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Interview with: Betty Barnes
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava
Date: May 12, 1975
Archive Number: OH 007
LM: (00:08) Can you give me a little information about yourself? How did you first get involved with NOW? What kind of position? What position do you hold?
BB: I first joined NOW in November of 1970, which was right after it was organized in Houston—the local chapter. And I’ve been active in it ever since. I currently am Legislative Task Force Chair, and I’ve been an unofficial historian for several years of the NOW group.
LM: Where are you employed now?
BB: San Jacinto Junior College. I am an instructor of Government there.
LM: You told me—you mentioned a few moments ago that you were the unofficial historian, so perhaps my next question will be right in line with that. Why was the organization established? What conditions led to its establishment?
BB: Well, of course, it was the general society that led to it—the fact that women and men, but particularly women, are discriminated against extensively in our society and in our culture. And that we want to end that discrimination and create a society in which both men and women are judged as individuals, not on the basis of their sex, but on the basis of their individual characteristics and abilities. And that such irrelevant criteria as sex, race, sexual preference, and other such things, simply should not have anything to do with what one does. And we’ve tried to create that kind of society. Specifically in Houston. There was a couple—Sally and Bart Hacker—who acted—Sally had acted as convener for the Houston chapter, and in March of 1970 initiated the original meeting in which you had—they had ten members. I was not one of those original ten. But that was the official organization date. And it grew rather slowly for about the first six months or so, and then almost exploded in membership; beginning really in the fall and winter of 1971, it would be.
LM: What is your membership now?
BB: I really don’t know, specifically. It’s around 500, which is the best I can tell you because it does fluctuate off and on and I just haven’t seen any recent figures on it. But it has, for about the last three or four years, it’s been between 300 and 500. And, depending on when—dues are due at the beginning of every year—and then, of course, for a while then we have a fairly small membership until everybody, you know, comes through with their dues again. That kind of stuff.
LM: What are the dues?
BB: (03:21) They are $10 for the National; and $5 for the local. And you have to join National in order to be a member of NOW. So the $10 is a must, and the $5 is if one wants to join a local chapter. Which most do, because that’s really where nearly all of the activity is, particularly unless you live in Washington or somewhere.
LM: Where do your members come from?
BB: Everywhere. We have, of course, mostly women. But we also have men members. We’ve always been an organization admitting both, since we’re working for both. We have all races. We have all kinds of occupations, and all kinds of ages. I think currently ages—ours range from about 12 or 14 to about 80—in just the Houston chapter alone. And occupations—everything from homemaker to professional psychologists and politicians and all kinds of professional people, as well as blue collar workers and other kinds of people. So it’s very varied.
LM: You said you had some Blacks in the organization, also?
BB: Uh-hunh (affirmative). Oh, yes. Blacks; browns. We don’t have a large oriental contingent in the Houston area, since there are not large numbers of them. But, we have some of every kind of group.
LM: How do you go about seeking members?
BB: (05:11) Well, it’s more often a case of they’re seeking us, I think. It’s—we have public service announcements on the radio and televisions periodically announcing, like, our program meetings and inviting people to attend. And then, of course, anyone who comes, we try to encourage them if they wish to join. We also periodically have sent out mailings—usually the National does that—National sends mailings periodically to mailing lists and then we get some members through that. And then we have people who call who are interested; who have heard about our activities and are interested in our organization. And we usually send them a copy of the newsletter, and then, later on, if they wish to join, they can join. It’s—really, we tend to get spurts of membership after we’ve gotten some kind of media publicity and people hear about us and hear what we’re doing, and become interested. After the recent ERA—well, of course, it’s still going on—but—some publicity about the Equal Rights Amendment and what was going on in Austin, we had a number of people call and get interested in joining—that kind of thing.
LM: You mentioned the radio spots. Who finances them?
BB: They’re free. They’re a public service that the radio and television stations have to do. The FCC requires them to have so many PSAs, and we are accredited—I’m not sure that’s the proper term, but it’s close enough—with the National advertising agency that specifies certain organizations who the radio and television are encouraged to give public service announcements for. And so it’s free. We couldn’t afford to pay. We don’t have any—that much money. We’re chronically poor, as a matter of fact.
LM: (07:25) At the beginning of the interview, you mentioned some of the broad objectives.
BB: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
LM: —that you hope to achieve. How is the organization going to achieve those ends? What are you doing now to achieve those ends?
BB: Well, we use a variety of tactics and techniques, depending on what seems appropriate at the current time; and in the current situation. We have had law suits. We have filed numerous complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department. We have followed up on a number of those which have been settled to our satisfaction; others which, in fact, we’ve got two complaints right now with the EEOC. And we have picketed when we felt that that was appropriate. We have used the political process in lobbying the Legislature; writing letters and doing other things.
We cannot endorse candidates. We are not legally able to because we are a tax exempt organization and we can’t endorse candidates. But we certainly can, through our membership, try to influence them in accordance with our goals. So we do that. We have tried various other kinds of things. Oh, like, through a series of negotiations, we managed to get an agreement with KPRC-TV between the Houston Area NOW and Channel 2 to—for several things, including programming that is more conducive to women’s issues, that goes on women’s issues better, and to upgrade their employment with connection to women, and that kind of thing.
(09:21) So, it really depends. We’ll use just about any tactic. We’re not—we are a non-violent group. We have not gone out and bombed anybody, or anything like that. But, we have occasionally used, you know, publicity-getting techniques in order to get our message across. So, whatever seems to work within the system, feeling that, in essence, that in the long run is the better way to approach it. But, demonstrating and picketing is not such a big deal any more. A lot of people figure that’s in within the system now. We were doing it before it was considered quite such an establishment kind of thing to do.
And, in fact, we’ve been periodically by some groups called establishment in that in our system of orientation—except that we are working to change the system from both within and sometimes from without, in a sense. Because we want to make a new society. And that’s very true, that some people get upset about that. But it’s so. Because we think the society needs some basic changes.
LM: Do you think you can do that with 500 members?
BB: Well, that’s just in Houston. Yeah. Oh, yes. Very small groups have had enormous changes. And the thing is that that’s just our membership. We have enormous numbers of people who believe in part of our goals. And the NOW organization is really what I view as a cutting edge. What were viewed as radical issues for NOW to promulgate a few years ago are now accepted by everybody as being, you know, just reasonable. Uh—not everybody—but the vast majority of people. And what we do is we come out with things that seem very radical at the time, and then later on people decide they’re not so outrageous after all. Because we’re, in essence, for justice, I feel. And people inherently ultimately want that. Or, at least those who aren’t getting it. Those who have power, of course, don’t want to give it up. But the rest of the people can push them long enough to get some of the power.
LM: (11:42) Do you think the organization—NOW—is taken seriously?
BB: Oh, yes.
LM: By the community?
BB: Yes, indeed. It’s taken seriously by the media. It’s taken seriously by the businesses. We got unsolicited—we get unsolicited mail from companies and from other places telling us how great they’re doing, because they are concerned when—I think just one indication of the seriousness with which we’re taken was last year when we did start—or actually, back, no longer than a year now. When we were approaching Channel 2, I called up and asked for an appointment with the President of the company—the manager—Jack Harris. And we had an appointment right away. Because I said I was with NOW, and there was a group of us that wanted to discuss his company’s situation with him. Now, he doesn’t just, you know, any group that calls up and anybody that calls up, automatically give them an interview the next week. No way. And, we went in and we had about a two hour interview that first time, with the head of the station. And you just don’t get that unless you’re taken quite seriously. And that’s the biggest television station in town. That’s a very powerful group. And we were taken very seriously. By the politicians, as well. Our support is not solicited in the sense of endorsement and that kind of thing. But they certainly listen to us when we speak.
LM: Are there any particularly that you’ve spoken to that have shown interest?
BB: (13:26) Oh, yes. Fred Hofheinz, Mayor of Houston. A number of legislators who we speak to and are on good terms with. There are a number that we are on good terms with who listen to us even if they’re not necessarily going to vote the way we want. They nevertheless, you might say, listen with respect. For example, the conservative Republican, Bill Blythe, a representative with whom we don’t always see eye to eye. Nevertheless, he’s pretty pleasant and listens to us. And, oh, he’s a nice man. But it’s also the fact that we’re from NOW. And a number of the United States representatives, and that kind of people, do listen to us. That doesn’t mean they necessarily do what we want, but it means that they figure we’re important enough that they should take some time, generally, for us.
We have a fund raising cocktail party usually about once a year. And we have a very diverse group that shows up at that, which is always interesting. One party we had, in fact, we had everything—it was right after Cleotis Johnson, I believe—is that who was in prison for—yeah, okay. He was there, the Mosslers were there, and we had staunch Republicans. And we just had a really fine time with all kinds of diverse people. Of course, that’s part of it, when people _________?? (15:05), and I think it’s also indicative of the cross-section of people who consider us relevant.
LM: (15:15) Does having membership in NOW interfere with employment? Do some employers, for instance, where you are employed now as a school teacher, how do they view that? How does the administration—
BB: I am personally concerned there’s been no comment, ever. And I do not view it, in fact, as harmful. And, in fact, that particular school, if anything, it may be helpful, because there has been some history in the past with that particular school, of litigation on the grounds that various people have been discriminated against—been fired—for unjust reasons. And several instructors have been reinstated after court suits. And I, frankly, personally consider that the fact that I am a NOW member, as well as being active in the local politics, probably indicates that they would be a little less likely to fire me for inadequate reasons, since they would feel that I for sure would cause a big uproar.
Now, with other people, it’s different. Some of our members have gotten into trouble. We’ve had two members, and just about six months or so ago, who felt that they were fired—I don’t know whether it was so much NOW members as such, but because they were, indeed, vocal, about their feminism. And I think that perhaps that is the real key. It’s not necessarily membership. It’s how active you’re a member and how much you, in effect, express your attitudes that are part of NOW’s attitudes. And some members have gotten into a great deal of difficulty in employment, as well as other places.
(17:11) Our president was unemployed for a time, and was out looking for a job. And I personally think that her being the NOW president probably hurt her in finding a job. Although you’d never be able to pin it down. You can’t point to anything in particular. It’s just the impression from the kind of things that didn’t happen.
LM: Have you lived in any other areas of the country?
BB: I lived in Rochester, New York, for a year. And, as a baby, I lived in Oklahoma and California, but that really doesn’t count.
LM: What I’m getting to is the conditions here for women. Are they unique? Are they any different than most other American cities?
BB: There is some difference, I think, that’s traceable to it being southwest, and particularly, Texas—southern and western. And it’s something that’s been debatable because it’s very impressionistic. But there is sort of a combination of the old chivalry notion that comes from the south. And the frontier notion, which was that women got out and worked in the fields like everybody else. And they sometimes clash. But I think, probably in Texas, there’s somewhat of a tendency of that frontier notion, sometimes, to get involved.
But I think that’s why, perhaps, on the ERA fight that we’ve been having in the Texas Legislature, that there’s sometimes—it looks to be such a difference between—and, of course, it’s not just NOW, which bolsters my point. But a whole bunch of women on one side, and then another group of women on another side. And very different attitudes. Discrimination is pretty much the same. I mean, women have as much trouble getting a job here as elsewhere. In fact, somewhat more, because this area is slower to end discrimination. It started pushing later. And there’s enormous amounts of discrimination
LM: (19:24) Isn’t it really easier for a woman to get a job than a man?
BB: No. No. All you have to do is look at statistics. The unemployment rate amongst women is at least twice as high as men. Women actively seeking jobs. Women still are faced with the situation—they come out of college, they have Bachelor’s, Master’s degrees—what have you. And they go out seeking for a job. And the first thing they’re asked is, “Can you type?” Which they do not ask men. The implication being secretarial, clerk skills are what you needed. We still have enormous amount of that. It is not easy. There are some companies now, particularly your massive corporations, that are actively seeking women, in order to make up for past discrimination. Because they’ve been jumped on by the national government and told, “You’ve got to make up for all the past bad stuff.”
And, in some of those areas, but even there—the industries out on the channel, for example, they’ve gotten pressure. They have now asked you to know at least one industry that has instituted a new test for employees, and that is that they tell the people now applying that they have to climb to the top of, like, and it’s 100 or 150 foot tower.
And the reason, at least I am convinced, from talking to other people from that area who know about that industry, that one of the reasons they’ve done it is because they figure that’ll discourage women. If they’re told they have to climb this big tower. Actually, in that job, you rarely climb. And they never used to do that. They’ve just done that test in the last couple of years.
LM: Which company is this?
BB: I was trying to remember. I can’t remember the—whether, it’s one of, like, Dow, or one of those out on the channel—and I can’t remember which specific one it is.
(21:23) Some of the others are not doing that kind of thing. And some are actively seeking women. They really are. Because they’re having to. It’s not because of their business part. But it’s very hard in many areas for women to get jobs.
LM: Are you trying to not only get jobs, but break into areas that were originally considered male jobs?
BB: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, well, women can get jobs as clerks and typists fairly easy. Sure. In fact, easier probably than some men. But, I’m talking about traditionally jobs where women were not involved. And that’s where the problem is. And that’s where the money is. That’s part of the problem. Women want those jobs because it earns money. It’s not fun—shift work—and out at, like, one of those channel industries—it stinks horribly. Shift work—which many people do not like. But you earn $4 and $5 an hour. And that’s a lot more than you can get typing. And that’s why women want the jobs.
LM: Let me backtrack, just for a moment. What are the main points in the NOW program? Are there certain points that you are trying to accomplish now through legislation, or, pressure?
BB: You mean—specific goals right now?
LM: Specific goals. Yes.
BB: Well, we—of course, it varies from year to year, depending on what’s sort of current. Right now, the legislature is being in session, of course, until June 2. And since it just meets once every two years, we kind of concentrate on it—the spring that it’s in session.
And, we have concentrated in several areas this time. The biggest area has been the Equal Rights Amendment, which, of course, Texas ratified in 1972. And there was a group that developed this year to try to persuade the Texas Legislature to rescind that ratification. We have had to lobby extensively to persuade the legislators not to rescind the ratification. And so we’ve been very active in that, and that’s consumed a lot of our time and energy, and money.
(23:41) We’ve also engaged in other legislative activities. We worked some on the rape reform bill that was before the legislature and, in fact, that ultimately got passed. Although I don’t know what the final form is because I haven’t been able to see the final copy. It’s currently, I understand, on the governor’s desk to be signed.
And there is a number of abortion bills—restrictive abortion bills—that are in the legislature that we are working on right now trying to keep them from being passed.
And there’s a bill that’s been introduced, that probably is not going to get very far, unfortunately, to repeal that section of the Texas Penal Code which makes homosexual acts illegal. Since one of our major ideas is that sexual acts between consenting adults shouldn’t have legal prohibitions—that’s a private thing. So we’ve been working on that legislatively.
We also have been working in—locally we have—we’re part of a rape crisis coalition, which is trying to do activities locally in connection with helping rape victims and setting up—particularly we’d like governmental institutions that would be more sensitive to rape victims needs and trying to do something about the whole problem of rape.
(25:14) Let’s see—what else have we done recently? Goodness, I—we have got a very active child care task force that is right now trying more, if anything else, to develop public awareness of the problem of child care. Or lack of child care, because there’s a lack of quality child care in the area. And there’s some legislative activity going on with that, too.
And, we have been trying to work with education—particularly with text books. We have been very active in trying to get the State Board of Education to adopt non-sexist text books, or at least whatever comes closest to that. Least far from it, is probably a better description. And we do that every year, or at least have for about the last three years. It is primarily a fall project, because that’s when the Board meets and considers such things.
LM: What do you consider a non-sexist text book?
BB: One which does—well, several aspects. One that does not show women in stereotyped roles exclusively. That is, that would show women, say, doing carpentry, as doctors and lawyers, engineers, and what have you. As well as homemakers and mothers. Also, ones that will just simply have female characters. Like, in the elementary readers, we’ve done a number of studies that show over and over again that you may have, say, ten stories in the elementary reader, and of the ten, one may have as a central character, a girl, or a female animal, even. The animals are all male. And if you’re going to show a female, it should be—that’s going to be non-sexist—you shouldn’t always show them as either very good or very bad. There’s been a strong tendency for either the witch or the Snow White type characterization of women and girls. Or one or the other. They’re not ever just people. That kind of thing.
(27:39) Plus, having men shown in a variety of roles—that men can cook and clean and take care of children—as well as doing the other things. And having just an equalization. In history—of course, it depends—in history books, some more attention paid to women’s role in history, which historically has been ignored just as with the Blacks and other groups.
Having some kind of different treatment—just in general—of both women and men, to equalize and more reflect realities, rather than these stereotypes and these myths that people have. We’ve had some success.
LM: Really? Where? Local schools?
BB: Local, and the State Board of Education. They, in fact, passed a policy about two years ago that they would—they did not want sexist text books. And they have since really tried to do something in that area. We—this is—we’ve engaged in a very extensive kind of program. Because it’s very involved. We have to read the text books and make comments, and all that kind of thing. And they had tended to adopt the ones we suggest. Which, what we do is suggest the least sexist, because we’ve not yet found an idea text book, from our point of view. But at least we’ve tried to get the worst.
And the publishers take us very seriously. You see, Texas is the largest buyer of text books in the nation. And, we are really a model because what happens in most other states is that they just have to take what the publishers give them. The publishers, in order to get the Texas business, will revise their text books in accordance with the guidelines the State Board of Education sets down. Which we have had, therefore, input into. And we’ve had a real impact. Nationally, therefore, as well as in Texas. Which is why we consider it so important. It’s not just—it would be important anyway.
(29:50) We also, then, what the State Board does is pick five text books; and the local School Board can pick one of those five for the different subjects. And so, then locally, different chapters try to encourage their local School Board to pick the best of the five, whichever it is.
LM: You mentioned before that there was some opposition groups made up of women proposing the—
BB: The Equal Rights Amendment—
LM: Yes. The Equal Rights Amendment. Who makes up this group?
BB: Primarily, the John Birch Society and the Church of Christ women’s groups. The John Birch Society is the, obviously, the driving force behind it, although that is the leadership—are John Birch Society members. Active John Birch Society members have been for years—Wanda Schultz, who lives in Houston—a leading person, has been a John Birch Society member since 1966, as she proudly announced at one meeting I attended. Mrs. Bob Edmondson, who is a chief lobbyist at the State level, for them, is a John Birch Society member and has been for many years, very active. And so the leadership tends to come from the John Birch Society.
(31:11) A large amount of the membership comes from, apparently, Church of Christ fundamentalists. Now, there are other groups as well, and other types of people. But those tend, if you’re looking for the group behind it, those tend to be the most. Now, Church of Christ—I think a lot of that is not leadership, but membership, you might say.
And a lot of the people, the women particularly, there are two sort of things with them. One is they’re—my analysis—is that they’re very afraid of change. They have the society they’re comfortable in or they feel that they’re comfortable in it, and they’re afraid of it changing. And they’re afraid of anything that smacks of change.
There also is a great deal of ignorance among them about, for example, what the Equal Rights Amendment will do, because the antis say things that just aren’t true, in large measure. And they’ve been very active in stirring up people. Mostly, the ones I’ve seen, as far as membership is concerned, are people who are not active politically. They’ve never been active politically before. And they just simply don’t know a great deal about the entire political process and how it works. They just don’t. You know, I see the phenomenon all the time in our classes—people who don’t know much about what’s going on. And it’s the same type of thing. They just now are even worse. They just don’t know. And these people have come along and told them all this stuff. And they believe it because why would anyone tell them things that weren’t true? And they go out and they paint us as really horrible people.
In fact, Wanda Schultz is head of HOW—Happiness of Womanhood—which is really a very obvious attempt to counter NOW. It’s not an accident—the term. And they tend to pick on NOW the most. They consider us really nasty folk who are trying to destroy the world, I think.
LM: (33:16) How do you answer critics of the ERA that the bill will, in the long run, actually hurt women?
BB: It won’t.
LM: For example, it will expose them to dangerous jobs that ordinarily were—laws were passed to protect women from?
LM: Working conditions, too, I might add.
BB: Well, the working conditions area is really a foolish one—kind of argument. The AFL-CIO used to listen to that, and finally came around after, particularly the union, that had large numbers of women in them, got active. What the deal has always been has been that, well, there are several responses. One, mostly the laws have not protected women. What they’ve done is that they protected, if you want to put it that way, women, from overtime, from higher pay because they couldn’t get promoted to the job because they’d have to do this thing that was forbidden by law. They couldn’t have overtime, because they could only work so many hours a week. That kind of thing. Which most women, you know, are not with it.
You don’t have to take a dangerous job. A woman doesn’t have to do any more than a man. And, if it’s dangerous—
LM: For money reasons.
BB: Well, if it’s dangerous, the law should be safe conditions for everyone. It shouldn’t be just for women. If there is a danger on a job, there should be some kind of thing for both men and women. Why shouldn’t women have a chance at a dangerous job? If money is the answer. If that’s why they want to take it? Then why shouldn’t they have a chance? Just because, maybe they need it, and they’re willing to chance the danger? Why shouldn’t they have the option of choosing, just as with men?
(34:58) And, generally, if it’s truly a protective law, it should be extended to men. If rest periods are necessary, men ought to have rest periods, too. That kind of thing. And, a lot of those laws have been struck down through the Federal courts because of the Federal law against sex discrimination in employment.
A prime case is what happened with Southern Bell Telephone and a woman named Lorena Weeks, which NOW took the case for Lorena. But she wanted to—she was a telephone operator in Georgia—and she wanted what they call a switchman’s job, which was much better pay and that kind of thing. And they wouldn’t let her have it. Now, they said that it was because of the Georgia law that she was not allowed—women were not allowed to lift more than 30 pounds. Well, any woman who carries a kid around who’s, you know, a couple of years old, has lifted more than any 30 pounds. She also, in fact, in her job, carried a typewriter around periodically, and that’s more than 30 pounds. But they said, “No, we can’t do it because you have to lift 30 pounds.”
Well, she took it to court, and it took about three years, but eventually she won. The Southern Bell was told to go ahead and promote her; that they couldn’t discriminate against her. And she won $30,000 in back pay. Or what would have been the equivalent of back pay if she’d had the job.
And that was one of our ones we’ve been very proud of, because it opened up a whole area. They just simply can’t do that.
(36:32) So it’s really, see, the argument just isn’t very good, although it’s been used. And if you start talking to women who work outside the home in blue collar areas, most of them, you’ll find, do not accept that idea about protection. Texas laws is a prime case in point. It’s called the 954 Law. A woman could not work more than 9 hours a day, but only in one job. She could take two jobs, and work 18 hours a day. Well, what it did was it meant that she couldn’t get overtime. So we now don’t have to worry about that any more.
LM: Do you have any Quit Action pending locally?
BB: Not right this minute. We may have shortly. We have filed a complaint against First National Bank. And we just recently got notice from the EEOC that the time period basically is six months and then the party who files the complaint can go into court themselves. And we have received notice that we may now go into court, in effect. And, I think that we’re going to fairly promptly against First National.
(37:53) We also have another complaint in connection with Nabisco, which we are—that’s in another area, however, and we haven’t—I don’t know that we’re going to sue on that at least right away. There’s a lot of different aspects to that one.
LM: What are the nature of the complaints?
BB: Sex discrimination.
LM: Well, I mean, particularly?
BB: They do not promote women equally with men; the salaries are not equal with men—those are the major ones.
LM: Do you have legal counsel, or lawyers, to—
BB: We have lawyers who are members of our organization. And we have another—well, I can’t remember whether she’s currently a member right now, or has just been simply helpful. But, we have people who volunteer their services, at least certainly up to a point. Like, we don’t have any money. We have the First National Bank, I think the lawyer is probably going to be Elliott Tucker, who has been sort of an informal legal advisor off and on. But we have several of our members who are going to be getting their law degree, also, in October, so then we’ll have several more possible lawyers we can call on.
(39:16) The thing is that what—you run into some problems because a great deal—once you get into a legal case—for the lawyer. I mean, they have to make a living. And so we don’t want to use people any more free than we have to, so we would want to pay these at least what we could. Unless, of course, they were some kind of case in which they take it on a contingency basis, which some of them, of course, they’re that way.
But the initial phase of many of these cases, the lawyer doesn’t have to do a whole lot so it’s perfectly okay to do it free. But we don’t want to over ______?? (39:57) people.
LM: What are the chances of the ERA being repealed?
BB: Right now, it does not look like it will be at all in Texas. The recision movement looks fairly dead. It’s in subcommittee. There are two bills that we’re concerned about. Both of them are in subcommittee. And, even if they get out of committee, it doesn’t look like they’ll get to the floor of the House. And there’s nothing in the Senate. So there’s really no way, I think, that it can get past the Legislature. And I don’t think it’ll even get out of the House this time. I think we’ve pretty much done our job.
(40:32) It’s not, of course, just been NOW. We’re just one organization, even of the anti’s, concentrate on NOW, we have large numbers of other people, including the League of Women Voters, there’s the Professional Women’s Club, church groups, all kinds of people. It’s really a much, much broader group that’s in favor, of course, than those against.
LM: Are there any representatives from this area who are supporting the effort to repeal?
BB: Repeal of the ERA?
LM: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
BB: Oh, yes. Larry Vicks, Representative Larry Vick is a prime example. And Senator Walter Mingdon in the Senate. Mad dog, at it again.
Those are the main ones, I think. There are probably a couple of others who might vote in favor of repeal if it did get to the floor, but we’ve also had a number of Harris County legislators who are very strongly in favor of retaining the ERA.
(41:30) See, we have a Texas one which this would not affect. And it seems kind of silly, since the people voted on an equal rights amendment to the Texas Constitution and passed it by 41 to repeal our ratification of the National one. The people have spoken, as far as we’re concerned.
LM: We’ve got to go to another area.
BB: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
LM: Although Texas does not have an alimony law, how does NOW feel about that? Or do they support it?
BB: Well, I’m not sure if we have a specific position, paper, on that whole area. But I know what the general feeling tends to be. And that is that what we want is to have it on an equal basis, if you’re going to have it at all. There’s been some discussion over whether or not alimony should even exist. I think there can be arguments for it. But I think it needs to be—and in most states—as far as I know—every state that I know, in fact, is on an equal basis. In other words, the wife can pay alimony to the husband, just as the husband can—exes, of course—can pay alimony to the wife. It’s based on such things as how much money they’re earning; what the needs are; that kind of thing.
And I do think that if you have a spouse, whether the wife or husband, who has, say, stayed home and taken care of the home and children and gone, and maybe say for 20 years, as is the case sometimes. And have, therefore, let their own skills—other kinds of skills working outside the home—deteriorate, that they need what you might call severance pay. Some kind of amount till they can develop their skills so that they can earn a decent living. Because they were putting in a great deal along the way.
LM: You set a deadline on it, then? You wouldn’t want it to go on indefinitely?
BB: (43:34) Possibly. It would depend on the situation. If the person was very, very ill, say, and could not work, then you might consider it sort of disability pay. But I think on that kind of basis, the idea that it’s, you know, when you have had a job.
See, that’s one of the things that is very misunderstood by many people about NOW. Is that they think that NOW is against homemaking and against women being in the home. Or men. Well, we say it should be on an equal basis—men and women should have that choice. And it should be a choice.
And that’s the crucial thing—that people should have a right to choose whether or not to do that. But those who do choose to remain in the home and work in the home and take care of the children and all the rest that goes with that—that is a very important job. And, in fact, we think it should have a much higher status than it currently does in our society. I’ve known a number of people who can go into great pains and enthusiasm about what a wonderful occupation it is. And you say, well we want to open it to men, too. And suddenly it’s not quite so much fun any more. The men don’t seem to take it with as much enthusiasm.
(44:46) But we think it is an important job for those who choose to engage in it. But you ought to be able to choose. And not have to do it because that’s all society let’s you do.
LM: Were there any particular events which encouraged you to join the NOW movement? Did you experience certain things?
BB: Oh, well, I’ve been discriminated against for being a female. You know? Ever since I was a little child. And I finally realized that the NOW organization was an organization working toward this.
(45:42) There is a question of awareness. One of the things that happens, particularly with women, is that both, like a lot of things, it’s been so much a part of your history—your own personal history—that you don’t recognize it for what it is until suddenly something sort of snaps, and you say, “Well, yeah.” There’s been a long—and I think this is one of the things changing our society.
There’s been a long tendency for women—just the same kind of thing that used to happen to Blacks—to feel that, “Well, if I’m discriminated against, it’s because of me as a person. It’s not because I’m a woman. It’s not because I’m Black. It’s because I’ve been doing something wrong.” And what’s happened is there’s been a realization that it’s not that. That it’s that there’s lots of discrimination that is based on your sex, or your race, or what have you.
And me—the earliest specific example that I can remember—I thought about this one time. Was when I was about eight, I believe, and it was in public school which is, of course, rampant with it, just as everywhere else. And I went to get a band instrument. A big deal. Everybody goes and gets a band instrument and you’d better learn how to play something. And I went in and I looked around and I decided I wanted to play the cornet. Well, the guy who was selling the instruments told me, “No.” Girls didn’t play cornets. I could have the clarinet or the flute. Those were my possibilities. Period.
(47:13) Well, I was an eight-year-old. And I picked the flute, which I didn’t really want. And I wound up giving it up after six weeks because I didn’t really want to do that any how. But that was, you know, girls don’t do that.
Now, that’s—I said something about that on a radio program one night—and got numerous calls from high school students saying it was not that way any more. Boys can play flutes and girls can play cornets now. And so it’s changed. But going through school—I went through school in the fifties when there was a very big drive on—numerous newspaper articles and everything else—that girls were supposed to be dumber than boys.
If you’re smart, don’t show it. You know? Make poor grades, because if you make good grades boys won’t like you. Well, I made good grades any way. I always resented that attitude that you were supposed to show that you were dumb. For thing, it’s not honest. For another thing, I didn’t see why I ought to have to hide my intelligence for some dummy.
(48:12) And, you know, this general attitude is like that all the way through. In graduate school, I was told—I and another woman—by one of the graduate instructors, “Why are you here? Why are you not home?” You know? Why are you not married and home making babies or something of that nature?
LM: What place—what institution was this?
BB: University of Houston, and that’s been a very general attitude. If you start looking at admissions, I haven’t—I know that there’s been a study of S/L Barnes ?? (48:48) University and how discriminatory it’s been on women.
LM: In what way?
BB: Faculty and students. As far as the faculty, I know that there’s been discrimination in Rice as far as hiring and promotion. And wages.
LM: Can you go into a little more detail about it?
BB: I don’t have the study with me, so I can’t. But I know that there were—there have been—if you just look at the faculty sex ratios. And you look at the positions that women faculty members have versus men faculty members, it becomes very obvious. And it’s not just Rice. I mean, it’s true, as far as I know, at every university and college in the United States. And we’ve had rather extensive studies. When the best was done, I think at the University of Minnesota, which documented in great detail. It’s, of course, somewhat difficult, because—particularly on the salary—because you have to get information which is not always public, depending on your institution, how public it is.
(49:51) But it’s rampant. That’s changing, too, as there is more pressure put on them by such agencies as the National government. But it’s still there.
LM: You also are a member, or you were a member, of the Harris County Women’s Political Caucus?
BB: I am a member, yes.
LM: What is the function of that organization?
BB: Well, theirs is primarily to act in the political arena, and can do things that NOW can’t do. They can endorse candidates, and that is one of the chief good points that I think that they have the NOW cannot do.
And simply act actively, both for people, for candidates, and for issues in the political arena. And that’s what—and to try to get—to encourage women to run—feminist women as well as feminist men—to run for office is part of the reason for the existence.
(50:54) Because there’s been a dearth of women candidates, and we want more women to be candidates and to win. But, feminist. Now, that’s one of the things that’s very important—it is not just women. Not just anyone just because they’re female. Because we’ve endorsed, on occasion, men over women because the man was more of a feminist or had more feminist votes, or that kind of thing, than the woman. So we’re oriented more toward—we had to choose for feminism. But if it were equal between a feminist man and a feminist woman, we’d go with the woman. Because, we need women—more women—as, if nothing else, role models for children.
LM: Which candidates has the organization supported recently?
BB: Ummm—let’s see. Well, gosh, you know, there’s so many that run out here as county. It becomes difficult. Such people as Barbara Jordan and Bob Eckhardt, and Ron Waters and R. C. Nichols—several of those in the last city election. We endorsed Fred Hofheinz, only after we got a pledge from him concerning several feminist issues, including that he would appoint a women’s advocate. And, of course, he did, after he was elected. And the current women’s advocate, Poppy Northcutt, is a member of both the Harris County Women’s Political Caucus and NOW, which was not a crucial reason for her being hired. She’s a very, very able person. She was a mathematician for TRW out in the NASA area prior to being appointed women’s advocate. But certainly it’s nice that she is that active a feminist.
LM: (52:55) What is the membership of the Caucus? Approximately?
BB: Right now—let’s see—about a couple of hundred, I think, right now. It’s a little bit less this year because it’s a non-election year. We always have much higher membership and more activism in an election year than in an off-election year. So, I expect in ’76, particularly being a presidential year and more people get interested in politics, for it to pick up and to be more active and more people involved.
LM: Do you make contributions to candidates?
BB: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We had—in the 1974 Democratic primary, which we were very actively involved in—to two different candidates, we gave $1,000 apiece. Plus some contributions to a few of the others. So we do when we can. We began having money problems, and it took us a lot of time and effort to raise that kind of money. And, so we can’t do that very often. But we give both money and, more importantly, we give time and people. Because, as most politicians would tell you, the money is important; but the volunteer workers are crucial. And, our people go out and work for the candidates that we endorse and are actively supporting.
(54:27) And our candidates don’t, of course, as usual, always win. But we have backed some winners as well as some losers. Fred Hofheinz, for example. And we have had some clout. I mean, Hofheinz would not promise something to a group he didn’t figure was important. Politicians just don’t do that. So, we have been fairly effective.
I was, in ’72, also the—’72, was it? No, ’74—the Political Action Chair on a State level. So I was active also on the State level in endorsing state-wide candidates, because the State organization has to do that. And we endorsed people to run in the Democratic Primary, and then in the General Election. In ’74, on a state-wide basis, and I was—had to organize and coordinate that.
LM: Is the Caucus in any way related to either the Republican or Democratic—
BB: No. We’re multi-partisan. We have both Republicans and Democrats. We have, of course, in Harris County, quite a bit more Democrats than we do Republicans. We’ve got a lot more Democrats in Harris County. We also tend to support issues that, for whatever reason, have tended to be more likely be supported by Democrats than Republicans. But, the current chair of the Harris County Women’s Political Caucus, Sharon Mock, is a Republican. So it is a multi-partisan group.
(56:06) We, among other things, feel that all the parties should act right as far as, particularly women, are concerned. In ’72, the Texas Women’s Political Caucus and two of the Harris County members, in particular, took a challenge to the Democratic Convention on the grounds that the Texas Delegation to the National Convention inadequately represented women. And, they did a very good job. They lost because of the political situation at the Convention. But not for want of having a good challenge.
And, in fact, in ’74, then, they were much more careful at the Texas State level about having women. And I attribute it in large measure to the fact that they knew that if they weren’t careful, they would be challenged, and challenged well.
LM: So they have a _________?? (57:03) Sounds like their objective?
BB: Yes, very much.
LM: For such a small membership.
BB: Well, yeah. That’s—NOW—that’s—we’ve been as high as 500, 600. It depends on which year you’re talking about and this is sort of an off year, politically. And, the Harris—the Caucus, particularly—reflects the political situation the year. And, in politics, particularly, and I’ve been active in politics for many years. And, in reality, in politics, small numbers do a lot.
(57:35) What matters is getting out and really working at it and doing the things that are necessary. And, all you have to do is look at the percentage of people who vote. You know, in Texas it hovers, if you’re—a really good year—60% of the potential voters vote. And, lots less than that actually do anything besides vote. So, 15% is a fairly high percentage of real activism. So a pretty small number can do a lot of they really are doing anything. And in a political year, lots of our members are truly activists. We, of course, have some, like any organization, that may only pay their dues and that’s about it. But we have, probably, for a lot of organizations, an exceptionally high percentage of true activists. And that’s how you effect change and effect things. By doing it.
LM: Do you find Chicano or Black women receptive? To the NOW movement, and also to the Caucus?
BB: Yes. Now, not in as large numbers as the Anglo women, in general. But they certainly are. We’ve had very active Chicano and Black members. The thing is—well, there’s several—we’ve been—NOW has been accused, and I think that’s the proper term, of being a middle class organization. And, in large measure, that tends to be true because, if for no other reason, the middle class is the ones that have the time to do, and the money, and the spare time, to do things.
The Black civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, in particular, was basically a middle class movement. Because the poor don’t have time to engage in outside activities. They’re working too much, too hard, to just live. And, the upper class, of course, generally have the power, and they’d just as soon not see things change, so they’re not going to be so active.
(59:53) So, since Blacks and Browns are disproportionately poor, it’s automatically going to cut down on your membership in that area, I think. And, there also have the problem, particularly like Black women, for example, have a problem in reconciling being Black and being a woman, and which should they push most for in any discrimination? And it’s a very difficult problem for many Black women.
Eileen Hernandez was here a few—oh, about two or three months ago, I guess, now—and spoke at the U of H Law School. And she was asked a question by another Black woman, “How do you handle this?” When Blacks can look to you and say what you ought to be doing is working for the Black men and, really, Black women ought to, sort of, stand back. Which a lot of Black men say to Black women, now.
And Eileen answered that she just tells them, no that she’s working for both. Both for Blacks and for women, and that she cannot separate the two. Which, for many of the Black women who are active in NOW and the Caucus, and that sort of thing is true. But there are also more Black women who are wrestling with that situation; and Chicano women, too.
(1:01:08) And, I don’t feel as an Anglo that I have any kind of right to really say anything about, you know, what kind of decisions they make. That’s an area which I cannot truly be a part of. I understand the sexual discrimination, but I cannot really comprehend adequately the race discrimination. So that’s a decision they all have to make. We are very open, and delighted to have, you know, all kinds of folk. But we have a much smaller percentage.
LM: Does NOW or the Caucus involve themselves with interests that are particularly pertinent to the Black community? Or the Chicano community? Or are you continuing on the main objective of women?
BB: Well, you see, you can’t really distinguish between the two. Because, you see, all Chicanos and all Blacks are half women. And if you’re working for women, you’re working for Blacks and Chicano women as well as for Anglo women.
(1:02:15) The abortion issue—one of the things that we pushed pretty strongly for was abortion clinics, like at Jeff Davis Hospital. They were going to try to take them away at County Commissioner’s Court one time, and we were very upset and worked very hard—both the Caucus and NOW—to get them not to do that. And, that’s not for your middle class white women. Primarily. The abortion clinic at Jeff Davis is for the poor of all races and, disproportionately again, the Blacks and Browns who wind up being poor, although there are plenty of poor Anglo women, too.
And, we’ve engaged in a number of other things. Because you can’t separate it. It’s basic to the NOW statement of purpose that we are against race discrimination, just as we are against sex discrimination and other kinds of discrimination. And so it’s inherent in what we do.
And we, of course, like I say, you know, women come in all colors. So if you’re working for all women, then you’re working for all colors of women, too.
LM: (1:03:23) How many issues, predominantly Black, that wouldn’t have to be—
BB: Well, Black what?
LM: Well, integration of the schools.
BB: We have not been active locally in that. It’s a, as I’m sure you’re aware, very complicated situation right now. We would be if, you know, it were a situation we felt we could come in and actually do something, I think.
(01:03:57) See, that’s the best thing I can think of that would be particularly a specific race area. And when you get beyond that, see, I can’t really think of one. As far as, like, discrimination in, say, employment. If we find that there’s race discrimination as well as sex discrimination, which is true in some of the cases, then we hit both very hard. So it’s—sometimes there is a tendency for us to concentrate on the sex discrimination aspect because we don’t agree _______?? (1:04:36).
And, while, though we were cooperating, and we do and have, with, like, the Black organizations and the Chicano organizations, and they cooperate, then, too, with us, on occasion—still since they’re sort of, in a sense, kind of taking care of one area, we may come in to help them but we’re not going to have our major focus there. Because they’re not focusing primarily on what we want in, you know, with our area. So we have to focus where we feel we do the most good.
LM: Oh. One question I meant to ask you. Has the organization supported Cissy Farenthold?
BB: Oh, yeah. Yeah. The Caucus—now, of course, NOW can’t endorse—
LM: Yes. Yes.
BB: The Caucus—she’s been the National Chair of the National League for Women Caucus. And the State Caucus endorsed her in the Democratic primary when she ran. In fact, both in ’72 and in ’74. And we have actively worked for Cissy. And not just because she was Chair of the Caucus, of course, because we did that before she was Chair of the Caucus. But, because we felt that she was the right kind of person to support.
(1:05:54) And we continue to—of course, she’s not running for anything now—but we’ve—the Caucus was part of the group that was at the Democratic Convention when she was nominated for Vice President. Or, nominated for the nomination for Vice President.
LM: So the Caucus did have a representative at the National Convention?
BB: Uh-hunh (affirmative). Yeah. In ’72. Now, that was before the National Caucus had its mass organization meeting. So at that stage, it was still a relatively small group of what you might call prominent women. But they were active in ’72, and did have an impact. And then in ’74, at the mini-convention in Kansas City, there was a Women’s Conference that not only had the NWPC members, but also women from all over the United States. Which was, in fact, a major part of what came to be a compromise on delegate selection, in fact. That was a time when the women’s caucus and the Black caucus and the Brown caucuses all, in effect, got together and said, “Well, we’ll stand firm on this kind of the situation it has to be.” So we’ve done that.
(1:07:16) One thing, see, that—about both the National organizations that you may not know is that the Houston chapters—the Harris County Caucus—hosted the first organizing convention of the National Women’s Political Caucus. And so we were the hosts for the whole thing to meeting. And, then, just last May the local NOW organization—Houston area NOW—sponsored the National Organization for Women’s National Convention. So we’ve had National conventions of both of those groups here in Houston. And we’ve worked on both. I’ve worked on both. And we are not eagerly seeking for them to come again, because it’s such an awful lot of work.
We like to call Houston the feminist capital of the world because we’ve had so many activities. It’s not very well known—sometimes we’re not appreciated particularly in other parts of the country. Sometimes about how much feminist activity there is in Houston, which many people would think was not a very good place for it since it’s considered to be southern, and all that kind of business. But, indeed, we’ve done quite a lot.
LM: Why do you think you’ve had that success?
BB: Because we worked for it. And we have the people to do it. And we, of course, are an urban center. And we’re—we’ve got people from all over—but many of our most active members are native Texans, or what passes for native Texans—that is, you were maybe born in Oklahoma but you moved to Texas, like I did, when you were four. That kind of thing. And are not really out-of-staters, although we have a lot of those, too, since it is such a big area. But it’s because we’ve just gotten together and worked. We have a big enough population where you can get a large number of activist people together to work for things.
LM: (1:09:15) Are there any areas that I haven’t brought up for discussion that you would like to talk about before we conclude the interview?
BB: I can’t think of any.
LM: It’s been interesting. And I want, on behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives and Research Center, I want to thank you for your cooperation and for taking the time to come here and talk to us.
BB: I’m just glad to do it.
LM: Thank you.