The Houston Oral History Project is a repository for the stories, accounts, and memories of those who have chosen to share their experiences. The viewpoints expressed in the Houston Oral History Project do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of the City of Houston, the Houston Public Library or any of its officers, agents, employees, or volunteers. The City of Houston and the Houston Public Library make no warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in the interviews and expressly disclaim any liability therefore.
The Houston Oral History Project provides unedited versions of all interviews. Some parents may find material objectionable for minors. Parents are encouraged to interact with their children as they use the Houston Oral History Project Web site to complete research and homework activities.
The Houston Public Library retains the literary and publishing rights of its oral histories. No part of the interviews or transcripts may be published without the written permission of the Houston Oral History Project.
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to:
The Houston Oral History Project.
Houston Public Library
Houston, Texas 77002
The Houston Oral History Project reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to decline to post any account received herein and specifically disclaims any liability for the failure to post an account or for errors or omissions that may occur in posting accounts to the Virtual Archive.
For more information email the Houston Oral History Project at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interview with: Ruth Millburn
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava
Date: June 25, 1975
Archive Number: OH 122
I: I think it might be appropriate to begin by getting some background information on you relative to your present position in the Woman’s Political Caucus.
RM: All right. Let’s see—I have to think about that for a minute. The only position which I hold is one in the local caucus where I’m chairing the City Charter Priorities Committee. In our structure we have certain committees called priorities committees, and by virtue of chairing that committee, I sit on the board or policy council of the local caucus. I have in the past been co-chair internal and chair and chairperson of the information committee of the local caucus, and vice chair for communications of the state caucus, the Texas Women’s Political Caucus.
I: Perhaps we could get some background on the Women’s Political Caucus, how was it founded? Who was the motivating force behind it?
RM: Well, it was founded originally, of course, nationally by a group of women, who were involved in feminist organizations, who felt a need for expanding into the political arena; however it’s a little bit unlike many organizations that are founded nationally in that on the local level there was activity going on almost as soon as the national organization was started. In Houston itself the activity was taken on, primarily, by a small group of women who were associated with the national organization for women here and knew each other through that organization. Helen Cassidy, Poppy Northcutt, and Betty Barnes, to a greater or lesser extent, were among the prime movers locally. The beginning, I think, for a state caucus and various local caucuses around the state came, actually, from a meeting by the Texas Commission on the status of women. The commission met and had a conference, which they invited women from all over the state to come and give their views on the status of women in Texas, and I usually say facetiously that the commission met and decided that the status of women was just fine and disbanded. But in fact, there was a minority group of women present at that open conference who felt that there was work that needed to be done and very specifically in the political arena.
So those women made contact with each other through that meeting, and it’s out of those contacts that the Texas Women’s Political Caucus grew, and in January of 1972, there was an exploratory meeting held in Houston to decide whether there were enough women here interested in forming a local group. That was prior to the establishment of the state caucus, but certainly, the possibility of the state caucus was already in the minds of the people who got behind that meeting. For mailing lists, they used things like the existing feminist organizations. There were two major ones in Houston at that time, and also groups such as Church Women United and the League of Women Voters, and other readily identifiable women’s groups whose mailing lists could be obtained.
That exploratory meeting was quite successful. There were 200-300 women there, and the general feeling was, yes, there was a need for such an organization. Then when the state caucus did finally get together and organize in March, the bylaws and discussions that grew out of that were then transferred to the local level, primarily, by those people that I mentioned, Helen Cassidy and Poppy Northcutt, and so on. They called an organizing convention for a local caucus in Harris County, and that was held on April 1st, 1972. I remember the weekend because it turned out to be Easter weekend and almost nobody came. Everybody was out of town, and there were only about 75 people that came, but almost everyone who came was elected to one office or another. So it was full participation by the membership in the very beginning.
I: (5:02) How many members are there now?
RM: I’m not really sure now that I’m no longer in the upper level of the board, so to speak. I don’t have access to the membership rolls anymore, and I really don’t know how many there are.
I: So how many were there when you were in—
RM: When I left office as chair, there were, I believe, 750 local members. Our mailing list was around 1200, and our membership was just over half of that. I have a feeling it was about 750. I have no idea what it is now. We go through cyclical periods of attrition and expansion, and every year right at convention time a lot of people come to the convention and pay their dues, but at the end of the following fiscal year we get down to no members, and then people will pay in their dues at the next convention, but we usually have only a few members until convention time rolls around. So it does fluctuate quite widely.
I: What was the major objective when the local organization was founded?
RM: The major objective was to encourage women to participate in politics, and that was seen as very general both within organized structures as we know them, and also to try to establish new ways of working in political systems. We had the experience of people who had been involved in civil rights groups to go on, and an example from them that you can achieve things politically not necessarily through the traditional political means, although that is an important kind of power that we wanted women to gain. We felt there must be other ways to organize, perhaps, more equitable ways to organize people. So a general sense of, let’s get women involved in the real power positions in our country, so that women can participate in making policy, and making decisions.
I: (7:28) Let me ask you this now, in your participation, is the emphasis on legislation affecting only women or is this across the board—a broad approach to politics involved with other issues as well?
RM: Well, there are two trains of thought in the women’s movement in general, and certainly, within the caucus. One is that we ought to concern ourselves, primarily, with issues that any one walking on the street would identify as a women’s issue, and there is also the alternate train of thought, which is that all issues are women’s issues, because women participate in the society. The caucus has—depending, I think, on the particular local group—expressed both points of view. In Houston, we have tended toward the latter. The women who were involved in the caucus in the beginning were, primarily, women who came from a feminist background rather than a political background, and that is no longer true, but certainly, in the beginning that was true. There was an acceptance by most of the women that there are many issues which society would not recognize as women’s issues, but which women ought to be deeply concerned about.
One of the larger of those issues during our first year in the organization was the war. The war in Vietnam was going on, and one of the priorities committees, which were established locally, was called War and Peace. That committee saw to it that women from within the caucus were involved in all the various anti-war movement type of activities in Houston that they felt were legitimate activities, like the rallies that were held in the park, which always had representatives from the caucus there; however the primary aims in terms of how one goes about achieving those ends have been two fold. They have been legislative—and usually legislative strictly by what one might call women’s issues—in the areas of rape reform, abortion reform, the equal rights amendment, which has been a major issue of the caucus on all levels since it’s inception, credit reform, and things of that sort, although primarily, here the emphasis has been on using the political system— that is legislative means—to get those reforms.
At the same time there has been an increasing desire to elect feminists to power positions through politics. In the beginning, primarily, to elective positions, but in the last year we’ve seen an awareness on all levels of the caucus that we ought to be considering appointive positions as well. In fact, one of the things we have been organizing to do around the state this year is to establish a bank of names of qualified women to suggest to people whenever appointments come up. The caucus was quite active and—I hope and I certainly believe—quite instrumental in getting the appointment recently of Miss Selma Wells to the board of pardons and paroles of the state, and the first woman to ever be appointed to that board, and to the best of my knowledge, also the first black.
I: (11:07) So your organization was involved in that?
RM: That is correct.
RM: Originally an individual member of the caucus went to speak to an aide of Judge Greenhill, who is the Supreme Court Justice who was responsible for making that appointment, and recommended that since this position was coming up, it might be appropriate to consider women for this position. I think that in that very first visit she was well-enough prepared to know that one possibility for this appointment was a woman from Houston, Selma Wells, and mentioned that name—among others—for that position. She reported back to the Texas Caucus that she had done so, and a legislative bulletin went out to all local caucuses saying that this might be someone we would like to get behind. Of course, Houston was very enthusiastic of the prospect of having a Houstonian on the board, and several of our members did know her too. She was a very fine person to have on there. So, we got busy and wrote lots of letters. That has been a traditionally tactic that we have used, is letter writing and telephoning and that sort of lobbying for the kind of thing that citizens usually do. Occasionally, visits to legislators also come into play, but I have to say that the kind of inside lobbying, which other kinds of organizations usually use, has not been utilized for the most part by the caucus, to the best of my knowledge. Well, perhaps, to the extent that the caucus has been instrumental through contributing time of its members in electing a number of people to legislative positions, at any rate. We feel a little freer to talk about things to those people, and they get our newsletters and so on. There is some feeling that that’s the way you get legislative changes made on the part of the caucus.
I: Before we come too involved in actual issues, I wanted to ask you about the composition of the membership, are most of the members well-educated women?
RM: Yes, I think that is true. We aim for a cross-section of the community, and the caucus, perhaps, more than any of the other feminist organizations, has achieved that. A woman associated with Rice until recently, Barbara Williams, did a thesis on the sociological composition of the caucus. The subject of her thesis, actually, was to determine how women are socialized into political action, and she looked at a number of groups of women who were organized—well two groups that were organized along political lines and two groups that were not to find out what kind of woman does involve herself in politics at all, and what kind of influences might have caused this kind of activity. In doing so, she put together a picture of the groups that she studied, as to their composition in terms of their economic background, their family’s economic background, their ethnic background, their present economic status and education, marital status, and that sort of thing.
She did find that caucus members are probably better educated than the community at-large is. We tend to be married. We tend to have children. We tend to be long-term residents of the community in which we reside, and our families—there is a sizable number of our families who are politically active, perhaps, more than other women’s groups, but there doesn’t seem to be any direct tie between that kind of thing and our involvement in politics. One of her conclusions is that, perhaps, the organization itself is responsible for the socialization of women into political activity, and from a personal introspective view, that is certainly true in my case. I think it’s true of most of the women I know you have been involved in the caucus from the beginning, and I would never had involved myself in politics at all if it hadn’t been for the caucus, and my involvement in the caucus stemmed from strictly feminist issue kind of questions, and the recognition that we were not going to gain these goals without political organization and political activity.
I: (16:32) Does the caucus appear to attract members of the minority groups?
RM: Not as much as I wish they did. The problem that we have in Houston, at least—and in some other areas we have less difficulty than we had here—I think I finally gained an insight into it about two years ago when one of the local newspapers had a Sunday section on women’s organizations in Houston. The caucus and feminist groups were noticeably missing from this cross section, but they had interviews with presidents and membership chairs from these organizations, and one of the questions that was asked every organization was, “Do you have any minority members,” the kinds of responses that they got to that question were so incredibly racist that I immediately realized that simply saying to people that we are open to membership from the cross-section of the community will not cut it, at least not in the south. You really have to make an attempt to reach women who belong to minorities to indicate to them that, yes, we are really serious about having members of minorities in our group. We’re not trying to be a sorority. It’s not just me and my friends. We want every woman who has legitimate concerns about the community to be involved. I made that my personal concern for the caucus for about a year and a half. I did succeed in getting a number of Chicano women involved in the local caucus, and then I have a small number of Chicano women actively involved in the caucus, certainly, their influence in the caucus has been large. We’ve had less success in attracting black women, and I really don’t believe the myth that black women aren’t interested in women’s liberation, because I know a number of black women where I work, and they are interested in it. The reasons—at least that they give me—for not being involved in the women’s movement is lack of time. I have to say that I can understand that, because every woman I know with whom I work is very, very, active in a number of things, and, really have very little time to spend on organizations. I hope that as the group continues to grow, and as we continue to grow through coalitions with other groups, and we do try to do coalition-type politics that—
I: (19:29) Have you been successful?
RM: Yeah—that we will come in contact with more minority women, because our coalition groups tend to be minority coalitions as well as other general cross-section groups. One of those problems—if I can digress just a minute—is that we have been successful in coalitions with minority groups, but sexism is adherent in minority communities too, and consequently the people who are most active or the people who control the minority organizations in Houston are men. So, we have fine coalition relationships with the NAACP and the Urban League and so on, but these are black men that we are dealing with, and the black women are not—at least not yet—in positions of power in those organizations. We are trying to expand our coalition groups to specifically work with black women’s groups, and one of the difficulties is that black women’s groups—like many white women’s groups in our society—meet during the daytime and most women who are involved in the caucus are women who work and are fulltime employees who work outside the home, and who don’t have time available during the daytime. We are going to their meetings and so on. It’s a complicated question, but I think things are working out.
I: Among the members of the caucus, you had mentioned before that some organizations revealed racist tendencies, have you found that problem in your own organization?
RM: We all live in a racist society, and in our organization there are the same kinds of unconscious racism that exists in the society at large. The difference, I think, is that we as an organization are making an effort to overcome that racism in conscious ways. It is extremely helpful to have organized minority caucuses within the caucus, because they keep coming back to us and saying, “Wait, you’re behaving in a racist manner in this case,” and that kind of thing has been used by a number of groups in the women’s movement, as a matter of fact, to help us all raise our consciousness about a number of things. In fact, in the beginning of the women’s movement—in general, this things don’t exist directly within the caucus—there were consciousness raising groups, and one of their techniques was that women would sit around and discuss things together, and when a women would say something grossly sexist without realizing it the other members of the group would say, “Wait, you said something grossly sexist,” and to people not involved in that situation the tactics looked a little negative sometimes, but it seemed to achieve its purpose. We all became aware of the ways in which society had drilled into us these attitudes and expressions that we all use.
Some of us were able to change some of our ways. That’s the way in which the minority caucuses are functioning within the caucus. They are pointing out to us every time we make a blunder, and I think that is very valuable. Unfortunately, it’s very frustrating for the minority women who are involved in the caucus, because you have to keep saying it over and over again.
I: (23:25) Do they have their own ideas about the type of legislation or pressure that should be applied? Are the objectives a little different than the majority members’?
RM: I don’t really think so. I think that minority women who come into the caucus, when they first come in, say things like, “Minority women have different aims,” but after being involved in the caucus, even for a very minimal length of time, those women come to have the same aims that the caucus has. Now, whether it’s a matter of our brain washing them or a matter of their becoming aware of the fact that the caucus did indeed have the same aims in mind all along, and they just didn’t realize it, I don’t know. One of the groups that has been very well-organized in the state and nationally has been the Chicano caucus. You find them emphasizing things such as daycare, which is a primary concern of theirs from the beginning, but the caucus also has been, historically, very widely interested in daycare, and in fact, the original foundations of the task force was on daycare by white women who came into the caucus from the white middle class, kind of, background, who were trying to get into the workforce and wanting daycare, and wanting adequate daycare. They were concerned about the fact that their children weren’t getting quality daycare. Those two groups had a great deal in common in their concern about daycare. You might think that they might want something different, but it turns out that they really don’t, and once the two groups of women get together and start working on it they discover that there are a number of things that they have in common, such as parent control, and local control, input that reflects the cultural make up of the community, and they had all those things in common.
I think there has been some concern—the press has really blown up the feeling—that within the Chicano community in Texas, because of the large influence of the Catholic religion in the community, that there is a very large anti-abortion feeling among Chicanos. Well, the women’s movement has also concerned themselves with trying to loosen the restrictions on abortion in our society. So one would think that that would be an area of potential conflict, and there are some Chicana members of the caucus that feel very strongly that their should be quite restrictive legislation dealing with abortion, and it is a matter of some conflict within the caucus, because the caucus’ stand is very clear that there should not be any legal restrictions on abortion, and that it should be a private matter for women to decide. That doesn’t seem to surface as a racist issue or as an ethnic issue within the caucus, because there are also white women or Anglo women who are concerned with the abortion issue. I am sure it is very uncomfortable for them to be in the caucus, because it is an issue about which there is a great deal of emotion, and in the society at large there is a great deal of emotion about the issue, but within the caucus there is too.
I think, possibly, because it is an issue which society does feel very strongly about, and women who believe that there should be absolutely no legal restriction on abortion are constantly at odds with society, even though the polls now tell us that society is in favor of there being no legal restrictions. They are constantly under attack, and they are under attack in very—well the word that came to mind was underhanded, but maybe that is not really what I mean to say—people call such women murderers, and so on. So, there is an overreaction perhaps to any person that expresses an anti-abortion attitude, and it does make things very difficult. I have always tried to serve in the caucus as a “spreader of oil on troubled waters” and that is an area which I think the caucus ought to be a little bit more lenient on then it has been, because in Houston—nationally I don’t think this is problem that it is locally, but—in Houston a woman who felt that there ought to be some controls over abortion has felt very uncomfortable in the Houston Caucus and must feel constantly under attack, and I don’t know many women who hold that position who has stayed active within the caucus. Many of them still belong and still pay their membership dues, but it has been a difficult issue.
I (29:10) Has the Catholic Church directly tried to influence members?
RM: The Church has not, but some individuals within the Church have. There was a case which made the papers recently in San Diego, California, where a bishop said that, “Priests will no longer give communion to a woman who belongs to any of these feminist organizations.”
I: (29:35) Has it happened here in Houston?
RM: It has not happened in Houston, and in Houston—at least in certain areas of the Catholic community—there is a great deal of sympathy for the women’s movement in general, and a feeling that the abortion issue is not really quite the sinister thing that the press would have you believe it is. So, they’ve been willing to let that issue alone. There has been within the Chicano community in Houston, however, some attacks on the women’s movement based on the abortion issue. Even politically, in that LULAC, which originally supported the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment was asked to reaffirm its support of the Equal Rights Amendment at its regional convention in south Texas, and the motion to reaffirm was killed, it was never brought to the floor, because of the feelings of some members on that board that the Equal Rights Amendment would ultimately bring about free abortion. Of course, the Equal Rights Amendment is not involved in the abortion issue directly, but admittedly some of the women who are working for it are also working for less restrictive abortion practices. So in that sense, trying to attack other goals of the women’s movement then yes, there is some opposition based on that issue.
I: You just mentioned the Equal Rights Amendment, perhaps, this would be a good junction to continue on that, what is the situation in Texas now with it?
RM: In Texas, in the recent legislative session there were two bills introduced which would have affected the present Texas status with regard to it, and neither of those bills passed both houses. Texas ratified the Equal Rights Amendment within 10 days after it was voted out of congress. It became the eighth state, I believe, to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, because of the complicated legal status of rescinding a prior ratification—that is it’s really doubtful whether it has any legal standing or not, and secondly, even if it does there is no way of knowing that it will have a legal standing or not. Attempts to rescind have been largely laughed at—until this year—by people concerned about ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment; however in Texas a campaign was mounted starting before the present legislative session convened to attempt to introduce into our legislative session legislation that would rescind Texas ratification, and it was felt by people who supported the ERA that this campaign was, primarily, a public relations kind of campaign. Whether there is any legal standing to such a thing or not, and that the existence of this kind of activity within the state was a warning signal, and that somehow the message has not gotten across to all the women who would be affected by the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and that something needed to be done, in terms of a positive public relations campaign to try to convince women that the so-called hazards of the Equal Rights Amendment were not actually hazards, and that without it women are second class citizens. So there was a great deal of activity. The activity did center around the legislative session and around two bills that were introduced.
One house bill 666, which would have put the Equal Rights Amendment to a referendum vote and that would be a nonbinding referendum, so that even if the citizens of Texas voted one way or the other on that referendum then the legislature would still be free to do whatever they wished later on. The second bill was a bill to—actually not rescind, but to send off to Washington to bring back the articles of ratification to the attorney general in the state of Texas, and that is a measure that had not been tried anywhere else. Neither of those measures passed both houses. The primary reason, I think, was that the amount of organized support for and opposition for—those two measures—far surpassed anything that anybody in the legislature ever dreamed was going to happen in the state of Texas. There were open hearings held on the attempt to rescind by the Committee on Constitutional Revision and Reform in the house. Those hearings were attended by thousands of women from all over the state, both pro and con, so that many legislators felt very threatened, and there was no way they could vote right. There were going to be thousands of people out to get you next time no matter which way you voted, so it was a very difficult situation. A lot of pageantry involved with that. I was there and did testify on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and those hearings. It was an entertaining session among other things, but it’s sad that it had to happen or had to occur.
I: (35:57) There were a group—I’m not sure of the name—the Pink Ladies—
RM: Yes, there were several groups organized for the purpose of opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, and they are collectively referred to as the Pink Ladies, because one of the ways they attempted to make their presence there known was that the majority of them wore pink every time they went to the state legislature for any reason at all. I was sitting on the floor of the house during those hearings and throughout the hearings, and they rotated the gallery, because there were so many people there, so there was not room in the gallery to have everybody. Every time you would look up there was the sea of pink in the gallery, yet I talked to people who said that when you counted the number of people who were wearing “Defeat the ERA” buttons and the number of people who were wearing buttons that said, “Support the ERA,” they were evenly divided every time the gallery changed. But the fact that all those people were wearing the same color made such an enormous visual impact that you thought they were overwhelmingly there, so it was a good ploy on their part, and an excellent tactic.
I was especially fond though of one of the things the president of the Houston NOW chapter said at the hearings. She said, “We came dressed in all colors, because we come in all colors,” and it was certainly true by the time you get to the state level that all colors of us were represented there speaking on behalf of the ERA, and it was conspicuously not the case on the other side. Not only were they white and for the most part middle class or lower middle class, but they were also abundantly male. The majority of the speakers against the ERA were male. There was one woman who was entrusted with giving more than five minutes of testimony for their side, and that was Phyllis Schlafly, who of course is nationally identified as being associated with the anti-ERA movement. She was flown in to testify at these hearings. She did make a very impressive presentation, by the way, and she has an excellent demeanor and manner of speaking. She was a very impressive person even though she was lying to us the entire time, but the vast number of people that they had speaking for them were men.
I: (38:46) What did the hearings produce?
RM: Well, a stalemate. The committee voted at the end of the hearings to send the bill the hearings were held on back into subcommittee. It was finally reported out of subcommittee out of the end of the session, and was never reported out. Well, house bill 666 was reported to the floor of the house, and in the senate the measure that would have asked for the articles to be returned from Washington was reported out to the senate floor, but neither bill made it onto the floor, because of calendar problems. So, that was probably best for both sides. Both sides, by the way, opposed the house bill 666, the referendum doesn’t appeal to either side, because it means spending lots and lots of money and lots and lots of time trying to get our word across to the public.
I: What is your group doing locally to influence legislatives?
RM: Legislators and mayors, city council, county commissioners—we have been involving ourselves in a candidate rating procedure in which we decide what candidates in each race most nearly represent the feminist view point, and supporting the people we endorse one way or another. In the mayor’s race last time, we endorsed Fred Hofheinz, and there was a good deal of discussion about what to do in that race, and the first vote to endorse Hofheinz failed. We discussed the other candidates and then, ultimately, did vote to endorse Hofheinz. For that race we, primarily, contributed the time of our members to his campaign. The caucus, locally, has never had very much money to contribute to campaigns. In two cases we did contribute some fairly sizeable—sizeable to us not to the real world of politics, but sizeable to us—sums of money in the legislative race this last time. We donated $1000 to each of two candidates who were members of the caucus and had been long time members and supporters of the caucus. One was an officer in the caucus at the time she decided to run and resigned that office in order to run for office. One of those women made it into the general election in November, and we contributed further money to her campaign. I believe it was about another $750 dollars. We voted to try to give her another thousand, but I don’t think we ever made it. It required some special fundraising to do that.
Aside from that, we have not contributed money, except in token amounts, perhaps, $50 to other people’s campaigns. It has primarily been in terms of giving an endorsement, which means our members are probably going to vote for you, and our members our then encouraged to work in campaigns for people we endorse. In Houston and Harris County at least, that means a great deal. The majority of races are hardly contested or hard fought races on the local level, and are won or lost by less than 5 percent of the votes registered in the county. So, you don’t really have to influence very many people in addition to the people who are going to vote anyway in order to change the outcome of an election, so that even a pretty small group of rather dedicated people can have an effect on the outcome of an election, and politicians are aware of that. They will occasionally yield some kind of promise in return for the promise of working for them, which by the way is the reason we finally decided to endorse Hofheinz, because we got a signed statement from him saying that he would establish an office of women’s advocacy in the city, which he did. That he would support the establishment of a rape crisis center in the city, which he has not done, and which we are after him about now with the idea that we will not endorse him in any future race if he does not get on the stick, and also that he would do something about seeing that federal funds were used to establish daycare facilities for the employees of city government, at least. We would like to see the use of federal funds for a downtown daycare center for children for the people who work downtown. He did at least go this far—that is to see that those funds were used for city employees. A program to that effect or a request for using fund to that effect has been started, but those funds are not yet in use either, so that is another area where we are going to pounce on him. In addition to that, we are interested now in city charter revision, because the city charter has out of date information written in there about your horses and so on in Main Street, but it also, generally speaking, refers to members of the city council as councilmen, and whenever it talks about the mayor it says he and so on.
I: Do you think that is silly?
RM: (44:38) A lot of people think that it is, but it’s really not, because it’s amazing how much we internalize the semantics of our society. If you think in terms of electing a congressman, for example, to a certain position, the idea of a woman running for the position of congressman sets up a little discord in people’s minds, and that little bit of discord is enough that people who aren’t going to really consider the situation vote against women. After all, our founding fathers were all men, and we didn’t have any founding mothers, so women obviously aren’t suited for politics. I think we all grow up with that kind of thing drummed into us. Studies of children point out that even by the time children get into the first and second grade in public school, little girls know that they are not supposed to want to be doctors and astronauts and politicians, whereas little boys are aspiring to those careers.
So, it’s the ways in which our society behaves toward people, and I think very largely semantic constructs that we put on people that do tend to shape us, and indicate which direction we are going to go in. A lot of the phrases of our society, even if they are not directly oppressive, tend to make you internalize the rules and structures of society. That is after all the way that societies perpetuate themselves is to have us all internalize the rules. I have to agree that it is silly to argue over what term you use, but on the other hand if it is silly to argue over it than why should anybody complain about calling council members council members.
I: (46:42) My question was not really related to the fact that it sounds silly to do these, more or less, political tactics, but don’t you find that this alienates potential supporters by arguing about things that seem—I realize what you’ve said is true. It obviously is, but when the average person hears that you are campaigning to have the titles changed and things of that nature, do you lose support?
RM: I don’t know that we really do. Perhaps, when you start a campaign like that you do, because people say, “Good grief, that is stupid.” It’s like in the beginning with the women’s movement we were identified with bra burning, and people said, “Good grief, that’s stupid,” well it would be—again, another of my favorite quotes, and this comes from Helen Cassidy, who helped get the caucus started here, she said, “I always tell people when they accuse me of bra burning that women would be stupid and burn their bras, because it’s the only support we have.” That kind of thing or that kind of reaction, I think, does turn people off, and unfortunately, our modes of mass communication these days are aimed at sensationalism and things that would make people say, “My goodness, that is stupid,” and people never give it a second thought. But when you explain to people—if you have an opportunity to explain to people why you’re concerned about these issues, and why you think it may not be stupid after all then you find that people are at least willing to let you make the changes that you want to make, and do what you want to do. The aim of all of it, for me, is simply removing arbitrary restrictions on people’s behavior. It may have been necessary hundreds of years ago in order to keep people in their roles and their little places in society, and to have us internalize a bunch of rules that are trivial, meaningless, and insignificant, but if one them goes then the authoritarian structure is cracked. Well I want to crack the authoritarian structure. So I want all those little rules to go, and it seems to me that ultimately people react to this kind of thing with laughter really out of fear, because on some level they do understand that that is one of the things that is being questioned. It’s not just the question of what title you should have; it’s the question of whether men should have all of the power and authority in our political system.
I: (49:47) Is your group bringing pressure to bear on various businesses in Houston?
RM: No, not directly. There are other women’s organizations that are. The caucus, however, has not attempted to get into that. We felt that you probably reduce your ability to accomplish things by spreading yourself too thin, and there are other organizations that are aimed at that. NOW, of course, has worked actively in that area, and WEAL is an organization that was established very specifically to attack the areas of employment for women and of education.
RM: Women’s Equity Action League. They’ve also been in Houston for quite some time. The caucus has attempted to do the kinds of things that feminist groups do with business with governmental entities, such as the county or the city government. We, at the very least, act in coalition with other groups to see that suits are brought against the city when it is being discriminatory, with regard to its employees, and with the county when it is. You try to work positively as long as you can, and when you reach the point where people are no longer willing to compromise or do things then you go to more difficult means like suits or charges with various governmental agencies are filed. The caucus has been involved in some of that with regard to the city and county governments.
I: Recently? Is there court actions pending now on any of these cases?
RM: There is some court action pending now, but I don’t believe that the caucus is involved directly in any of the actions that are presently pending. I’m not sure about that, but I think every case that the caucus was involved in has been resolved one way or another. Now, we have recently taken a stand with regard to the rape crisis center that probably is going to be handled more through political means than through other means, but there are some grounds there for the mishandling—for charges because funds were mishandled. That might be one way to rectify the mishandling of certain federal funds is to spend more of them on activities such as the rape crisis center. But certainly that kind of action has not been contemplated yet. I don’t think there is anything presently going on. We were, sort of, involved in the business against the police department, but the caucus didn’t directly file anything there either.
I: (52:53) Particularly, what are you speaking of, with regards to the police department?
RM: There were some charges at least—no suit as I understand has been brought—but some charges filed that the requirements—in terms of physical requirements like height, weight, and so on—for the police department were discriminatory against women and minorities, and the fire department standards have also been questioned. The fire department responded by rewriting their standards. They are still not adequate as far we’re concerned, because we feel they are still discriminatory. The police department’s new standards, I think, are also discriminatory, but the changes that were made were made largely through administrative means—the threat of charges filed rather than actually filing anything.
I: If a woman is going to perform the same services as a policeman or fireman shouldn’t they also meet the same requirements?
RM: Oh, yes! Our contention is that the requirements which are placed on an applicant for those jobs are not necessary for the performance of that job.
I: Such as?
RM: Well, prior to the changes made, the requirements were even more restrictive, but at the present time requirements for being a firefighter for the city of Houston include—among other things—that you must be 5 feet 6 inches tall and weigh at least 140 pounds, whether that is really necessary and whether the arbitrary cutoff point is really necessary when you’re thinking in terms of rescuing a person from a burning building or not, I’m probably not best qualified to say, but it does seem to me that the idea of an arbitrary standard like that would be rather difficult to defend. The person who is 5 feet 5 inches and weighs 140 pounds, probably, with the right physical conditioning is just as capable of rescuing someone. In addition to which, not all duties within the fire department or not all duties within the police department require that you be in super good physical condition. The police department now requires so many push-ups and so many pull-ups and so many standing broad jumps and so on. Well a certain amount of that may be necessary in the day-to-day police work, but if it is then why doesn’t our city police department require that every police officer undergo this test every year in order to verify that it is necessary for the job. They don’t. You can see overweight police officers on the street. I can’t believe that all of those officers could presently undergo these requirements, and yet, they are serving in that position. The mere fact that they are indicates that it is not necessary to meet those requirements. Maybe it is necessary and we shouldn’t have those people on the force. They ought to really be directly involved with the task to be done and it needs to be shown how it is directly involved with the task to be done.
I: (56:23) Is the philosophy of the caucus to maintain that there really are not roles reserved for either sex?
RM: There are some feminist groups that would probably say that with the exception of possibly the direct reproductive act itself, but the caucus has never really taken conscious cultural positions with regard to that. The caucus’ concern has been primarily with legal matters, and the contention that there must not be any legal discrimination on the basis of sex—that is meaningless. There may be certain categories of people or certain categories of activities which need to be described and covered by law, but making those categories on the basis of sex is faulty and shouldn’t be continued in our society. So as far as the cultural and social aspects are concerned the caucus has never directly taken a stand on those issues at all. Consequently, you find women in the caucus who feel that there are no differences, and that it is all societal varnish, and you also find women who believe that there are very profound differences, and that women are always going to be what our image of women is today.
I: I noticed on your badge that you are currently employed by Exxon, how do your employers react to you being a member of the caucus?
RM: I haven’t encountered any real problems. In fact, the company that I work for, which is not Exxon itself, but the research lab for Exxon, has been extremely supportive of my community activities. One of the things that they try to encourage is employee activity. My immediate supervisors are very supportive of my activity in the women’s movement, so I haven’t encountered any difficulty.
I: Are they men?
RM: Yes, they are men. Only once did I encounter anything that I might interpret in that way, and that is that is was suggested to me a couple of years ago that, perhaps, I was over extending myself in my outside-of-work activities, and it was suggested to me in a kindly fashion and with no implied threat made. I had come to a similar conclusion myself, and told my supervisor that, indeed, I had and that I was attempting to cut down. I don’t think it was directly related to the fact that those outside activities are women’s movement activities. I think he had a legitimate point. I guess if I was really paranoid I might think that was so, but they have been very supportive, and I’m quite militant within the organization too. I’m forever writing letters off to this, that, and the other high person complaining about some sexist thing they do. The usual response is that they change it.
I: In closing, I’d like to ask you this question that takes us back full circle. Was there some particular incident or something that happened that led you to become active in the organization or to join? You mentioned that you’re married, and you might have children, but apparently you were playing the role of the mother and wife and now suddenly you became involved in this, what led you to do it?
RM: Well, I wouldn’t say it was sudden, but I have to give credit for my involvement, ultimately, to my husband. My husband is a student of contemporary culture, and has been for a large number of years, and he became interested in the changes he thought he saw happening in our society with regard to women. When the National Organization for Women was founded he made the offhand observation once in a conversation with a group of people that he felt the women’s movement would be the next thing that happened after the civil rights movement. At the time, I as a fulltime homemaker and very much concerned at that time about the rearing of children, and felt the kind of threat that I think the average housewife probably feels about the women’s movement, and reacted with that kind of feeling to his suggestion. I decided that he had been right about a lot of things. He is aware of a great deal in the culture. He picks up things from the culture much, much earlier than the most people do, and maybe it was something worth looking into to try to find out what is really going on, and is it something I should interest myself in. When the National Organization for Women began exploratory meetings in Houston a notice was posted on the university campus where my husband was teaching and he brought it home and mentioned it to me, and he and two of his students and I decided that we would try to find out what was really going on. Well, I think he never made it to more than one meeting, but I was immediately turned on by the ideas and became, sort of, active in it. Once I went back to work—by the way it was out of economic necessity, because my husband lost his job, and I went back to work—once that happened I became immensely more active in the women’s movement, and considerably more involve in it than before, because suddenly what had been abstract discriminations became very real day-to-day discriminations that I could see all around me. I guess that is it. The first thing came through philosophical interest, because I began to see how society works.
I: (63:22) I was curious about how you became involved, and I think most people listening to the tape would like to know what the individual motivational force that led you to it was. Are there any other comments you want to make before we terminate the interview? Anything I didn’t ask you that you feel you need to talk about?
RM: No, I guess not. I think we covered a number of very interesting areas.
I: I’ll agree. On behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives and Research Center I would like to thank you for your cooperation. It’s been a very interesting interview, and very useful I think.
RM: I hope so. (audio ends 64:01)