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GOVERNOR'S COMMISSION FOR WOMEN

GOVERNOR'S COMMISSION FOR WOMEN. Following President John F. Kennedy's establishment in 1961 of the United States Commission on the Status of Women, similar state and local commissions began to be established across the country. In Texas several women's professional organizations lobbied the legislative and executive branches of state government in favor of a commission for women, and in January 1967 Governor John Connally established the Texas Commission on the Status of Women. This commission was charged with exploring ways for women to continue their roles as wives and mothers while contributing to the world around them and with recommending ways to end unequal policies affecting women. The twenty members of the commission, chaired by W. S. Birdwell of the Texas Employment Commission, operated without permanent staffing or funding and disbanded when Connally left office in early 1969. Their primary legacy was the preparation of a report on the status of women in Texas, based on research in such areas as education, home and community, employment practices, and legal treatment. Although most of the recommendations this first commission made were too broad to be implemented, it did make specific suggestions concerning improved day-care facilities and somewhat liberalized abortion laws.

In January 1970 Governor Preston Smith, building on the work done in the Connally administration, established an advisory group on women's issues to serve as a liaison between Texas women and their state government and to encourage the advancement of women's causes. This group, known as the Texas Status of Women Commission, had more than 100 members and was chaired by Margaret Brand Smith of Dallas. Its major activity was sponsoring the first statewide conference on the status of women, which was held in August 1970 in Austin and drew more than 1,000 women, including then State Senator Barbara Jordan and Judge Sarah T. Hughes. After this conference the Smith commission disbanded, having attained limited success in seeing women appointed to state boards and commissions or in gaining equal pay for women. The Austin conference, however, was lauded as an inspirational effort in the fight for equality for women in Texas. One year after the termination of the Smith commission, efforts were stepped up to establish a permanent statewide commission on the status of women. Those legislators and citizens in favor of such a group saw it as a viable way to provide research on women to state officials. Opponents, however, argued that such a body would downgrade the role of the homemaker and thus threaten family life, would unnecessarily enlarge the state bureaucracy, and would not represent the needs of most women in the state. The opponents were successful for a while, but in August 1977 Governor Dolph Briscoe established a Texas Commission on the Status of Women through executive order. This commission benefited from a $50,000 budget for the biennium and a staff. It was mandated to distribute information on women, to develop policies to foster equal treatment of women in all areas, and to work with other state agencies in its endeavors. The Briscoe commission first had fifteen members but was expanded in 1978 to nineteen and then to twenty-one. All members were female and included Rosa Walker of Austin, the women's director of the Texas AFL-CIO, and Delores Guerrero of Houston, the first woman president of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Texas. It established several working committees and made family violence its primary focus but received the most publicity for its split opinion on the Equal Rights Amendment. Although by this time Texas had passed a statewide ERA and approved the national ERA, the Briscoe commission disagreed on the amendment in the wake of an increasing backlash against the national amendment across the country in the 1970s. The commission held its last meeting in July 1978, after which time ideological conflicts and internal disagreements disrupted progress, and commission head Lorene Vychopen of Dallas did not call another meeting. The commission produced a manual on family violence but was perceived by many in the media, state government, and even within the commission itself to have fallen short of its potential. Governor William P. Clements, elected in November 1978, completed the demise of this commission by calling in early 1979 for the resignation of its executive director and support staff, in effect ceasing its operation without officially abolishing it. In its place he established the Governor's Task Force on Equal Opportunities for Women and Minorities, which operated with basically no money or staff.

In 1983, after Mark White was elected governor, an ad hoc group of Texas women representing the National Women's Political Caucus, National Organization for Women, Austin Families, United Way, and business and professional women's groups encouraged Governor White to form a commission for women through executive order. Cognizant of past problems, the group suggested that the commission focus on issues that lent themselves to consensus rather than divisiveness. In April 1983, despite the abolition of several commissions for women across the country, White signed the order establishing the Governor's Commission for Women with twenty-nine members, including Martha Shipe Williams of Austin as head. This commission, whose members were appointed to two-year terms, was staffed by an executive director and administrative assistant and was mandated to become active in government policy regarding women and to work for women's equal opportunity and advancement. It was also instructed to advise the governor on qualified women for appointive office, secure recognition of women's accomplishments in Texas, and research and maintain statistics on the status of women in the state. This commission differed from its predecessors in its goals and philosophies, as is evidenced by White's encouraging the body to find solutions to problems of families without assuming that all women would fulfill the traditional roles of wife and mother. After special support from Lt. Gov. William P. Hobby, Jr., the commission received an initial biennial allocation of $150,000, which made it one of the better-funded commissions for women in the nation. The ERA and abortion provided for some debate within the commission, but it achieved numerous significant goals, including sponsorship of several conferences and commemorations for women and establishment in 1983 of a State Agency Liaison Group of the Governor's Commission for Women to provide official communication between working women in state government and the commission. In 1984 the commission established the Texas Women's Hall of Fame to recognize outstanding accomplishments and contributions of Texas women in such areas as education, the arts, civic leadership, and athletics. These efforts were continued from 1985 to 1987, when Governor White appointed his second Governor's Commission for Women.

In 1987 former governor Clements returned to office and made the continuation of the Governor's Commission for Women his first executive order. This commission also had twenty-nine members appointed to two-year terms. Within a larger framework of seeking equal opportunity and advancement for women, this commission, chaired by Ann Quirk of San Antonio, focused on economic development issues, while continuing such activities as the Hall of Fame, special conferences for women, and the State Agency Liaison Group. The 1989–91 commission, also appointed by Clements and chaired by Sally F. McKenzie of Dallas, added an emphasis on literacy, substance abuse, job training, and mentor programs.

In 1991 Governor Ann W. Richards continued the Governor's Commission for Women by an executive order and appointed twenty-nine new members to two-year terms. She named Amalia Rodriguez-Mendoza of Austin as head and charged the commission to work to improve the mental, physical, and emotional health of Texas women, as well as to maintain statistics on women and to track state and federal legislation affecting women. Under Richards, the State Agency Liaison Group became the State Agency Council, and the Women's Hall of Fame was continued. In her administration, the Governor's Commission for Women received some funding from and was part of the coordinated efforts of the nonprofit New Texas Foundation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Dallas Times Herald, August 31, 1970. Deborah Ann Wean, A History of the Texas Women's Commissions-Strategies for Change and Survival (M.A. report, University of Texas at Austin, 1984).

Debbie Mauldin Cottrell

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Debbie Mauldin Cottrell, "GOVERNOR'S COMMISSION FOR WOMEN," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mdg05), accessed August 22, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.