Richards Remembers BU Days; Encourages 'Ideal' Of Public Service
Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards returned to her alma mater April 15 to deliver the second lecture in the Public Leadership Series, delighting the standing-room-only crowd in Barfield Drawing Room with anecdotes from her long career in politics and challenging them with sometimes sobering accounts of the struggles women have overcome to gain acceptance in public life.
Richards' appearance was held in conjunction with the annual Women's Day celebration, sponsored by Mortar Board, a national honor society for seniors based on scholarship, leadership and service. At an early evening dinner, Mortar Board members presented Richards, a 1954 Baylor graduate, with an honorary membership to the society, a gesture that led Richards to quip, "That was the only way I could ever have become a member of Mortar Board."
Before launching into a 40-minute speech on the history and value of women in public service, Richards harkened back to her undergraduate days, when she attended Baylor on a debate scholarship. She last visited the Baylor campus a year ago for the dedication of the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center and said she always enjoys coming back to Baylor and to her hometown of Waco.
"Those of us who went to Baylor in the old days...we had far more fun than anyone in the Southwest Conference because everything we did here was either a sin or against the rules," she said, drawing more laughter from her audience.
As a Baylor alumna, Richards praised the late Professor Glenn R. Capp, who was head of the Baylor debate department when Richards was a student. She also recognized Dr. Ralph Lynn, professor emeritus of history, who attended the lecture, as the most influential professor she ever had.
"I say that Glenn Capp taught me how to say it and Ralph Lynn taught me what to say," said Richards, who named her oldest daughter, Lynn, after the professor.
Motivated By Injustice
Richards said civil rights issues inspired her to get involved in politics, just as other women were motivated to run for office by other injustices.
"We start out working for a cause or an issue and sooner or later we realize that if we want to get something done, we need to elect candidates who agree with us, and then it begins to dawn on us that the candidate we can trust the most is us," she said.
Richards' political career began in 1976, when she ran for a seat on the Travis County Commissioners Court. Vying to become the first woman to serve as a commissioner in the county's 136-year history, she visited a local political powerbroker, who asked her pointedly, "Why would you want a man's job like that? Did you hate your daddy or something?"
Richards went on to defeat a three-term incumbent to win that election. In 1982, she made history again when she was elected state treasurer, becoming the first woman to win a statewide office in Texas in half a century. She was re-elected without opposition in 1986, then burst onto the national scene in 1988, when she delivered the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention.
Richards left the treasurer's post in 1990 to run for governor. On Jan. 15, 1991, she was sworn in as the state's 45th governor - the first woman elected to that job in fifty years. As Richards was hiring a staff and moving into the governor's mansion, she was notified that the Queen of England would be visiting Texas, which Richards said was a "huge deal."
The Royal Visit
"There's all kinds of stuff you can't do with the Queen. If she's headed dead in the wrong direction, you can't grab her elbow or anything," Richards said.
When the day of the royal visit arrived, the governor was working on last-minute inauguration details and was running "late as usual" as the Queen and her husband, Prince Philip, arrived in Austin.
"I went tearing down the steps and across the rotunda of the capitol to be on front steps waiting for her, and my mother's voice went through my head just as clear as a bell, saying, 'Well, where do you think you're going? To see the Queen of England?' And, of course, I was," laughed Richards.
At the end of her Texas visit, the Queen hosted a farewell dinner in Houston at the Museum of Fine Arts, attended by the mayors of each city she had visited.
"I would never have thought about it until I actually saw it with my own eyes. They were all women," Richards said. "So Philip looks over at [Houston mayor] Kathy Whitmire and then he looks over at me and this long string of mayors and their husbands, and he says to the Queen, 'I say, this looks rather like a matriarchy.' And the Queen, without batting an eye, said, 'I think it's very nice, don't you?'"
Matriarchy was never the goal, Richards said, of women's increased involvement in the political process. When the scales are weighted in favor of one gender, race or privileged background, no one in a democracy is well-served, she noted.
"When my grandmother was a girl, according to Texas law, the only people who could not vote in Texas were idiots, imbeciles, the insane and women. And less than one lifetime later, I was the governor of the state of Texas," Richards said. "It's absolutely ludicrous for me to stand here and tell you how well I remember the first time a woman got into the law school at the University of Texas. For that matter, I remember well the first time a black man got into the law school of the University of Texas. How hard it is to explain to anyone who has even a passing interest what it is like looking at textbooks and knowing that there's no one in there that looks like you."
The 'Good' Fight
Richards spoke of Texas women who had fought the "good fight" long before her generation became involved in public life.
"Women in Texas ran the ranches, they tended cattle, they lobbied in the halls of the Texas legislature, they wrote books and invented products and they made big money and they negotiated treaties and they led strikes and they ran hospitals and they preached the Gospel and they got elected to office and they built major institutions," Richards said. "It was the women of Texas that brought civilization to Texas towns because they were the ones who organized the museums and the parks and the hospitals and the charitable organizations, the schools, the symphonies and the libraries."
In today's world, she takes exception with "women's issues" that so often pigeonhole women legislators into roles that don't wield much power.
"To be able to muscle your way into a committee that actually determines how the money's going to be spent is another challenge," Richards said. "Because our background is different, we pick up on different nuances, different experiences and bring a better perspective when we are a participant. We bring a really, truly different point of view. Without us, all of our legislative bodies, our courts and institutions are incomplete."
As a longtime public servant herself, Richards said she is often asked why so few women run for office. Although she concedes that politics can sometimes be a "nasty business," she told the audience she has had tougher fights in the PTA than she did in the political arena. It's money, she said, and more career choices than ever before that are holding some women back from dipping a toe into the pool of politics.
"As much as we don't want to say that this is true in a democracy, money is the deciding factor in politics," she said. "It can buy people who are smarter than you to give you advice, it can buy television time, it can buy organizational support, it can even buy respect. In politics, you don't even need to spend the money for it to be influential."
Polls have shown that people want to vote for candidates who stand for something, even if they disagree with the stance, Richards said. Although the polling question is new, the idea is not, she said.
"Women have been getting elected for years because we have been willing to stand up for what we believed in because...we had nothing to lose. And now that there are a few more of us making decisions, the world hasn't turned upside down as a result of our presence."
Making a Difference
Richards said the fundamental question for women, for minorities and for all who have been excluded from the political process in the past is what difference will it make if they choose to run for office. Hailing legislation and policy changes enacted by women from both political parties, Richards talked about Title IX, Texas credit law changes, increased funding for breast cancer research and the inclusion of women in National Institutes of Health research studies in the 1990s for the first time.
As Richards concluded her lecture, she asked the audience to remember the photographs in the history books of the suffragettes and women struggling for acceptance in the man's world of work, handing out literature and marching with their banners, and realize that, "We are going to be the next page in those history books."
"Think of yourself as part of a picture with a caption that reads, 'Meeting at Baylor University Women's Day circa 2003.' And think about the little girl opening that history book and thumbing through it or surfing the video text and think about what you want that little girl to learn about the people in that picture and what they have accomplished for their country and their community," Richards said. "Think about the little boys looking at the picture and the message that we want little boys to have as well as little girls. Then go out there and do it, because these little girls and boys are counting on you and so am I, and I suspect that the Queen is, too, and we expect nothing but the best from you."
Following her lecture, Richards spent another half hour answering questions from the audience about abortion, education, civil rights and other issues.
Challenging Old Ideas
Richards' lecture was part of the Public Leadership Series, a new initiative at Baylor designed to increase understanding of government and the ideal of public service in society. Asa Hutchinson, director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, delivered the inaugural lecture last September.
Richards encouraged the growth of the lecture series, urging the campus to bring outsiders and controversy to campus at every opportunity.
"Challenge old ideas and stick-in-the-mud notions, question everything, and a public lecture series can do a lot of that," she said.
After leaving the governor's office, Richard worked with a Washington law firm as an adviser, taught a popular course at Brandeis University and expanded an already busy speaking schedule. She now works as a senior adviser with Public Strategies Inc., an Austin-based consulting firm that helps companies analyze, develop and implement their public agendas. She also is a member of several boards, including Brandeis, J.C. Penney, the Aspen Institute and Save the Children Federation.
Richards continues to travel the country, speaking about issues of concern to her. She also makes time for her family, which includes four grown children and seven grandchildren.