Women and Politics

By: Judith N. McArthur

Type: Overview Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: April 30, 2022

Women have historically been outsiders in politics, legally barred from voting until the twentieth century and subsequently handicapped in running for office by lack of campaign funds and exclusion from the inner sancta of political parties. As outsiders, women have often become involved in politics to promote causes, especially those relating to family and community welfare, rather than to build careers. Although the female politician did not emerge until the twentieth century, a long political tradition of advocacy and activism predated women's admission to formal electoral politics. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries middle-class women used their voluntary associations to voice opinions on public policy and seek legislative remedies for social problems. In the process they pioneered pressure-group politics: promoting an issue before the public, mounting petition and letter-writing campaigns to state legislators, urging male voters not to reelect uncooperative incumbents. In the 1880s the Woman's Christian Temperance Union united women who favored prohibition as a solution to the poverty and domestic violence that often resulted when husbands drank heavily. Temperance women quickly broadened their agenda and invaded the legislature to lobby as Christian mothers for laws authorizing a boys' reformatory to keep juveniles from being incarcerated with adult criminals (1887), requiring alcohol education in the public schools (1893), forbidding the sale of cigarettes to minors (1899), and raising the age of consent for minor girls (from ten to twelve in 1891, to fifteen in 1895, and to eighteen in 1918). At the same time, women participated more formally in Gilded Age politics by supporting third-party challenges to Democratic domination. WCTU members Jenny Bland Beauchamp and Mary M. Clardy served on the platform committee of the Texas Prohibition party at the 1886 and 1890 conventions, respectively, and Beauchamp was a delegate to the national convention in 1887. Women were even more visible in the Farmers' Alliance. Female membership was as high as 43 percent in some local chapters, and Texas was the only state alliance that elected women to high office. Mary Clardy served as assistant state lecturer and Fannie Moss as secretary-treasurer in 1892; Frances Leak was elected to succeed Moss in 1894. Ellen Lawson Dabbs and Bettie Munn Gay were among the Texas representatives to the National Farmers' Alliance convention in 1892, which gave birth to the People's party.

The Progressive era saw a decline in third-party activity but a multiplication of women's voluntary associations: the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs formed in 1897, the Texas Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (later called the Texas Association of Women's Clubs) in 1905, the state YWCA in 1906, and the Texas Congress of Mothers (see TEXAS CONGRESS OF PARENTS AND TEACHERS) in 1909. Working independently or in collaboration, and justifying their activism as "social motherhood," the women's organizations pursued legislation to safeguard public health, provide care for dependent and delinquent children, improve the public school system, and protect working women. Women's voluntarist politics helped secure a pure-food law (1907), laws enabling public schools to institute kindergarten programs (1907, 1917), a constitutional amendment to raise the limitation on local school taxes (1908), compulsory school attendance for children between eight and fourteen (1915), a juvenile court system (1907) modeled on experiments in Chicago and Denver, state juvenile training schools for boys (1909) and girls (1913), and a mothers' pension law for widows with dependent children (1917). The 1911 child labor law was initiated by a TFWC committee with backing from the state labor commissioner and the Child Welfare Conference of Texas, a confederation of a dozen voluntary and professional associations chaired by Adella Kelsey Turner. Pressure exerted by the Congress of Mothers finally resulted in Lala Fay Watts's appointment in 1918 as first child welfare inspector of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Middle-class and working-class women joined forces to lobby for protective labor laws for women. Textile worker Eva Goldsmith, representing the Houston local chapter of the United Garment Workers of America, kept before the 1913 legislature a bill establishing a maximum fifty-four-hour work week and ten-hour day for women. She was consequently appointed vice chairman of the legislative committee of Texas State Federation of Labor, its only woman officer. In 1915, with lobbying assistance from the Austin chapters of the WCTU and YWCA, Goldsmith successfully promoted an amendment that restricted the workday to nine hours. A minimum-wage law for women and minors passed in 1919 (and was repealed in 1921) after women's organizations formed the Texas Women's Legislative Association to lobby for a thirteen-point agenda that included strengthening laws regarding child labor, working women, mothers' pensions, public education, and prohibition. The association also secured a Woman's Division in the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the appointment of Lala Fay Watts, head of the WCTU's Department of Women and Minors in Industry, to head it. Female lobbyists in Austin were backed by local women's clubs, mothers' clubs, and temperance unions that inundated their legislative representatives with letters and telegrams. At the same time these organized women entered local politics as "municipal housekeepers" who pressured city governments for civic and social reforms: pure water and milk supplies, sanitation services, parks and playgrounds, police matrons to oversee women prisoners in city jails, the abolition of vice districts. In Galveston the Women's Health Protective Association was more active than the city health department in demanding enforcement of sanitation ordinances and taking violators to court. A sanitation committee from the Houston Housewives' League accompanied the city health inspector to the dairies, scored them according to the league's own standards—considerably tougher than the municipal health code—and posted the scores at City Auditorium. The Dallas Federation of Women's Clubs spent five years persuading the city to build a water-filtration plant.

Women also won their first elective offices during the Progressive era. Female school reformers argued that women, as experts on child development, should be elected to school boards. Dallas became the first major Texas city to have women school trustees when clubwomen Adella Kelsey Turner and Ella Isabelle Tucker won seats in 1908. In San Antonio the following year Anna Hertzberg and Jeanette Noyes-Evans, president and treasurer respectively of the Woman's Club of San Antonio, campaigned successfully for two of the open school-board seats; the election was invalidated when the city's pending new school charter, with a provision excluding women trustees, was approved by the state legislature. Another new charter in 1913 removed the bar, and the clubwomen secured a provision requiring that three of the trustees be women; Hertzberg, Olive Ayers, and Emma Bleim won the seats. Women were active in state referendum campaigns on prohibition and highly visible in the local-option elections that decided whether towns and counties should be "wet" or "dry." State WCTU leaders were brought in to give orations, and thousands of women not formally enrolled in the WCTU formed temporary alliances with local chapters. They staged temperance parades and held demonstrations outside the polls, where their children helped sing and wave banners. In East Texas White and Black women sometimes demonstrated together. Even though WCTU membership remained small and largely confined to evangelical churchwomen, support for prohibition was overwhelming among White women by around 1915, and the sentiment became more vocal after the country entered World War I. Sixteen organizations joined forces in the Texas Women's Anti-Vice Committee in the summer of 1917 to demand that liquor and prostitution be banned within ten miles of the state's military cantonments. By 1917 there was also broad support within women's organizations for the ballot—a demand first voiced by the WCTU in 1888—and an equally strong aversion to the demagogic governor, James E. Ferguson, an intransigent opponent of both woman suffrage and prohibition. Under the leadership of Minnie Fisher Cunningham, the Texas Equal Suffrage Association unobtrusively assisted the legislative investigation that resulted in Ferguson's impeachment. When he threatened to make a comeback in the 1918 election, Cunningham seized the opportunity provided by the split in Democratic ranks over "Fergusonism" to make a quiet political bargain with the progressive-prohibitionist leaders in the legislature that gave women the right to vote in primary elections. Enfranchised in March 1918, the new woman voters redeemed Cunningham's promise to vote as a bloc in July for the progressive candidate, William P. Hobby, who won by a landslide. Annie Webb Blanton, elected state superintendent of public instruction, became the first woman to win statewide office.

Black women had been excluded from the suffrage campaign, and the White primary law kept them from sharing in White women's new electoral power. The two groups made tentative advances toward improving race relations through the state's branch of the Committee on Woman's Work of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. The Black women protested discrimination and violence, while Jessie Daniel Ames, who headed the Woman's Committee in Texas until her appointment as the first woman executive director of a state CIC (1924), urged Whites to practice toleration and oppose lynching. The Texas Association of Colored Women's Clubs undertook its first lobbying project, a home for delinquent Black girls, with the assistance of Ames, who toured the state promoting the project while Ada Bell DeMent of the TACWC worked as liaison to the White clubs of the TFWC.

White women's voluntarist politics persisted even after the Nineteenth Amendment brought full enfranchisement. During the 1920s organized women continued to pursue the goals of social motherhood through the Joint Legislative Council, dubbed the "Petticoat Lobby" by legislators tired of being asked to pass "women's bills." The JLC achieved progressively less as the decade wore on, and finally disbanded in 1927. For the first decade after enfranchisement women continued to influence gubernatorial elections in favor of progressive candidates. Former suffragist Nona Boren Mahoney and state Democratic national committeewoman Eliza S. R. Johnson organized women for Pat Neff in 1920, helping to defeat Joseph W. Bailey, an old antisuffrage enemy. In 1924, however, James Ferguson avenged himself by running his wife, Miriam A. Ferguson, for governor as his proxy. The resurgence of Fergusonism, a political issue for another two decades, and of the Ku Klux Klan, which recruited many women members in Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston, helped fragment the women's coalition. Thousands of Democratic women refused to support either Ma Ferguson or her runoff opponent, KKK activist Felix Robertson; when Ferguson won the nomination they protested by campaigning for the Republican "good government" candidate, George C. Butte, in the general election. Although Miriam Ferguson appointed Emma Meharg the first woman secretary of state, most of the former suffragists remained allied against her. In 1926 Jane Y. McCallum chaired a "Texas Woman Citizen's Committee" that helped reformer Daniel J. Moody defeat Ma Ferguson for reelection. McCallum served as secretary of state for Moody's two administrations and that of his successor, Ross Sterling. By 1932, when Miriam Ferguson defeated Sterling and regained the governor's office, there was no longer a visible "woman's bloc." All in all, the immediate postsuffrage decades brought little political power to women. Annie Webb Blanton and Minnie Fisher Cunningham lost races for Congress. The Democrats resisted the attempts of the League of Women Voters and the Democratic Women's Association to secure equal representation for women on the party's state and county executive committees. Although the Republicans attracted women members in the 1920s by allotting them more positions, the GOP was only a nominal presence in a one-party state until the 1970s. The state legislature remained overwhelmingly male, the state congressional delegation entirely so. In 1922 Edith Wilmans became the first woman elected to the legislature; Margie Neal, elected to the first of four terms in 1926, was the first woman senator. In the ensuing half century no more than four women representatives and one senator ever sat in any given session. Instead of rising, their numbers declined. There were no women at all in the Thirty-ninth (1925–27) and Forty-fifth (1937–39) legislatures, and there were fewer in the 1960s than in the 1940s. During these decades women worked through the legislature to expand their legal rights. Representatives Helen E. Moore and Sarah T. Hughes first introduced a constitutional amendment to permit women to serve on juries in 1935. A new coalition of voluntary associations, including the American Association of University Women, did the lobbying and promotional work. The bill was reintroduced in every session but one until it was passed in 1953 and ratified in 1954. In 1957 the Business and Professional Women began a campaign for the Texas Equal Rights Amendment. Coordinated by Hermine Tobolowsky, it combined club pressure in the style of the presuffrage era with a decade of working to elect supportive legislators and defeat opponents; the amendment finally passed in 1971.

Black women, who suffered the double discrimination of race and sex, fought legalized racism through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Juanita Shanks Craft of Dallas was active as an organizer, while Christia Adair helped found the Houston NAACP, of which she was executive secretary from 1943 to 1959. The association's efforts helped Hattie Mae White become the first Black woman elected to the Houston school board in 1958. In 1966 Adair was one of the first two African Americans elected to the Harris County Democratic Executive Committee; the state convention refused to seat them. That same year redistricting made it possible for Barbara Jordan, who had lost races for the state House in 1962 and 1964, to win a seat in the state Senate; she was the first Black person elected since Reconstruction. The combined effect of the Civil Rights Movement and resurgence of feminism in the 1960s began to translate into higher political visibility for women by the early 1970s. The Texas Women's Political Caucus organized in 1971 to encourage women to seek public office and formulate a feminist political agenda; at the time, Jordan and State Representative Frances Farenthold were the only women in the legislature. The following year brought unprecedented achievements. Farenthold made the first serious bid for statewide office since Miriam Ferguson's final campaign in 1940; she ran strongly in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and lost narrowly in a runoff. Anne Armstrong, of the Republican National Committee, was chosen as the first woman to give a keynote address at a national party convention. Barbara Jordan became the first Texas woman elected to Congress in her own right (Lera M. Thomas had served her deceased husband's unexpired term in 1966–67) and the first Black congresswoman elected from the South. Five women, the largest number ever, were elected to the state house of representatives, including Sarah Weddington, the plaintiff's lawyer in Roe v. Wade. The visibility of Hispanic women at the state level was limited before the rise of the Raza Unida party (1970). Although active in organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, they had no influence in mainstream state politics. In 1972 Alma Canales ran for lieutenant governor, thus becoming the first Hispanic woman to seek high state office; though she lost, Hispanic women in Crystal City, the birthplace of La Raza Unida, won county offices. Mujeres por la Raza groups, organized by Martha P. Cotera, encouraged more Hispanic women to seek office; two ran unsuccessfully for the legislature in 1974, and in 1976 Irma Rangel became the first to win a seat in the house. Women continued to make gains as the decade unfolded. Barbara Jordan gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1976. By 1977, when the National Women's Conference met in Houston to formulate a political agenda, eleven women were serving in the legislature and María Elena Martínez had been elected to head the Raza Unida party. More important in the long run, women had begun to compete successfully for local elective offices. In 1975 Lila Cockrell, who had been the third woman elected to the San Antonio City Council, became the city's first woman mayor. Carole Keeton McClellan, the first woman president of the Austin school board, won the Austin mayoral race in 1977. Over the next fifteen years, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, and Corpus Christi elected woman mayors.

By the 1980s women candidates had overcome the image of being long shots for office and established themselves as serious contenders. Travis county commissioner Ann Richards became the first woman in fifty years to win statewide office when she was elected to the first of two terms as state treasurer in 1982. In 1986 three women were elected to the state Senate, which had never before had more than one female member. Ann Richards gave the keynote address at the Democratic national convention in 1988 and in 1990 won an acrimonious race for governor. Women also captured both parties' nominations for state treasurer. Kay Bailey Hutchison's victory marked the first time a Republican woman had won statewide office; it was also a triumph for the Texas Federation of Republican Women. Women were elected to 12.7 percent of the legislative seats in 1990 (nineteen in the House, four in the Senate), and nine-term representative Wilhelmina Delco, an African American, became speaker pro tem. The 1992 conventions drew national attention to the state's women politicians. Kay Bailey Hutchison was temporary president of the Republican national convention. Ann Richards chaired the Democratic national convention, which featured speeches by Barbara Jordan and former state representative Lena Guerrero, whom Richards appointed to an interim vacancy on the Railroad Commission. Guerrero's promising political career was torpedoed a few weeks later when it was revealed that she had been falsely representing herself as a graduate of the University of Texas. She resigned from the Railroad Commission but remained in the race and was decisively defeated. In 1993, in a special election following the resignation of Lloyd Bentsen, Jr., Kay Bailey Hutchison was elected to the United States Senate. She went on to win in the regular election of 1994. While the majority of women officeholders continued to be clustered at the local level, sophisticated national fund-raising networks formed in the 1980s for female candidates enabled more women than ever to make serious bids for higher office. In 1992, billed nationally as the "Year of the Woman" in politics, thirty-four women ran for the state House, six for the state Senate, three for other state office, and four for Congress. They succeeded in record numbers. Twenty-four women won seats in the House and four in the Senate. Judge Rose Spector became the first woman elected to the state Supreme Court. State Senator Eddie Bernice Johnson was elected to Congress to represent the new Thirtieth District, a minority district that she helped draw while head of the state Senate's Subcommittee on Congressional Redistricting. See also WOMEN AND THE LAW, CHILD LABOR LEGISLATION, MEXICAN AMERICANS.

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Elizabeth W. Fernea and Marilyn P. Duncan, eds., Texas Women in Politics (Austin: Foundation for Women's Resources, 1977). Judie Gammage, Quest for Equality: An Historical Overview of Women's Rights Activism in Texas, 1890–1975 (Ph.D. dissertation, North Texas State University, 1982). Emma L. M. Jackson, Petticoat Politics: Political Activism among Texas Women in the 1920's (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1980). Judith Nichols McArthur, Motherhood and Reform in the New South: Texas Women's Political Culture in the Progressive Era (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1992).

  • Women
  • Activism and Social Reform
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

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

Judith N. McArthur, “Women and Politics,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/women-and-politics.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 30, 2022

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