“Let me tell you what I've learned”

[ Regional/Texas ]

“Let me tell you what I've learned”

Texas Wisewomen Speak

By PJ Pierce

Foreword by Liz Carpenter

In this collection of interviews conducted by PJ Pierce, twenty-five Texas women ranging in age from 53 to 93 share the wisdom they’ve acquired through living unconventional lives.

2002

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 316 pp. | 25 halftones

ISBN: 978-0-292-76594-8

Barbara Jordan spoke for many Texas women when she told a reporter, "I get from the soil and spirit of Texas the feeling that I, as an individual, can accomplish whatever I want to, and that there are no limits, that you can just keep going, just keep soaring. I like that spirit." Indeed, the sense of limitless possibilities has inspired countless Texas women—sometimes in the face of daunting obstacles—to build lives rich in work, family, friends, faith, and community involvement.

In this collection of interviews conducted by PJ Pierce, twenty-five Texas women ranging in age from 53 to 93 share the wisdom they've acquired through living unconventional lives. Responding to the question "What have you found that really matters about life?" they offer keen insights into motherhood, career challenges, being a minority, marriage and widowhood, anger, assertiveness, managing change, persevering, power, speaking out, fashioning success from failure, writing your own job description, loving a younger man, and recognizing opportunities disguised as disaster—to name only a few of their topics. In her introduction, Pierce describes how she came to write the book and how she chose her subjects to represent a cross-section of career paths and ethnic groups and all geographic areas of Texas. A topical index makes it easy to compare several women's views on a given subject.

  • Foreword by Liz Carpenter
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Barbara Jordan
  • Liz Carpenter
  • Marj Carpenter
  • Jody Conradt
  • Wilhelmina Delco
  • Linda Ellerbee
  • Juliet Garcia
  • Carmen Lomas Garza
  • Glenna Goodacre
  • Kay Bailey Hutchison
  • Barbara Jacket
  • Edith Irby Jones
  • Ninfa Laurenzo
  • Amy Freeman Lee
  • Sarah McClendon
  • Diana Natalicio
  • Violette Newton
  • Guadalupe Quintanilla
  • Louise Raggio
  • Irma Rangel
  • Ann Richards
  • Mary Lou Robinson
  • Sarah Weddington
  • Judith Zaffirini
  • Epilogue: Pauline Durrett Robertson
  • Appendix A
  • Appendix B
  • Bibliography
  • Index

This book of wisdom, "Let me tell you what I've learned": Texas Wisewomen Speak, came to life on January 17, 1996, the day Barbara Jordan died. Like others, I wasn't ready to lose her. Just shy of sixty years old, Barbara contained too much wisdom yet unspoken. As a baby boomer, I had come to respect the advice of this wisewoman, especially on ethical matters that face us in good times and bad. At the time of her death, she was a teacher of political ethics to many lucky students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

During that same period, Barbara was serving as the unpaid advisor on ethics to former governor Ann Richards and as a member of President Clinton's U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.

How do peopie like Barbara Jordan become wise? Barbara spent a lot of time being quiet and listening. After careful thought, she would begin to speak in her deep, authoritative voice, enunciating every word, as if God herself were talking. Perhaps Barbara's wisdom came from all her accumulated experiences. As she said, "I [take] with me everything I [have] learned before.... That's the point... isn't it? To bring all you have with you wherever you go.

If so, then we should all be quiet and listen—searching for wisdom. We gather knowledge more easily than we gather wisdom. Knowledge is merely an accumulation of facts. My nineteen-year-old son, Ian, is full of facts. When I asked him, at age fourteen, how he knew a particular obscure fact, he said, "I just picked it up along the way, Mom."

Wisdom, on the other hand, is an understanding that comes from experience and seasoning. Wisdom is something we learn from our grandmothers. It takes a lifetime to ripen. In older cultures, elders were revered for their wisdom. Traditionally, young people in Native American tribes went to the tribal elders for advice.

In today's youth-worshipping society, that reverence for age and its wisdom is almost lost in our fast-paced era of computers and advertising. And we are suffering from that void.

"Let me tell you what I've learned" is this native Texan's attempt to preserve some of the wisdom and advice I gleaned from going to our "tribal elders."

Although thousands of Barbara Jordan's words have been recorded for future generations, I haven't seen her answers to the questions I wanted to ask: "What have you found to be most important about life?" "If you were a young woman starting out to build your life today, what would you do differently? What would you do the same way?" "What is most important to tell the generations coming behind you?" "How has your upbringing in Texas influenced the way you have lived your life?" "What new insights have you had since you have gotten older?" "What excites you about the future?" And more.

It was too late to record such particular wisdom from Barbara Jordan, so I vowed not to let the chance slip away again with other wisewomen from Texas. I began gathering names of women whose hearts and minds I wanted to pick. More than just hearing their life stories, I wanted to hear what they had learned from their experiences. I set up a list of core questions, which I posed to each woman (see Appendix B). It was typical for one woman to relate to some questions and another to relate to different ones. If one was clearly uncomfortable with a particular question, I would take the subject as far as she was willing to go and then move on to another question. Later in the interview, when she felt more at ease, I might broach the uncomfortable area again. That tactic provided a chance for her to reconsider, sometimes opening up a course of discussion that she became willing to pursue. If not, I left it alone. During the course of the individual interviews, impromptu questions would naturally come up as each conversation took its own path.

The typical interview lasted two hours or less. Each chapter contains the woman's own words, taken from her interview and edited for clarity and space demands.

Before settling on the twenty-five individuals I would eventually interview, I set down criteria. Every woman must have passed the half-century mark of her life and thus be old enough to say with conviction, "Let me tell you what I've learned to be important after all." Each must have become well known in her field, whether regionally or nationally.

The group as a whole must represent a cross section of career paths and ethnic groups, and all geographic areas of Texas must be represented. Each person must have lived a significant part of her life in Texas. Some who were not born in Texas have lived here most of their adult lives, and thus they wear the brand.

Why include only Texas women? America is full of wisewomen. But a perception exists that Texas women are different—feistier perhaps, more likely to think that anything is possible. It is a theory that some call "the mystique of the Texas woman." Whether the mystique holds water is up for debate. But it does seem to be there. Distinctive Texas traits were there when we were battling the elements on the frontier, and the same traits remain to this day, when Texas women have come onto the national scene as strong politicians.

We Texas women haven't perpetuated the myth all by ourselves; we have had help from others. I hear the myth from my friends in other states and from my European friends. My Austin friend Dinah Chenven, who grew up in New Jersey, says it this way: "I had always thought that professional women needed to present themselves as humorless and sexless to be taken seriously. When I got to Texas, though, I saw respected professional women presenting themselves as they really were (or wanted to be)—earthy and fun, unafraid of being compromised by makeup and high heels. I was amazed by that."

Naomi Wolf of Washington, D.C., author of Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the Twenty-first Century, said during a visit to Austin in October 1995 that Texas women seem to welcome power much more than do some other middle-income women. They aren't afraid that power will defeminize them. "Maybe it has something to do with the state's history," she said. "Women here seem very solution-oriented."

It was the quest for solutions to injustices that spurred many of the women in this book to make meaningful changes in the system. Society is now more fair to women, in particular, since these wisewomen pushed their ideas to the forefront on the state and national levels.

Attorney Louise Raggio devised solutions that changed the lives of all married women in Texas when, in 1967, she headed up the otherwise all-male Marital Properties Task Force in the Texas State Bar and helped push new laws through the Texas legislature. For the first time, married women in Texas could buy or sell property, secure a bank loan, start a business, and have credit in their own names.

Sarah Weddington, attorney, won a solution for all American women in 1971 when, at age twenty-six, she successfully argued the landmark Roe v. Wade case before the U.S. Supreme Court. By a seven-to-two vote on January 22,1973, the court finally announced its decision: a constitutional right to privacy gives women the right to choose whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy.

Shortly after Roe v. Wade became law, journalist Liz Carpenter joined forces with other powerful American women to form the National Women's Political Caucus. Liz handled the press during those years of organizing female political caucuses nationwide and campaigning to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. Although the ERA did not pass, the groundswell caused by that fifteen-year effort helped prepare the nation for today's successful female politicians.

Along with a handful of other women journalists, Linda Ellerbee broke ground in the national broadcasting arena and paved the way for younger women to become household names as broadcasters on national networks. Juliet García and Diana Natalicio became two of only a handful of female university presidents in the United States, Juliet being the first Mexican American woman ever to hold that position in this country. Both immediately began fostering innovative, nontraditional solutions to allow women and other minority students to overcome hurdles in higher education. Today their programs are models for other institutions all over the country.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, after having been stalked herself, passed federal legislation to prosecute stalkers, most of whose victims are women. When former Texas legislator Wilhelmina Delco saw problems in education for her children and other black students, she devised solutions by becoming local PTA president, then school board member, and then a state legislator. The results of her efforts have affected the lives of thousands of Texans in positive ways.

Solutions were also on the mind of Ann Richards when she became governor of Texas in 1990, at age fifty-seven. Ann appointed women and minorities to positions of power in state government, making the power structure look more like the actual population of Texas. When disenfranchised female Vietnam War veterans commissioned artist Glenna Goodacre to sculpt a statue to represent their contributions to the effort in Southeast Asia, she spent more than a year creating a solution. About the Vietnam Women's Memorial dedicated in 1993 and installed on the mall in Washington D.C., Glenna said, "I am proud to have created something that means so much to so many.

Black female athletes had few outlets for their talents at Prairie View A&M until coach Barbara Jacket created the first women's track and field team at that historically black college in the 1960s. That solution provided many young black women with another reason to make it through college. Through the years, she turned out fifty-seven all-American female athletes, many of whom went on to become Olympic contenders and coaches.

Most of the powerful women you'll meet point to the atmosphere in Texas as being a strong influence on their success. Barbara Jordan was proud to be Texan. In 1989 she told a National Geographic reporter: "I get from the soil and spirit of Texas the feeling that I, as an individual, can accomplish whatever I want to, and that there are no limits, that you can just keep going, just keep soaring. I like that spirit."

Others echo Barbara's sentiments. Ann Richards comments, "When you grow up on the frontier, or close to it like I did, you believe there is nothing you can't do."

Artist Carmen Lomas Garza says, "Tejanas are different from the Mexican American women in California where I live now. Tejanas are much friendlier.., and more celebrative. I think we inherited these qualities from our Tejana ancestors, who through their camaraderie had learned to survive the harsh physical environment of South Texas."

Linda Ellerbee says, "Even at a time when women were supposed to be meek and quiet, I think most Texas women weren't good at that. My family certainly had women who spoke their minds."

Kay Bailey Hutchison quotes her great-great-grandmother, who in 1849 wrote home to Tennessee: "Out in this new country, I see no one but strangers, but they are the kindest people I have ever met with." Says Kay, "That's the kind of stock from which we [Texas women] come."

Many women have wisdom to impart; all women have a story to tell. I chose the women you will meet in these pages because they broke barriers and rose to a level of distinction that has brought them recognition. They overcame obstacles to succeed. They changed stereotypes of what it meant to be women in their thirties and forties. And they are continuing to change stereotypes of women in their fifties and beyond.

These are women who have lived extraordinary lives. Journalist Sarah McClendon is still covering the White House at age ninety. These women are not ones to say, "I am too old for that now," as their mothers and grandmothers might have said.

From more than one hundred women whose names I had gathered, I finally chose twenty-five who, I feel, represent hundreds of other Texas They range in age from fifty-two to ninety years.

  • Sixty-five percent are mothers.
  • Thirty-one percent are widowed, 17 percent are married to their original spouse, 30 percent are divorced, 8 percent are remarried, and 13 percent have never married.
  • Two are only children.

In this book, their common theme is "What I have learned to be most important in life." All have the same intention: to share insights learned through decades of living so that generations coming behind them can profit from their experiences.

These female pioneers took paths not open to women in their time. And today they still look at life differently than most people do. They see what needs to be done and figure out a way to make it happen.

For instance, coach Jody Conradt took the obscure sport of collegiate women's basketball to the forefront and began filling arenas to capacity with her national championship teams. Jody had no predecessors—no female mentors to show her the way. Now, female coaches all over the country look to Jody as a mentor.

In 1947 Edith Irby Jones applied to medical school in the South, although no black person had ever been accepted to a white medical school below the Mason-Dixon Line. Today in her seventies, she still runs her solo medical practice so she can do it her way.

Guadalupe Quintanilla overcame the label of mentally retarded thrust on her by an Anglo school system that decided she couldn't learn—simply because she spoke no English. Today she is a university professor and wealthy business owner who teaches cultural sensitivity to those who work in the public sector. Her three children, who also were once labeled slow learners, now have doctoral degrees.

Every woman I interviewed was eager to share. My only frustration is that each shared more wisdom than could be included in these pages. Each understands that once you have success, it is important to pull others up behind you. Yes, there is a feeling of "sisterhood" among successful women that corresponds to the "good old boy system" among men. The difference seems to be that among most women nurturing overshadows competition.

Even in competitive Washington, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, has crossed party lines on many occasions to join forces with other female senators on issues that are important to all of them as women. She and the eight other female U.S. senators in 2000 collaborated on the book Nine and Counting, which draws a road map for women as they try to break barriers in politics, business, and other fields.

Sounding a similar theme,Juliet García, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, talks about the confianza—a familiarity, a rapport—among women that is lacking in our relationships with men. We can drop a comment about our children or grandchildren into the proceedings at a business meeting of women and no one will think less of us. In fact, she maintains that such comments can build instant rapport, breaking down cumbersome layers that often keep people from learning from each other.

Each woman you will meet in these pages has taken the "journey" approach to life, believing that the experiences along her path are at least as important as the destination. She has taken opportunities where she has found them and has not hesitated to walk into uncharted territory. For each of these women, life is still an adventure involving risks and rewards.

Taking chances as they have come, Louise Raggio describes her journey in a pithy metaphor. She says it's sort of like catching on to the ring of a carousel as it comes by. Now in her eighties, Louise stands ready to catch the next ring.

Spontaneity also comes naturally to journalist Liz Carpenter. She says, "In my generation we didn't have five-year plans like my daughter has. You just walked through the open door or backed away from it. And I generally walked through it."

I was delighted with the honest responses I got from these women and with their willingness to talk for as long as it took to convey their convictions. They took their assignment seriously—to share their wisdom with coming generations.

I took one or both of my daughters, who are in their twenties, with me to assist in most interviews. Heather, an advertising account executive, took notes and operated the tape recorder. Summer, a professional photographer, shot portraits. Of course, their assistance was not the only thing I valued about their coming along. My ulterior motive was for my daughters to garner wisdom for their own lives.

Heather, Summer, and I began seeing similarities among the subjects—similarities that paint a picture of the qualities necessary to allow one to stand apart from the crowd. All of these women are enthusiastic. All have persevered through hard times and never enjoyed self-pity during their life struggles. They think in the long term instead of the short term; they aren't concerned with meeting the demands of the popular culture.

They are optimistic about the next generation's abilities and about what the future holds for the world. They genuinely like teenagers and young adults and like to associate with them.

These women share a sense of social responsibility and are willing to lead. Most had strong parent figures (either one or both parents) who gave them self-confidence and advocated for them. The politicians, in particular, had fathers who encouraged them.

But it was when they talked about close relationships with their mothers that many began to shed tears. It was not uncommon for these strong women to become emotional when talking about the love they received during their formative years and what that early support has meant to their lives.

All grew up as risk-takers and are not afraid to fail. They are organized, fast thinkers (even at age ninety) and are accustomed to thinking "outside the box." They know how to use their time efficiently, and all have boundless energy. They are opinionated and at ease, although both Sarah McClendon and Linda Ellerbee, journalists, maintain that they are really shy people hiding behind a notepad. It seems to me, however, that they must have outgrown their shyness. Both were outgoing and funny during our interviews—and were anything but timid.

All are flexible and have several projects going at the same time. Most were so busy that it took a while to find time in their schedules for an interview. Most are fiercely protective of their weekends, although Louise Raggio, Barbara Jacket, and Violette Newton each gave up part of a Saturday for me.

All are enthusiastic about their work and proud of their achievements. Although they are well known for their accomplishments in their professional fields, without exception, the fifteen mothers in the group said that their children are their greatest achievements. They have raised strong families, and their children are successful, happy people.

Accomplishments often edge out friendship. Many lamented that they had given up their women friends along the way to concentrate on careers, where they usually were surrounded by males. Their families took up the rest of their time. It is typical of the fifty- to sixty-year-olds to be without close female friends because their careers are still in high gear.

This age group mentioned that they need to begin spending more time enjoying life, more time laughing with friends. Most of the women over sixty have cultivated female friends now that their children are raised and settled and their careers are allowing them a bit more time for friendships. Many have joined groups of like-minded females for professional and social interaction.

Social interaction, however, does not mean partying. Few like to go to big parties. They have lost interest in that diversion. Most like to be with family and small groups of friends around the kitchen table.

Not one of these women has ever quit being productive. At age ninety, Sarah McClendon says that she doesn't have time to stop working every day as a journalist. There are too many things to accomplish. She is still too curious. At age seventy-six, Marj Carpenter is getting ready to travel to China, her 116th country, to keep Presbyterians in the United States updated about their missions abroad.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to take all this wisdom to heart is that most of us are on track to live many more years. Our long lives will be increasingly affected by the choices we have made earlier. Surveys show that 80 percent of baby boomers in the United States say they plan to work well past age sixty-five. Perhaps the secret to staying vibrant in old age is continuing to be productive in some capacity and finding balance in your life so that work doesn't consume you. Although the women in these pages love what they do professionally, most of them nurture themselves, allowing time and energy for exercise, the arts, friendships, and fun.

One in three American women has passed her fiftieth birthday. A woman who reaches fifty today and remains free of cancer and heart disease can count on celebrating her ninety-second birthday, according to Dr. Kenneth Manton, demographer at Duke University. A quarter century from now, the number of older women in the world will have doubled.

Given our probable longevity, it is important to examine the quality of our lives. It is my hope that you, the reader, will find within these pages wisdom that is timeless, quotable, timely, poignant, funny, encouraging, upbeat, and optimistic about the future. I hope that you'll want to highlight passages and write in the margins.

I feel wiser for having been privy to so many lifetimes of learning. All of the taped interviews and transcripts of the interviews are archived in my personal files. Every woman has read her own chapter and has attested to its accuracy. Interviewing these women was exhilarating.

Whether you are from Texas or elsewhere doesn't matter. Nor does it matter whether you are female or male. My hope is that, as you read, you will feel some of that same exhilaration and that you will savor the distilled wisdom of these twenty-five outstanding women of Texas. May what you find help you along your own life's journey.

PJ Pierce is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.