Ruthe Lewin Winegarten, historian, became the state’s most significant advocate for Texas women’s history between 1978 and 2004. The first of two children of Charles and Celia (Cohen) Lewin, she was born on August 26, 1929, in Dallas. She married four times and had three children.
Among the most important youthful influences in Winegarten’s life was Habonim (“the builders”), a Labor Zionist youth group founded by Jacob Levin, the principal of the Hebrew School of Dallas. Habonim and the affiliated Camp Bonim provided the crucible in which her social conscience formed, forging her ethnic identity and challenging her to create an ethical, purposeful life.
Lewin enrolled at Southern Methodist University and joined the Dallas Progressive Youth League. In 1947 or 1948 she joined the Communist Party (CP), believing it could achieve social reform and peace. In 1948 she transferred to the University of Texas at Austin to earn a degree in anthropology and married the youth director of the state Communist Party. The marriage lasted four years. By then, disillusioned, her interest in the CP was over.
A second marriage ended in 1955, and in 1956 she married Alvin Winegarten, an aeronautical engineer. During the 1960s she became active in a variety of voluntary civic activities and helped organize the North Dallas Democratic Women’s Club to support John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. There she met Ann Richards, the politically-active wife of a Dallas attorney and the club’s president. As a fundraiser for liberal Democratic candidates, the club sponsored yearly musical skits, called Political Paranoia, in which costumed women played the parts of well-known candidates and office holders, satirizing them with their own irreverent lyrics set to familiar tunes.
In 1970 she earned an M.S. degree in social work from the University of Texas at Arlington. Winegarten spent most of the 1970s in Dallas and worked for Jewish social service organizations and as the Southwest Regional Director for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. She also wrote profiles about women for the Texas Jewish Post and the Dallas Iconoclast and co-produced similar features for radio station KERA. In 1976 she entered the Ph.D. program in the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. More eager to collect women’s oral histories, however, she left graduate school after two years.
Winegarten separated from her husband and moved to Austin in 1978, where she discovered a burgeoning community interested in women’s issues. She worked briefly for Ann Richards, directed the Austin Women’s Center, then became the research director and curator for the Texas Women’s History Project (TWHP), an effort of the Texas Foundation for Women’s Resources, which had been founded by Richards, Sarah Weddington, Ellen Temple, and others to improve the status of women.
Winegarten and her staff collected biographical information about nearly 600 women and compiled and catalogued more than 20,000 items that were eventually housed at Texas Woman’s University library. The resulting 500-running-foot, multicultural museum exhibit, Texas Women: A Celebration of History, opened at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio. The exhibit toured the state for eighteen months in 1981 and 1982, and more than one million people saw it.
With the exhibit behind her, Winegarten immediately began publishing. Much like the exhibit’s catalogue, the large-format, “pictorial” history books she first published were filled with photographs and reproductions of documents, luring readers with visuals but also offering captions, explanatory text, lists, timelines, notes, and bibliographies. The first Texas Women: A Pictorial History From Indians to Astronauts (1986) drew on research that she and her staff had done that had not made it into the exhibit.
In 1985 Winegarten and Frieda Werden published a six-page chronological overview, “Women in Texas History,” in the Sesquicentennial edition of the Texas Almanac 1986–1987. In 1987 she and Judith N. McArthur published Citizens at Last: The Woman Suffrage Movement in Texas, a groundbreaking documentary history that became the basis for a traveling exhibit by Texas Woman’s University. Collaborating with Werden and Janet G. Humphrey, Winegarten produced Black Texas Women: 150 Years of Trial and Triumph (1995), a compendium of hundreds of women’s achievements from the antebellum period to the present that had taken twenty years to produce. After this came the first history of women in the legislature, Capitol Women: Texas Female Legislators, 1923–1999 (2000), co-authored with Nancy Baker Jones, and Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History (2003), with Teresa Palomo Acosta, which was the first history of Mexican descent women in Texas. She also contributed to a children’s book, a musical, and three educational videos—twenty publications in all.
Winegarten was also the research director or curator for three major history exhibits about Texas women and a consultant in women’s history to the staff of the Handbook of Texas revision project and the nascent Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. She was research director for the Texas Jewish Historical Society; served on the Governor’s Commission for Women among many other boards and commissions related to women, education, Jews, and African Americans; was a Fellow of the Texas State Historical Association; won both the Liz Carpenter Award and the T.R. Fehrenbach Award twice; and gave countless speeches about Texas women and women’s history to book festivals, associations, clubs, conferences, churches, temples, and civic groups throughout the state. She and composer Naomi Carrier turned her oral history of Annie Mae Hunt into a popular musical, I Am Annie Mae. She also left behind an unpublished collection of poetry.
In May 2004, after being diagnosed with early vascular dementia, Ruthe Winegarten moved into an assisted living facility in Austin. On June 14, she committed suicide. In 2007 colleagues created the Ruthe Winegarten Memorial Foundation for Texas Women’s History and built the website womenintexashistory.org to continue her work.