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Texas history: Tales of a famous Texas feminist, Liz Carpenter

Michael Barnes
Women's rights activist Liz Carpenter used her quick wit as a useful tool, but also as a weapon.

Sept. 1 is the 100th birthday of the late Liz Carpenter. It comes just five days after the nation toasts the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, when women secured the legal right to vote.

The famed Texan and journalist with a barbed sense of humor is best known for her work in the White House for Lady Bird Johnson and President Lyndon Johnson.

Yet as her daughter Christy Carpenter reminded me in a note about the fortuitous pair of anniversaries, her mother also made a lifetime commitment to women’s rights.

In honor of the twinned centennials, I interviewed Christy. The interview was trimmed and lightly edited.

Think, Texas: What was your impression, as a youth and a teen, of your mother’s fight for women’s rights?

Christy Carpenter: I was jazzed by my mother’s fight for equal rights for women, and extremely proud of the way she applied all of her talents as a speaker, writer, persuader and organizer to the cause.

Although a feminist from birth, she became an activist and leader in 1971 when she joined Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Congresswomen Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm — among many other iconic feminist leaders — in creating the National Women’s Political Caucus. I’ll always be grateful that my mother brought me along to the initial meeting at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., on a hot summer day when the organization was conceived and born.

My mother’s extensive experience and connections in the political world coupled with her political know-how and can-do spirit were invaluable to the caucus. Her work on behalf of innumerable women candidates led her just a few years later to the front lines of the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment.

I greatly admired her spunk, grit and tenacity in that noble but, ultimately, unsuccessful campaign for ratification. Although she was terrified of flying, she didn’t hesitate to jump on airplanes to lobby governors and state legislatures across the country. She was a consummate maker of “good trouble” and did it with a flourish, wit and passion all her own.

Did that impression mature as you faced the world as an adult woman?

I now better appreciate just how much energy and commitment her involvement took. Over the years, my admiration and respect have grown for the guts, enthusiasm and perseverance she brought to the cause. She also brought tremendous common sense and wisdom.

When contemplating political issues or candidates, I often ask myself, “What would Liz say?” In recent times, I’m often asked this same question by others regarding our current political situation, and my answer is that the voice I hear is outraged, inflamed, appalled, but ever hopeful.

Your mother was so close to Lady Bird Johnson, not just as her press secretary, but also as her friend. Did they share the same passion for women’s rights?

Lady Bird Johnson, like her husband, believed that women deserved opportunities equal to men. She appeared on behalf of various women candidates and stood onstage alongside my mother with Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford at an ERA fundraiser and rally in Houston in 1977. Understandably, Lady Bird could not be an activist like my mother, but she was always eager to hear my mother’s stories when she returned from the hustings, campaigning for women candidates or the ERA.

I knew your mother, but not your father, Leslie E. "Les" Carpenter. How did he support your mother’s participation in the women’s movement?

My parents had an unusual relationship for their era. Theirs was a marriage of equals whose professional and home lives were completely intertwined. My father had the highest regard for the capabilities of women and, unlike many men of his era, relished being around strong, smart women like my mom.

He supported my mother’s involvement in the National Women’s Political Caucus with advice and ideas, as well as by keeping the home fires burning when her activism took her away from home. Unfortunately, he died in 1974 and was no longer around when she took on the role of co-chairing ERAmerica. I have no doubt he was cheering her on from that great press gallery in the sky.

Many fondly recall when Gov. Ann Richards, comedian Lily Tomlin and your mother performed together at the Paramount Theatre. What are your memories of their friendships?

My mother and Ann Richards were good friends and allies who shared a passion for public life and the good it could do for regular “folks.” My mother was one of Ann’s earliest supporters when she began her first campaign for Travis County commissioner, and my mother continued her involvement in Ann’s campaigns as she moved her way up to state treasurer and governor.

Given their down-to-earth styles and rich humor, they loved to get together, often with other women friends, kick off their shoes, swap stories and political gossip, and laugh.

My mother and Lily were more acquaintances than friends whose lives intersected occasionally on the trail for equal rights. I ran into Lily one time in Los Angeles, told her I was Liz’s daughter, and with a huge, enthusiastic smile, Lily recalled that night at the Paramount Theatre and noted that my mother had been by far the funniest of the three and “stole the show.”

Your mother used her quick wit as a useful tool, but also as a weapon. Did that make her more effective?

Yes. She was fast on the draw, and her wit made her infinitely more effective. The humor coupled with her expansive, warm personality drew people to her and made them more receptive to what she had to say on behalf of women.

Her wit helped stir people up and was a galvanizing force. Sometimes, it became a weapon to counter the opponents of women’s rights, and her barbs could be withering. Here, for example, is how she would — in many speeches — characterize state legislators who refused to vote for ratification of the ERA.

She saw them as being of five types: “Sen. Apron Strings (hides behind his wife although he hasn’t asked her opinion); state Rep. Consensus (you girls get together); Sen. States Rights (gets apoplexy when ’federal’ or ’Congress’ is mentioned); Sen. Macho (dirty old man that grew up from a dirty little boy); Sen. Master of the Castle (only associates with women in bed or in the kitchen).”

She recruited Erma Bombeck to the ERAmerica campaign, and they appeared together in key states across the country to rally support, fundraise and lobby for the ERA. They were like Hope and Crosby in “On the Road to ERA.” They had a whale of a good time together and made a big splash wherever they went.

What did she say when the ERA failed to be ratified?

She was angry and frustrated but managed to retain her characteristic optimism and faith that someday the ERA will be enshrined in the Constitution. Speaking of the ERA several years later, she wrote, “But it will come, and we will look back, as we have on the days when blacks sat at the back of the bus, and wonder why anyone was ever against giving women equal rights under the Constitution of the United States. This I feel in the marrow of my bones. ...The issue still burns within us. The fight goes on, and I will go on with the fight.”

Since she was born in the same year that the 19th Amendment was ratified, did she talk about the history of women’s suffrage?

The fact that my mother was born just five days after the ratification of the 19th Amendment has always struck me as no coincidence. Feminism was in her DNA, and sisterhood came naturally. Beginning from my childhood, she would tell me with great pride that we descend from women of grit — smart, educated and gutsy women — who supported the 19th Amendment in a variety of ways.

Some, like her mother and her sisters, baked cakes and pies to win the backing of male voters and legislators. Others, such as her great-aunt Birdie Robertson Johnson, who had a position of political influence in Washington, D.C., rode to the U.S. Capitol in a carriage, dressed in white, to lobby members of Congress several years after founding a suffrage organization in Smith County.

Another great-aunt Imogene joined the more radical suffragists in front of the White House in demonstrations intended to shame President Wilson into lending his support for suffrage. Family lore recounts that she even joined the protesters in tossing eggs over the White House fence.

Among my most prized possessions is my grandmother’s poll tax receipt from her first vote in 1920 just a few months after the 19th Amendment was adopted, which I have lovingly framed. It speaks to me as a talisman reminding me of an obligation born of heritage to carry on the fight for equal rights for women and all people.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ann Richards with Liz Carpenter in 1993.