Texas Women's History Month 2017

This month, KUT is partnering with the Ruthe Winegarten Foundation to celebrate Women's History Month. Every day, we'll bring you a short feature spotlighting a historic woman, movement, or group of women in Texas. 

When Bessie Coleman wanted to become a pilot, no flying school would admit her because she was black and a woman. Undeterred, Coleman—who was born in Atlanta, Texas, and grew up in a poor sharecropper family in Waxahachie—obtained a sponsor and went to France for training. In 1921, she became the first black woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license. She returned to the U.S. and flew in a series of airshows, performing stunts whenever she could borrow an airplane. Her dream was to earn enough money to buy her own plane and to establish a flying school for African-Americans.

Zelma Watson excelled in many diverse areas of life. She was a scholar, civic leader, peace advocate and the first black woman to sing a white role on Broadway.

Watson was born in 1903 in the former cotton-plantation town of Hearne, Texas. As the daughter of a Baptist minister, she remembered such leaders as W.E.B. DuBois and Mary Branch Terrell visiting her father’s Dallas church. The family left Texas after being threatened by vigilantes. 

In the early 18th century, 15 families from the Canary Islands immigrated to Texas as part of an effort by the Spanish government to settle a group of its citizens in the military outpost of San Fernando de Béxar. After sailing to Veracruz, Mexico, the travelers, including María Robaína Betancour, a widow with five children, endured a difficult overland journey to arrive in present-day San Antonio in March 1731. Making a home for her family in a new land, Betancour acquired a large property that became a dowry when she married her second husband, Martín Lorenzo de Armas.

 Talented musician, writer, and activist Maud Cuney-Hare rose to prominence in the Northeast, but she never gave up her Texas heritage.

Born in Galveston in 1874, she was the daughter of Adelina and Norris Wright Cuney, one of the state’s most influential African-American politicians and civil rights leaders of the post-Civil War era. She grew up in an upper-class home filled with music and literature, and after graduating from high school studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

When white students tried to have her barred from living on campus, she stood her ground and won the right to remain in her dormitory. She cultivated relationships with prominent black leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois, to whom she was briefly engaged and with whom she remained close both personally and professionally throughout her life. 


 Allie Victoria Tennant was one of the most accomplished sculptors in Texas during a career that spanned more than five decades. Tennant became a prominent artist in the Regionalist style during the 1930s, joining a circle of artists who chose Texas themes as their subject matter. Many of her sculptures are now displayed in the Dallas Museum of Art. Her best-known public work is the monumental Tejas Warrior, which still stands at the Hall of State at Fair Park.

 In 1923, Mary Couts Burnett gave more than $3 million to Texas Christian University, one of the largest gifts to a Texas institution.  A native of Weatherford, Burnett married wealthy cattleman and oil baron Burk Burnett about 1892. After the death of their only child in 1917, Mary Burnett feared that her husband was trying to kill her. In response, he had her declared insane and confined to a private house in her hometown.  

When she was 23, Sophie Alice Callahan wrote the first novel by an American Indian woman, titled Wynema, A Child of the Forest. The book tells the story of a Creek girl and her teacher, an Anglo woman from the South. Callahan used the cross-cultural friendship between the two women to educate Anglo readers about the rights of Native Americans and of women. The book highlights the women’s opinions about the suffrage movement and the painful realities of U.S. Indian policies, like the effects of the Dawes Act and the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee.

Consuelo González Amezcua (called Chelo), a poet and artist, gained acclaim for the "filigree art" drawings she did in Texas, which drew inspiration from pre-Columbian, Mexican American and Egyptian history. Her unique drawing technique reflected the elaborate metal work found in Mexican jewelry.


  In 1942, six months after the U.S. entry into World War II, the Army Air Force, facing a shortage of male combat pilots, turned to pioneering pilot Jacqueline Cochran to launch a flight-training program for women. Of the 25,000 women who applied, 1,830 were accepted, and 1,074 completed the training to become Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.


Lydia Mendoza — known as “La Alondra de la Frontera,” or the lark of the border — was one of the most talented and popular and talented musicians in the history of Tejano music. Mendoza was born in Houston into a musical family of Mexican immigrants in 1916. She performed on the streets with her family’s band, which won an audition in San Antonio for OK Records in 1928.


In the early time before European, Mexican and American explorers arrived in present-day Texas, an incalculable number of Indian women made this place home. Unfortunately, the names of these women are unknown, but researchers are learning who they are and what they did.


Perhaps most famous for the sound of her sonorous voice, Barbara Jordan articulated the emotions of many when as member of the House Judiciary Committee, she defended the U.S. Constitution against its subversion during the Watergate scandal in 1972. Using herself as a symbol of the people who had once been excluded from it, she said, “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the destruction of the Constitution.”


Nicknamed Big Mama for both her size and her dynamic voice, blues legend Willie Mae Thornton grew up singing in the choir in her father’s church near Montgomery, Ala. She won a singing contest in 1941 at age 15 and attracted the attention of Atlanta music promoter Sammy Green, who signed her for his Hot Harlem Review.


Best known for her landmark bill that guarantees college admission to Texas high school students in the top 10 percent of their graduation classes, Irma Rangel was the first Tejana elected to the Texas House of Representatives.


Rangel began her career participating in workers’ marches in the 1960s and working as a teacher and a principal. After becoming a lawyer, she was assistant district attorney in Corpus Christi, insisting on equal pay before she took the job. She opened her own law practice and got involved in local politics.


In 1976, a former social studies teacher named Ann Richards took her family to the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio to instill a love for Texas in her children. After watching a slide and film show designed to illustrate the universal character of Texas people, Richards’ daughter asked, “Where are all the women?” Richards realized they were missing from the show and decided to do something about it.


Tenacious labor leader and educator Emma Tenayuca was born in San Antonio in 1916. With her family and neighbors strongly affected by the privations of the Great Depression, she joined labor protests on behalf of the working poor. She was arrested for the first time at the age of 16 after joining a picket line of workers striking against the Finck Cigar Co.


Jovita Idar grew up in Laredo, one of eight children of parents who published La Crónica, a Spanish-language newspaper that exposed segregation, lynching and other injustices endured by Mexican Texans in the early 20th century.


Hattie Mae White holds the distinction of being the first African-American elected to significant public office in Texas since the Reconstruction. A former school teacher, she won a place on the Houston school board in 1958, a time when the city’s schools remained segregated despite the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education.


One of the most famous rock 'n' rollers to come out of Texas, Janis Joplin grew up unpopular and an outcast during high school in Port Arthur. She often sneaked across the Sabine River with friends to drink and listen to zydeco, blues and jazz in the many bars that lined the Louisiana border.


The grandchild of slaves, Annie Mae Hunt was born in 1909 near Brenham. She picked cotton near Navasota for 50 cents a day in conditions she compared to slavery times. She received a fifth grade education and married at age 15. But she later left her husband and moved to Dallas with her three children, where she met and married Marvin Hunt. Without access to birth control, Hunt had 20 children. She lost seven of them.

Born in 1912 on the shores of Caddo Lake, Claudia Alta Taylor attained her childhood nickname — so the story goes — when her childhood nursemaid said she was “as pretty as a lady bird.” She earned degrees in history and journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, where in 1934 she met Lyndon B. Johnson.


Remembered as South Texas philanthropist and matriarch of a large family, Petra Kenedy was born to modest beginnings in Mier, Mexico, in 1823. She was one of 17 children and a descendent of the town’s settlers. She had eight children of her own with Mexican army officer Luis Vidal, who married someone else but in common practice maintained two families.


Mary Elizabeth Branch was born the child of former slaves in 1881 in Virginia. By 1930, she was the president of Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University), having served decades as an accomplished educator. The Tillotson campus was badly in need of improvement when Branch arrived.

 Over the next 14 years, Branch successfully transformed Tillotson from a women’s junior college to a four-year, coeducational undergraduate school with an A rating from the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. At the time, Branch was the only African-American female president of such an institution.

Entre Guadalupe y Malinche: Tejanas in Literature and Art (UT Press, 2016)

Even before the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that separate was not equal, Tejanas, especially members of the American G.I. Forum Women’s Auxiliary, lobbied for equal civil rights. An early victory, the 1948 lawsuit Delgado v. Del Rio prohibited public schools from segregating Mexican-American students.

In the late 1940s, Tejanas organized a grassroots campaign to treat with dignity the remains of Felix Longoria, a World War II soldier whose hometown of Three Rivers refused to bury him. He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in 1949.


Tejanas also worked to increase voting. In 1960, to elect a Democratic president, Manuela Contreras González and Dr. Clotilde García campaigned through Viva Kennedy clubs to get John F. Kennedy elected.

These clubs led to the formation of a group called PASSO, which fought to pay farm workers minimum wage. In 1963, the group voted out the Anglo political machine in Crystal City, winning all five council seats. This marked the beginning of the Chicano movement in Texas.

This month, KUT is partnering with the Ruthe Winegarten Foundation to celebrate Women's History Month. Every day, we'll bring you a short feature spotlighting a historic woman, movement, or group of women in Texas.

Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Best known for her dedication to winning the right to vote, Jane Y. McCallum was a lifelong activist, a prolific writer and influential opinion-maker. Born in 1878 in La Vernia, Texas, McCallum became the president of the Austin Suffrage Association in 1915.

Born in Hidalgo County, Maria Elena Zamora O’Shea vindicated the Tejano presence of the state with her 1935 novela El Mesquite. Her efforts counteracted the Anglo-Texan Centennial celebration of Texas Independence, which largely ignored the Tejano presence in the state.

To tell her story, she drew from family records and her own research. Written from the point of view of a mesquite tree, the book includes details of cultural traditions and women’s work.


Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Indian women led tribes, acted as intermediaries and more.

Hailed as “the mother of Texas women’s history,” Ruthe Winegarten is widely regarded for her strong social conscience and as a trailblazer in the field of Texas history. She earned a masters in social work and began a Ph.D. in history, but left academia to pursue her passion for telling the stories of powerless or  “forgotten” women.

It might be difficult to find a life as colorful as Mollie Bailey’s. Known as “the Circus Queen of the Southwest,” she worked as a nurse during the Civil War, but it’s rumored she may have also been a spy for the Confederacy. 

Some sources say she smuggled quinine across enemy lines by hiding it in her hair and dressed up like an old woman selling cookies to overhear Union army plans.

While Texas women petitioned for a suffrage amendment to the state constitution in 1868, racism prevented most of them from working with African-American suffragists. When women won the right to vote in 1918, prejudice in the form of poll taxes, white primary laws and the Ku Klux Klan still deprived black women of their right to vote.