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Texas Through Women's Eyes

Texas Through Women's Eyes
The Twentieth-Century Experience

Combining scholarly research with vivid, first-person accounts, this lively history for the first time tells the story of women’s experiences in twentieth-century Texas, with an inclusive focus on rural women, working-class women, and women of color.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Louann Atkins Temple Women & Culture Series, Book Twenty-Four

September 2010
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328 pages | 6 x 9 | 26 b&w photos in section |

Texas women broke barriers throughout the twentieth century, winning the right to vote, expanding their access to higher education, entering new professions, participating fully in civic and political life, and planning their families. Yet these major achievements have hardly been recognized in histories of twentieth-century Texas. By contrast, Texas Through Women's Eyes offers a fascinating overview of women's experiences and achievements in the twentieth century, with an inclusive focus on rural women, working-class women, and women of color.

McArthur and Smith trace the history of Texas women through four eras. They discuss how women entered the public sphere to work for social reforms and the right to vote during the Progressive era (1900–1920); how they continued working for reform and social justice and for greater opportunities in education and the workforce during the Great Depression and World War II (1920–1945); how African American and Mexican American women fought for labor and civil rights while Anglo women laid the foundation for two-party politics during the postwar years (1945–1965); and how second-wave feminists (1965–2000) promoted diverse and sometimes competing goals, including passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, reproductive freedom, gender equity in sports, and the rise of the New Right and the Republican party.


2010 Liz Carpenter Award For Research in the History of Women
Texas State Historical Association

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part One: Social Reform and Suffrage in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920
    • Urbanization and Economic Opportunity
    • Strikes and Labor Activism
    • Education and Professionalism
    • Motherhood and Social Housekeeping
    • Public Health: Cleaning Up the Food Supply
    • Maternalist Legislation: Child Labor, Compulsory Education, and Mothers' Pensions
    • Claiming Urban Space: Settlement Houses and Prostitution Districts
    • The Boundaries of Race
    • Immigration and Revolution in the Borderlands
    • Votes for Women
    • The Politics of Woman Suffrage
    • Suffrage in Black and White
    • Suggested References
    • Documents
  • Part Two: Post-Suffrage Politics, Depression, and War, 1920-1945
    • Rural Life
    • The New Woman in Politics
    • "Female" Politics and the "Petticoat" Lobby
    • Athletics: Hoop Dreams and Rodeo Queens
    • Education and Work
    • Women of Color: Discrimination and Protest
    • Surviving the Great Depression
    • The New Deal and Women
    • Discrimination in the New Deal
    • World War II: The Home Front
    • Women in Uniform
    • Conclusion: New Women, Labor Women, and Race Women
    • Suggested References
    • Documents
  • Part Three: Conformity, Civil Rights, and Social Protest, 1945-1965
    • Gender Roles and the Domestic Ideal
    • Women at Work
    • Civil Rights, Brown: "They Treated Us Like Dumb Mexicans"
    • Civil Rights, Black: "You're Not Dirt, No Matter Where They Make You Sit"
    • Red Scare Politics and the Minute Women
    • Women and the Rise of the Republican Party
    • Legal Rights
    • Suggested References
    • Documents
  • Part Four: Feminism, Backlash, and Political Culture, 1965-2000
    • Title VII and Civil Rights for Women
    • The New Left and Women's Liberation
    • Chicana Feminism
    • Reproductive Freedom
    • The Equal Rights Amendment: For and Against
    • Splintered Sisterhood: The 1977 Houston Women's Conference
    • Aftermath: Women and the New Right
    • Cracking the Glass Ceiling: Women in Electoral Politics
    • Title IX and Gender Equity in Sports
    • Women in the Workforce
    • Family and Personal Life at the End of the Century
    • Conclusion: Facing Forward, Looking Back
    • Suggested References
    • Documents

Judith N. Mcarthur and Harold L. Smith teach at the University of Houston–Victoria and are the coauthors of Minnie Fisher Cunningham: A Suffragist's Life in Politics, which won the Liz Carpenter Award for Research in the History of Women from the Texas State Historical Association and the T. R. Fehrenbach Book Award from the Texas Historical Commission.


This book grew out of our frustration with the inadequate discussion of women in Texas history survey texts. As specialists in the twentieth century, we were especially disturbed by the lengthy silences regarding women's experiences between 1900 and 2000. While most texts mention the woman suffrage movement, usually without regional or analytical context, they then largely ignore women's lives except for a handful of famous individuals such as Miriam Ferguson, Emma Tenayuca, Sarah Weddington, and Ann Richards. Typically they add a paragraph at the end of discussions of the Progressive Era and the world wars to acknowledge that women were also involved, and note the feminist revival in the 1970s. Even conscientious readers can hardly avoid concluding that modern Texas women have no history to speak of, and that the twentieth century unfolded without women's labor, civic engagement, social protest, and political organizing. We offer this volume as evidence to the contrary. Our aim, in historian Anne Firor Scott's phrase, is to make the invisible woman visible.


If the nineteenth century, when women first organized to demand emancipation, was known as the "woman's century," the era after 1900 might well be called the "New Woman's century." The influx of large numbers of women into the workforce and into postsecondary education—by the 1990s female undergraduates outnumbered males on college campuses—was a new departure and marked the emergence of the modern female role. In the twentieth century, women secured the essential political and legal rights that previous generations, who could not vote, sit on a jury, or sign a contract if married, had sought unsuccessfully, and constructed new identities—in politics, sports, and the military—that were beyond imagination in 1900. A new kind of female potential unfolded in the first two decades of the century, the Progressive Era, as young women claimed personal freedom and middle-class clubwomen invented new public roles. Although voteless, they excelled at pressure-group tactics, using female networks so effectively to promote social change that historians of women have broadened the definition of politics to include the wide spectrum of women's collective efforts, both formal and informal, to shape public policy and influence government behavior. At the same time, New Women reinvigorated and expanded the woman suffrage movement and finally secured the right to vote.


Although the structured and highly visible women's movement that had won the ballot splintered in the decades after 1920, female activism persisted and assumed new forms. The extended period of prosperity that lasted from the end of World War II until the 1960s, when middle-class families could live comfortably on the income of a male breadwinner and popular culture celebrated suburban domesticity, was, despite the absence of a feminist movement, a time of significant social change. Women of color and working-class women, who lacked the security of the family wage, were the most publicly active, organizing civil rights and labor protests in pursuit of both economic and social justice. Notwithstanding the cultural ideal of full-time motherhood, increasing numbers of white, married women entered the workforce. The reemergence of organized feminism coincided with the demise of the family wage system over the last third of the century, when slow economic growth and stagnant earnings for men pushed more wives into the workplace. As paid employment became the norm even for mothers with young children, and women gradually established themselves in most professions, frustration over job discrimination, wage inequality, restrictive laws, and rigid gender roles, coalesced into a new feminist movement. An equally vocal opposition quickly emerged to defend the traditional gender system and its perceived moral underpinnings. The backlash against feminism by a grassroots conservative women's movement, mobilized against abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, was crucial to the emergence of the New Right in politics.


One of feminism's many goals—and one of the most challenging—was to eliminate the deeply entrenched sexual division of labor. The separation of labor into male and female jobs has invariably meant lower wages and fewer opportunities for women, while employers benefited from a cheap labor supply. Throughout the text, we emphasize the importance of labor feminism: the struggle of working-class women for wage justice, union recognition, and an equitable share of leadership positions in workers' organizations. Although always a small proportion of unionized workers, twentieth-century Texas women have been militant and tenacious strikers, from the Houston telephone operators' walkout of 1900 to the prolonged Farah Manufacturing protest of the 1970s that resulted in a nationwide boycott of the company's slacks. After feminists coined a new term, "sex discrimination," to attack the sexual division of labor, female trade unionists not only challenged wage inequality but also pressed for contracts with pregnancy and maternity leave that acknowledged their dual roles as wage earners and childbearers.


The themes of family and sexual life also connect with public issues that extend far beyond the workplace. In the first half of the century interracial sexual relationships could trigger community violence, and interracial marriage was prohibited. The much publicized "sexual revolution" that began in the 1960s made heterosexual cohabitation commonplace and ignited an acrimonious debate over same-sex relationships that has not abated. The impossibility of disentangling the personal and the political is nowhere more evident than in the issue of control over reproduction, which in Texas began with the birth control movement in the 1930s and continues in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade and abortion politics. At different times and for different reasons, women have used their maternal roles to claim public authority. Liberals and conservatives alike have organized, lobbied, and marched in the name of motherhood: to demand the vote in the 1910s and to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.


In telling this story of twentieth-century Texas women, we have taken particular account of the interactions between gender and the hierarchies of race and ethnicity. Within the sex-segregated workforce, African American and Hispanic women dominated the lowest-paid and least desirable jobs. Working-class women of color were denigrated as sexually licentious and were vulnerable to sexual coercion by white men. Those of the middle class were usually denied the social privileges of whiteness, the right to be treated as "ladies," with the sexual respectability and moral authority that such status conferred. Anglo, African American, and Hispanic women had separate voluntary association traditions and agendas. White women excluded their black counterparts from the suffrage movement, and white men barred their access to the polls after the vote was won. For minority women, campaigns for gender equality have been intertwined with the pursuit of racial justice. They challenged segregation (by law for African Americans and by custom for Latinas) in the courts and on picket lines and coalesced into separate feminist movements—multiracial sisterhood was an elusive goal.


We wrote this book with two objectives: to synthesize the existing scholarship and to map the historical terrain. The Progressive Era is the best-documented period of twentieth-century Texas women's history. Historians of women, ourselves included, have brought to light an entire social justice wing of Texas Progressivism, which was dominated by middle-class women working for multiple reforms through their voluntary associations. In every major city, organized women attacked the problems of urban growth and industrial development, funding settlement houses, free public kindergartens, clean milk stations, and day nurseries for working mothers. To previous generations of historians, who defined progressivism as insurance and banking reform, prohibition, and railroad regulation, such women were invisible because they worked at the local level. Only a few scholars have investigated female grassroots activism in the post-Progressive period, although such research has the potential to reshape other narratives. Women were the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement: traveling organizers for the NAACP, administrators of local chapters, and community organizers who did the unseen work that sustained local demonstrations. As we discovered in researching this book, conservative women were likewise the ground troops in the state's Republican revolution. They did the unpaid, grassroots organizing in the 1950s and 1960s that was crucial to the growth of a two-party system in Texas and the eventual transition from Democratic to Republican dominance.


In addition to synthesis, we have done archival research to flesh out topics on which the secondary literature is thin, especially in the latter decades of the century. We began the project anticipating that Part Four, covering the period after 1965, would be shorter than any of the first three parts because so little has been written about second-wave feminism in Texas. To our surprise, we uncovered such abundant raw material—newsletters, clippings, manuscript collections, and oral histories—in the archives that it was a challenge to hold the chapter to a reasonable length. Because so much of Part Four is based on new research, we have expanded the endnotes in that section and provided extensive citations for our discussion of Anglo and Chicana feminism, antifeminist backlash and women of the New Right, and Title IX and gender equity in sports. We hope that this preliminary survey of a neglected period will encourage further scholarly investigation.


Each of the text's four parts is accompanied by a selection of primary documents, arranged in approximate chronological order (some have no precise dates) for ease of browsing. Each document is cross-referenced in the text and provides a fuller picture of the point under discussion. The majority of the documents are first-person accounts—letters, memoirs, and oral histories—that reveal what women at the time were thinking and doing. We have chosen as many as we could find that allow the reader to experience an incident or emotion with the narrator, whether campaigning for suffrage, striking for higher pay, doing stoop labor in a vegetable field, or standing up to racism. A few are amusing, many are moving, and some by women of color are disturbing, especially those that recount racially scarring childhood events. Such documents provide the visceral sense of history that is difficult to convey in an analytic text.


We intend Texas Through Women's Eyes for a wide audience, including college students, teachers, and anyone with an interest in Texas history and women's history. We especially hope that it will suggest research topics to young scholars. We have concluded each chapter with a list of secondary sources, grouped by subject, upon which we drew most heavily. In addition to serving as documentation, we hope these lists will function as bibliographic maps pointing to the many unexplored and barely explored avenues for future books, theses, and dissertations.




“This is social history at its very best.”
Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Associate Professor of History, University of North Texas


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