Capitol Women - Texas Female Legislators, 1923-1999 Review


Original Review by

Fascinating Texas History

The Texas Legislature has traditionally been a male institution. Nancy Baker Jones and Ruthe Winegarten catalog the destruction of the so-called Men's Room in their book Capitol Woman from the University of Texas Press. It is an interesting chronicle of the female legislators elected to either the Texas House of Representatives or the Texas Senate.

The book details information on women who are prominently known today, as well as those long forgotten. The early female legislators had their roots in women's suffrage. The second female Texas legislator, Margie Neal, was a suffragist newspaper editor. The book traces the growth of women's influence from being wives filling out unexpired terms to active leaders in the legislature.

Many people know Barbara Jordon, who later represented her Houston area in the US Congress, and caught the eye of many during the Watergate hearings. Jordon was the state's first black state senator since 1883 and its first African American woman legislator. According to Capitol Women, Jordan made a conscious point to work within the system - not as a black politician, or a female politician, but an effective politician.

Jordan's political strategy, once inside the Senate, stemmed from her conviction that blacks - in fact, all "minorities" - should join the system rather that challenge it and from her refusal to be identified by either her race or gender. "I'm not a black politican," she said. "I'm not a female politician. I'm a politician. And a good one." Although she was not known as an activist in the civil rights or women's movements, Jordan was committees to equal rights issues and was successful in passing significant legislation that enlarged or expanded the rights of minorities and women.

Another well-known figure from the book is Kay Bailey Hutchison, who began her career as a Republican in the Texas House from the Houston area. Hutchison now is serving in her second term as US Senator for Texas, and frequently mentioned as a future candidate for Governor. Despite these familiar figures, the authors' research uncovers many other figures. Who remembers Myra D. Banfield of Rosenberg, or Virginia Duff of Ferris? These women's elections in the mid-20th century were revolutionary in and of themselves.

The book starts with the first women getting elected in the 1920's, and how the recent extention of women's sufferage helped. In the 1920's the issues that drove women into the political seat were similar to those who drove men: prohibition, "Furgusonism" and the Klu Klux Klan. Many women were elected in special elections to serve in instances where their husband died. By the 1940s, many women carried issues which still ring important today - education, family issues.

Esther Colson of Navasota served first in the House and later for 18 years in the Senate. She refused to sponsor bills specifically for women. Colson claimed those bills would be trivialized as "petticoat legislation." She did take her job seriously, and pass a large number of bills to show for it, like paving county roads, established the Farm-to-Market road system, and a number of education bills.

In the 1970s, more women appeared, both Democrats and Republicans. The book author's seem to make it a point to avoid discussing the legislators' attitudes towards issues which would divide the caucus, namely the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion.

1972 was a significant year because the Sharpstown bank scandal caused turnover from Governor Preston Smith on down to members of the Texas Senate and House. Six women were elected that year including Kay Bailey Hutchison and Sarah Weddington. Fort Worth sent Berrty Andujar to be the first Republican woman elected to the Texas Senate, where she served for ten years. The Texas Legislature works in a significantly more bipartisan way then Washington, DC. The attitude, in typican Texas fashion, is to work both sides of the aisle, and push hard for your bills.

They passed the Bailey-Weddington law, which ensured the fair treatment of rape victims. They also joined together to prevent schools from firing pregnant teachers. Senfronia Thompson, another member of the class of 1973, has built a long and impressive career in the House, where she still serves today. In 1995, after working on the issue for twelve years, she passed her bill leagalizing a limited form of alimony. In 2001, she succeeded in passing the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes bill, which was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry.

Jones and Winegarten document in over 300 pages many of the women who have made a difference in establishing an equal role for women in the Texas Legislature. Today, women in Texas hold offices for US Senator, Congress, and too many seats in the legislature for it to be noteworthy. The book not only illustrates how their participation has improved the climate, but also shows how they individually can use the system to pass laws that improve everyone's life.

Total Number of Women
38th - 75th Legislatures: 86
January 1923 - January 1999

Anglo / White: 61
Latina: 13
African-American: 12

Party Affiliation
Democrat: 62
Republican: 24

Senate Only: 9
House Only: 75
Senate and House: 2

Attorney: 18
Business / Ranching: 14
Educator: 10
Government: 3
Homemaker / Volunteer: 4
Nurse: 3
Writer / Publisher: 6

Average age at election: 41

Average number of terms: 3.9

More books:
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Capitol Women - Texas Female Legislators, 1923-1999
368 pages
University of Texas Press 2000-03-15
Purchase Book on Amazon.Com