Texas Women's History Project


By: Nancy Baker Jones

Type: General Entry

Published: April 14, 2021

Updated: April 14, 2021


The Texas Women’s History Project (TWHP) was created in Austin in 1978 by the Texas Foundation for Women’s Resources (TFWR), a nonprofit group of politically active Anglo women (Ann Richards, Sarah Weddington, Jane Hickie, Judith Guthrie, Cathy Bonner, and Martha Smiley). Based on a suggestion by Ann Richards, the TFWR hoped to collaborate with the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC) in San Antonio to integrate its historical exhibits with information about the history of Texas women. This need became clear when Richards’s daughter Ellen, after seeing a popular slide show about Texas at the institute, asked her mother, “Where were all the women?” Over time, however, ITC director Jack Maguire remained uncommitted to revising displays there, and projected costs were high enough that he declined to participate further. The TFWR decided to create a freestanding exhibit it would own entirely. To do so, the foundation formed the Texas Women’s History Project, naming as director Mary Beth Rogers, the head of her own Austin public relations firm.

Rogers created a cross-cultural, statewide advisory committee from academic, legal, civic, and political circles; hired Ruthe Winegarten as the project’s research director and curator; and formed a staff of researchers, writers, editors, graduate students, and artists. Its first task was to survey 4,000 museums, educational institutions, libraries, and individuals around the state about holdings the project might use. Winegarten led the effort to compile every relevant citation in the card catalogue of the Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas at Austin (“all 100,000 entries,” she said) as well as others from collections, journals, books, indices, and bibliographies. Winegarten’s research team then traveled the state to locate artifacts during thirty field trips. Among the items they found were a pistol belonging to outlaw Bonnie Parker, the food mixer in which Bette Graham had created Liquid Paper, and posters from Mollie Bailey’s circus. In addition, they found and catalogued more than 20,000 diaries, letters, photographs, legal documents, and other items, and information about nearly 600 women. The TFWR later published these results as the Texas Women’s History Project Bibliography, the first comprehensive such resource about the history of Texas women.

Meanwhile, Rogers wrote and submitted funding proposals while Richards, TFWR board members, and others, like Liz Carpenter, former press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson, traveled the country and solicited donations. They ultimately raised more than $400,000. The result, after three years’ work, was Texas Women: A Celebration of History, 1730–1980, a 500-running-foot, multicultural museum exhibition that was the first conceptually unified overview of Texas women’s history. The exhibit opened at the ITC on May 9, 1981, remained on view for four months, and then traveled the state for eighteen months to be shown at the Hall of State in Dallas; the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin; the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon; and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Through graphic panels, text, artifacts, interpretation, and audio-visuals, the exhibit sought to reveal the impact of Texas on women and of women on Texas. In sections called “We Fly,” “We Work,” “We Serve,” “We Build,” and “We Love Children,” among others, the exhibit declared that women were involved not only in family life, but also in virtually every other aspect of Texas history. They shaped government, education, the arts, agriculture, business, law, and the economy. They managed ranches; flew airplanes; joined revolutions; started schools, libraries, and hospitals; fought against child labor; and fought for food inspection and jury service for women.

The significance of the Texas Women’s History Project lay not only in the groundbreaking exhibit that it created, but also in the fact that there was no established field of Texas women’s history at the time. Even nationally, women’s history was in its formative stages, so there were no existing models the TWHP could use. Its founding principle emerged from Ann Richards’s belief, as a former social studies teacher, that knowledge of one’s history helped shape one’s identity and that her daughters would acquire no sense of themselves as Texans from the female-free historical exhibits the ITC offered to the public. Although an academic approach to Texas history had begun in the late nineteenth century, Richards also knew that school textbooks still rarely included women’s experiences. TWHP director Mary Beth Rogers said at the time, “No one has ever tried to compile a history of women in Texas. . . .There are no central archives . . . . No Texas museum has ever staged an exhibit devoted to the history and experiences of women.”  Not knowing that it couldn’t be done, Rogers said, “we began to figure out how to do it.”

The project’s founders pressed ahead with the exhibit despite the fact that none of them was a historian. As attorneys, businesswomen, philanthropists, politicians, and Texans, they understood the significance of the Institute of Texan Cultures as the epicenter for shaping public understanding of Texas history, even if, and more likely because, the ITC was ultimately not interested in revising its own exhibits to make invisible women visible. As public history, the exhibit presented evidence of previously ignored and devalued experiences, which challenged the long-standing dismissal by historians of women’s letters, diaries, journals, and other artifacts as essential research resources. Likely without realizing it, they finished the job that University of Texas history professor Eugene C. Barker started in 1929 when he instructed the young historian J. Evetts Haley to travel the state looking for artifacts and records for a university collection. Haley searched the state and returned with a trove of discoveries, none of which had to do with women.

The TWHP’s exhibit contributed significantly to the formation of the field of Texas women’s history, which finally emerged in the 1990s. Cultural advocacy for women’s autonomy and women’s history was in the air at the time the project was created, spurred by the nation’s Bicentennial celebrations, historian Gerda Lerner’s framework and methodology for doing the history of women, the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, and the first National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, among many other milestones. TWHP founders had, in fact, cited the need for knowing their own history as they defined an agenda for Texas’s delegates to the Houston conference. That moment, described as an epiphany by Ellen Temple, later a TFWR board member, underlay the creation of the Texas Women’s History Project.

What the TWHP accomplished was later understood to be a form of feminist public history. Texas Women: A Celebration of History was intended to influence the thousands of people who saw it, particularly women and girls, who its creators hoped would continue to press for answers to the questions the exhibit posed, thereby generating a lasting audience for women’s history. As such, and because the feminist founders of the TWHP insisted on taking ownership of their own historical narrative when the ITC backed away, the exhibit also can be considered an example of identity-based history. As such, it became an act of solidarity with women in the past and a decision to use history to advocate social change in the present. It forged a collective memory of women’s shared experiences across time by resurrecting the lives of unknown and forgotten women and introducing them to contemporary generations, thereby passing a baton to women of the future.

The Texas Women’s History Project also provided a new historical narrative to revise the existing one, which Ann Richards described as “the saga of what men do outdoors.” Mary Beth Rogers and Ruthe Winegarten built on Gerda Lerner’s frameworks for women’s history, reframing women in the past as having made history rather than having merely contributed to it. Again inspired by Lerner, they structured the exhibit around the concept of women as community builders who were central to understanding American social history. They redefined women’s concentric circles of influence—home, family, work, school, church, community, and government—not as tangential to but as major institutions of Texas life that expanded beyond the domestic and into public realms, erasing gender boundaries in the process. In conjunction with this narrative of fluidity, the exhibit foreswore traditional historical periods and focused instead on women from various cultures and eras whose actions addressed the interaction between the self and the larger social good.

Finally, the TWHP provided basic research tools. Having proved through its research trips that resources were both available and plentiful, the staff created a timeline from the seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth and amassed hundreds of biographical and topical files and thousands of artifacts and documents, all of which comprised the largest collection about women in the state. The exhibit catalog was the first publication to present an overview of Texas women’s history. Historians called the project bibliography indispensible, and the Southwestern Historical Quarterly praised it as a tool that would “advance the study of women’s history in the state by at least a decade.” Finally, the project’s archives and the exhibit itself became artifacts housed at the Woman’s Collection at Texas Woman’s University, and Winegarten compiled a Finder’s Guide to them in 1984.

Although the catalogue to Texas Women: A Celebration of History, published in 1981, was still in demand five years after the exhibit closed, the Texas Women’s History Project was effectively finished and disbanded when the exhibit stopped touring the state in 1983.

Visit the Texas Women Project's standalone website

The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.

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Patrick L. Cox and Kenneth E. Hendrickson, eds., Writing the Story of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013). Nancy Baker Jones, “Making Texas Our Texas: The Emergence of Texas Women’s History, 1976–1990,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 120 (January 2017). Lara Leigh Kelland, Clio’s Foot Soldiers: Twentieth-Century U.S. Social Movements and the Uses of Collective Memory (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Chicago, 2013). Ann Richards, Straight from the Heart: My Life in Politics and Other Places (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989). Mary Beth Rogers, Texas Women: A Celebration of History (Austin: Texas Foundation for Women’s Resources, 1981). Mary Beth Rogers, Texas Women’s History Project Bibliography (Austin: Texas Foundation for Women’s Resources, 1980). Ellen Temple Collection, The History Center, Diboll, Texas. Ruthe Winegarten, “They Made a Difference—Women in Texas History Project Narrative,” Texas Committee for the Humanities Proposal. Ruthe Winegarten Papers, 1912–2004, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Categories:
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civic Leaders
  • Social Workers
  • Museums, Libraries, and Archives
  • Museums
  • Collections
  • Organizations
  • Professional Organizations
  • Politics and Government
  • Civic and Community Leaders
  • Women
  • Women's Clubs
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • Central Texas
  • Austin
  • San Antonio

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

Nancy Baker Jones, “Texas Women's History Project,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/texas-womens-history-project.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 14, 2021
April 14, 2021

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: