said Margaret Gordon, a Waco state representative from 1939-1941. Nancy Baker Jones and Ruthe Winegarten, in their groundbreaking work, Capitol Women: Texas Female Legislators, 1923-1999, argue that women legislators, in order to survive, often accommodated their sexist male colleagues by acting “ladylike.”

Even so, accommodating women representatives had to operate under severe political handicaps. Even as she strove to appear that she had no “chips” on her shoulder, Gordon held picket signs of protest in the House chamber when the Houston Chamber of Commerce held a “stag party,” inviting only male legislators to attend. The exclusion of women from these male-bonding retreats further weakened the already marginalized position of women in the House.

As Wilhelmina Delco put it, “In Texas politics, power politics often is played out away from the public eye – in backroom, after-hours meetings.” Delco said that she suffered as speaker pro temp in her relationship with Speaker Gib Lewis because “I wasn’t one to sit around and sip coffee and drink a beer.” Lewis threatened to “unappoint” her when she supported bills he objected to, but her persistence caused Lewis to back off. “He clearly understood that I wasn’t giving up my sex or my ethnicity or my principles for the honor of being speaker pro tem,” Delco said.

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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