Great Texas Women Traits
“By focusing on what we want to happen, we change the present. The healing images and narratives we imagine will eventually materialize.”
Women of Texas: Traits, Qualities & Characteristics
by Phyllis McKenzie
When first asked to undertake research for the Gallery of Great Texas Women at The University of Texas at Austin, I was reluctant and scrambled for cover—not from lack of interest, but because the task seemed so daunting. Women have always peopled Texas history, but they appear almost like shadows flitting in the wings. This would be an opportunity to move some individuals to center stage and shine the spotlight on them. Which ones? Are "great" Texas women those whose names we already recognize? Yet surely there are unsung heroes with stories to tell. What is a hero, anyway? Does it matter whether or not a woman succeeds in her endeavors? How do aspects of wealth, education, marriage, motherhood affect women’s lives? Clearly these factors have constrained choices and shaped outcomes. Is that reason enough to explain, excuse, justify—even honor—a woman's actions?
Should the exhibit focus on women who embody and implement the values of their time?—or rather on their counterparts, women who challenge and defy social norms? Did noteworthy women in fact exist in every corner of the state, conveniently representing different ethnic groups, time periods, personality, religion, political beliefs, fields of interest? How will the exhibit achieve inclusiveness and balance?
In the end, my list of women is idiosyncratic. So would be the list of any other researcher, I suspect. These women are multi-faceted and represent only themselves. For this reason, their own words thread through the exhibit as the truest, fairest representation. The group includes poets, politicians, cattle drovers, artists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, scholars, rebels, healers. I feel privileged to have made their acquaintance and seek to share their force of spirit here. No longer in the shadows of history, these sturdy women are practically dinner table guests. They have thoughts to discuss. Their ideas can enter your mind as far as you will allow them to pass.
Texas women are indeed a diverse bunch. There have been endless variations in their individual circumstances. Yet despite the superficial differences, on closer consideration, certain character traits rise to the fore. Again and again women drew upon similar strengths to manage their environment, to act in a manner expressing their deepest beliefs. Is there a "breed" of Texas women? Perhaps not, but their stories are interconnected and interwoven. Their deeds form underpinnings to Texas history. Theirs is a heritage we all share and in which we can all take pride.
The remainder of this essay will consider some of the character traits that link these women to each other and to other denizens of Texas.
They were earnest.
Envisioning a better future, Texas women embarked on rugged paths that tested their commitment. Mother Madeleine Chollet was just twenty-one years old when she left the safety of 1867 France and journeyed to Texas, ultimately arriving by stagecoach in San Antonio. Throughout her life she never wavered in her determination to bring hospitals and educational institutions to the rude frontier. Chelo Amezcua worked in a Del Rio dime store when she heeded the siren call of art and wielded her fountain pen to create intricate, fantastical images. Growing up sightless near Dallas' Deep Ellum, "Arizona" Juanita Dranes absorbed the fervent sounds emanating from African-American churches. Soon she was belting out her own sacred music and launched the style known as gospel beat. Texas music legends Janis Joplin and Selena likewise followed their inner muse to new artistic vistas.
Martha McWhirter had enough faith in her convictions to found a women-centered religion; she convinced members to leave abusive husbands and become self-supporting. Elise Waerenskjold ceaselessly traveled the countryside and wrote articles to bolster community spirit among Norwegian immigrants. Katherine Stinson refused to accept the dictum that women were not to be trusted around the new "flying machines"; she proved her mettle by becoming a stunt pilot who soared to a string of records without a single air accident. Babe Didrikson Zaharias set her sights on becoming "the greatest athlete who ever lived." By dogged, grueling practice she attained that goal (or something very close to it).
Carrie Marcus Neiman probably sold more clothes by her gracious, earnest demeanor than she did by her business acumen, which was considerable. Jane McCallum combined a pioneering political career with conscientious parenting to her brood of five. Twenty-one-year old Emma Tenayuca rallied thousands of striking pecan shellers in San Antonio.
Each of these women projected her sincerity of character. Drawing upon a reservoir of verve, each claimed the power to make conditions change.
They were stalwart.
Texas demanded toughness from her women (and men). Sheer persistence often proved the key to survival. Heir to a ranch in the Spanish era, María del Carmen Calvillo rode a stallion to inspect the property, managed operations herself, and successfully defended her land title under three subsequent political jurisdictions. Margaret Borland suffered the loss of three husbands and most of her children, yet she marshaled the resources to drive her own herd of cattle up the Chisholm Trail to Kansas, a journey of over 700 miles requiring two-and-a-half months. A decade later Lizzie Johnson Williams followed in her footsteps and likewise brought Texas cattle to Midwestern railheads. A stern entrepreneur, Lizzie rode alongside her husband while keeping her herds and financial accounts separate from his.
Her husband weakened by chronic illness, Mollie Bailey single-handedly ran an itinerant circus that brought joy to small-town Texans. Unfazed by single parenthood, Ninfa Laurenzo dished up sizzling fajitas in her Houston restaurant and catapulted the dish to world fame. Teacher and suffragist Christia Adair spoke truth to power when she was snubbed as a black woman at a Presidential whistle stop.
Upon graduating from UT-Austin in 1899, Annie Webb Blanton worked the trenches as teacher and textbook author. Ultimately she won the position of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, at a time when women were still barred from voting in general elections. Oveta Culp Hobby, with skills honed from newspaper and radio enterprises in Houston, oversaw the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. Ann Richards rose from the ashes of divorce and alcoholism to become Texas’ magisterial governor. Women of Texas have consistently shown resilience and strength.
They felt compassion.
Faced with strangers who might overturn her culture, Angelina, a sage of the Caddo people, chose the delicate path of dialog and reconciliation. She served as interpreter and guide for five different European explorers in the East Texas woodlands and nursed a feverish Frenchman back to health. Far from her native Prussia, immigrant Olga Kohlberg noticed community needs and instituted kindergartens, hospitals, a baby sanitarium, and a Jewish association in El Paso. Anna Pennybacker applied her talents to writing a Texas history textbook, mesmerizing audiences with local stories, and taking the helm of ladies’ benevolent organizations. After a lifetime of connoisseurship in art, Ima Hogg dedicated both her collection and her mansion to the people of Texas. Her own brush with mental illness led her to establish the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.
During the conflicts of the Mexican Revolution, Leonor Villegas de Magnón crossed the border to nurse wounded soldiers. She founded and financed La Cruz Blanca, the White Cross. Almetris Marsh Duran served as nurturing housemother to two generations of black students at UT-Austin. Empowered by her Native-American heritage, sculptor Marsha Gómez offered workshops to community centers and schools and provided guidance through the Alma de Mujer Center for Social Change. Having experienced discrimination as a Korean-American child, Dallas neurologist Suzanne Ahn took pubic stands in support of blue-collar workers, Asian Americans, and women doctors. Receiving a diagnosis of inoperable cancer, she expressed regret that she had done so little.
Texas women put down roots of empathy into the fertile earth. Those who attained positions of stature and strength turned directly to share their gifts with others.
They took risks.
Suzanne Ahn risked her professional standing when she championed rights of Asian Americans in Dallas and protested treatment of cannery workers in Alaska. Ada Isaacs Menken set her sights on an acting career, considered a dubious field in the 1850s. By pouring herself wholeheartedly into stage roles, she won acclaim and moved audiences to tears. Jessie Andrews did not hesitate to apply to UT-Austin when it opened in 1883. In just three years she became the institution's first woman graduate amid a sea of male scholars.
Pregnant and responsible for a toddler, Jane Long spent the winter of 1821 at Fort Bolivar awaiting the return of her filibustering husband. Informed of his death, she supported her children by running a boarding house and plantation during the turbulent years of Texas’ formation. A single parent with a full-time job, Bette Graham gambled her limited resources to develop Liquid Paper in her home and market it in tandem with her young son.
Margaret Borland resolved to drive her own cattle through Indian Territory and spring thunderstorms to a distant Kansas market she had never seen. Leonor Villegas de Magnón left behind the comforts of wealth and privilege to place herself in battlegrounds of the Mexican Revolution, where she nursed the war-wounded and spirited them to safety.
Katherine Stinson and Kalpana Chawla directly staked their lives when they took to the air: Katherine at the controls of a biplane at the opening of the twentieth century, Kalpana as an astronaut at century’s close. Both spoke of the magic of floating over the earth. For this transitory shining experience, Kalpana paid with her life.
By choosing challenge and adventure over security, Texas women have known joys of a life worth living. By their standards, that has been reward enough.
They maintained integrity.
Gloria Anzuldúa, child of farm laborers, aspired to be a scholar in the field of Chicana/feminist studies. Encountering resistance from the academic establishment, she claimed a constellation of multiple identities (including lesbian) and encouraged women in academia to draw upon and honor all aspects of their being. Classical musician Maud Cuney-Hare possessed the manners, education, and looks to pass for "white," yet she steadfastly declared her roots in the "colored" race. Christia Adair could have quietly remained a devoted wife and Sunday School teacher of black children. Instead, she decided to lead by example and openly challenge discrimination.
Eccentric and iconoclast, Elisabet Ney was the object of gossip when she insisted on raising her children her own way and sculpted dramatic images as she saw fit. She became Texas' foremost artist of monumental portrait sculpture. Janis Joplin and Selena let intuition be their guide in breaking new musical ground and broadening the horizons that they found. Ada Isaacs Menken, like many Texas women, responded to "the beat of a different drummer." Impervious to criticism, she wrote candid poetry and plunged into dramatic roles to become a stage sensation.
Emma Tenayuca did not let her youth or small stature prevent her from immersing herself in the pecan shellers’ strike of 1938. Steady in the face of tear gas and arrest, she delivered impassioned speeches to the workers and became a hero in their eyes.
One of Shakespeare’s characters sagaciously advised, "This above all: To thine own self be true." Texan women have embraced that dictum and put it into action. They knew themselves, honored their feelings, and did not waver from what they felt to be right.
They proved loyal.
Ever watchful and alert, Jane Long awaited her husband's return throughout the harsh winter of 1821, protecting her newborn and toddler inside an abandoned fort. Marsha Gomez rooted herself in the Native American tradition of sharing and gifting to others. She sculpted empowering images of strong women, held workshops for community residents, and facilitated exchange of resources.
Lucy Parsons staunchly defended working people her entire life. She authored treatises, published broadsides, organized unions in Texas and Chicago, and refused to be silenced by her husband’s execution in connection with the Haymarket Affair.
Although she traveled the world and won acceptance in Parisian art circles, Mary Bonner never strayed far from her original style: she consistently anchored her work in bold Texas themes and emblems. Elise Waerenskjold demonstrated fidelity in a different way—writing and visiting isolated farmers, building community among Norwegian immigrants, reminding them of ties that endured with their distant homeland.
Barbara Jordan rose to the position of Congressional Representative. Mindful of the African Americans and working people who put her there, she became their voice and their champion.
Texas women are valiant advocates for those who have won their loyalty. They can be trusted never to betray.
They cherished beauty.
In the midst of complex lives, Texas women seek out wholeness and order. Those favored by fortune or the right combination of skills and training have expressed their insights through art. Chelo Amezcua, a dime-store clerk, used a lowly fountain pen to produce fantastical dreamlike images reminiscent of Aztec, Mayan and Egyptian cultures. Internationally famous Mary Bonner distinguished her exquisite etchings with Texas motifs like snakes and bucking broncos, a manifesto acknowledging her cultural roots.
Elisabet Ney sculpted full-size portraits from life and legend, including several Texas heroes. After suffering the loss of one son and alienation from the other, she channeled her personal grief into chiseling an anguished Lady Macbeth. Marsha Gomez was concerned about by the fragility of the earth and its need for protection. She expressed both unease and reassurance in the sculpture "Madre del Mundo," a grieving indigenous woman cradling the earth. In its delicate portrayal of pain and strength, the statue recalls Michelangelo's Pieta.
Lady Bird Johnson perceived art in works of nature, especially the wildflowers that carpet Texas every spring. She dedicated herself to planting flowers along highways and preserving natural refuges as places of solace. For Carrie Marcus Neiman, aesthetics lay in impeccable clothing of skilled workmanship and fine hand. Ima Hogg, herself a musician/artist, carefully conserved and maintained works of art by others. She donated her collection and home to seed a museum, making available to all Texans these superb examples of American decorative arts.
The artistic impulse has been strong among women of Texas. Through their varied efforts, artists provide ongoing interpretation of society, culture, and meaning.
They held wisdom.
Scholar Gloria Anzaldúa realized that people have complex, sometimes conflicting identities. She spoke from a position of wisdom and compassion when she said, "Voyager, there are no bridges; one builds them as one walks." Maud Cuney-Hare concluded that acceptance into elite circles of classical music should not come at the price of intellectual dishonesty; she proudly claimed her African-American ancestry.
In the competitive world of sports, Babe Didrikson decided, "If you win through bad sportsmanship, that’s no real victory." She sifted her priorities to declare, "Winning has always meant much to me, but winning friends has meant the most."
As a freshman legislator, Barbara Johnson rose to a position of leadership by insisting upon principles in the U.S. Constitution. The writings of Katherine Anne Porter captured the angst of the modern age, with characters caught between an idealized past and a threatening present.
In considering the future, Lady Bird Johnson observed, "Children are apt to live up to what you believe of them." Housemother Almetris Marsh Duran instilled confidence and lifted self-esteem among the first groups of black students who dared enroll at UT-Austin.
Texas women provide a well of wisdom, freely offered for pilgrims to drink deeply. Their insights form a fount that has not—will not—run dry.
They were astute.
María del Carmen Calvillo understood Spanish Colonial law and successfully protected her land title against legal challenge. While dealing with this difficulty, she mastered the skills needed for running a large ranch. With a knack for math and figures, Lizzie Johnson handled financial records for cattle brokers and drovers. Soon she went into business for herself and brought her own herds up the Chisholm Trail to market. Mollie Bailey developed a traveling circus into a profitable and popular enterprise after her husband largely withdrew from the business.
Carrie Marcus Neiman had an intuitive sense of fashion and traveled to European capitals on wholesale buying trips, rarely guessing wrong in her choices. Bette Graham turned her kitchen invention of Liquid Paper into a multi-million dollar enterprise. Ninfa Laurenzo performed a similar feat with fajitas, marketing the tasty Tex-Mex dish after first serving it to customers in her small Houston restaurant. These diners responded with wild enthusiasm, and fajitas spread in popularity throughout the country.
Women in Texas possessed not only business acumen, but political skill as well. Ann Richards trounced opponents on the campaign trail by her perceptive and sassy wit. Head of the Women’s Army Corp, Oveta Culp Hobby realized that women needed respect and reason to enlist in World War II. She wooed them with the promise of full membership in the patriotic team.
On the local level, Clara Driscoll seized the moment and prevented demolition of the Alamo by fronting her own personal funds. Catherine Munson Foster realized that the only way local folklore would be preserved was if someone passed down stories to schoolchildren. As a librarian and history buff, she was the logical person to do this—and so she did.
These women like numerous others channeled their knowledge and experience into visible, tangible, practical results.
They were brave.
Impelled by courage, firm in resolve, Texas women "took the road less traveled"—and, as Robert Frost understood, "That has made all the difference." Gloria Anzaldúa stood almost alone when she rejected conventions of academic writing and wove her research into a fluid personal style, simultaneously urging others to trust their inner wisdom. Certainly Margaret Borland and Lizzie Johnson mustered courage when they set out at the helm of long cattle drives. They knew that the treacherous journey that had broken the will of many men.
Lucy Parsons braved an interracial marriage, slander, and harassment. She proceeded to publish political tracts, organize labor unions, and lead protests in major American cities. Young Jovita Idar faced Texas Ranchers who arrived intent on closing down her family's Laredo printshop. All of her family was away, so she stood alone in the doorway. By firmness and reason, she persuaded the Rangers to desist from their task and ride away.
In a sense, all the women in the Kinsolving exhibit (as well as this paper) have been women of courage. They willingly shouldered responsibilities. They took actions that they did not have to take. They stepped forward from deep convictions and held fast to belief in themselves.
Barbara Jordan said, "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." Such possibilities apply to all Texans-at-heart who follow these women, successors who share in their roots or their dreams.