Ann Richards

Keynote Address at the Women in Contemporary Mexican Politics Conference - April 7, 1995

Ann Richards
April 07, 1995— Austin, Texas
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Richards gave this address at the Mexican Center of the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas at Austin.

Thank you Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Ward and the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

To all the distinguished guests who are here from Mexico, I hope one of the reasons I was invited to participate today is because I am a friend to Mexico. I feel very strongly about your country. I feel very strongly not only because of the warmth and wonder of the people there, but because it is in such close proximity to the United States. I feel that our futures are inextricably bound. What happens in Mexico, greatly effects certainly what happens in Texas, but I think in a larger sense in all of North America. You know that I was a very strong proponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement. I thought it was the right thing then. I think it is right now. The difficult time that Mexico is undergoing is hard for all of us who care about Mexico to see, but I am convinced that Mexico will come away from this trial stronger and better as a result. I'm also convinced that there will be more women in positions of power and responsibility because change is always a woman's friend.

When I travel, I catch up on my reading and I tear out little snippets of information. I suppose it comes from old days of cutting out recipes and I save these little pieces so that I can use them or share them with the right group. You all look like the right bunch this morning, so for starters I read in Newsweek magazine recently that during W.W.I women gave up the steel in their corsets for the war effort, amounting to 28,000 tons. It was enough to build two warships and make millions of American women comfortable for the first time in their lives. Then I read in Business Week that retailers are now selling a garment called Shapeware -- what we used to call Corsets and girdles and waist cinchers are making a comeback. Now a lot of people in America are attributing this to the fact that baby boomers in America have finally surrendered in the fight against gravity. The executive in charge of women's apparel in Sears and Roebuck said "in this business, its either bust or boom." But here's something that will make you stop and think. Playtex is a major manufacturer of this stuff. And do you know who owns Playtex? It is Sara Lee. And I wonder if anyone here honestly believes that is a coincidence. But the third clipping I want to talk about, I've been holding onto for more than a year. According to the National Review of January 24, 1994, the Barbie Liberation Organization has been sneaking around switching voice boxes on GI Joe dolls and Barbie Dolls, so that the altered GI Joe's now say something like "Let's go shopping" and Barbie says "Dead men tell no lies." Now what all that means I'm not sure. I just thought it was worth repeating to you.

When I was asked to speak today about women in politics, I was really delighted to oblige. I probably won't be telling you anything you don't already know, but perhaps I will be able to at least give you some food for thought. First let me tell you that there is a book by an author named Naomi Wolf, who has written the first piece that I have seen a very long time about where women go from here. It addresses the issue of where female power is and where it seems to be going. It's out in paper back and I would recommend it to you, particularly the last part.

I have some experience in the field of politics, and during my lifetime I have seen some remarkable and amazing changes. As a matter of fact, just a few months after I was elected governor of Texas, I found myself in the enviable position of welcoming to Texas the Queen of England and her husband, Prince Philip. It was a very testy and difficult time. The legislature was already in the throes of meeting. We were trying to get a legislative program and staff together, and we get word that the Queen is coming. And I don't know how many of you have entertained the Queen of England, but it is's a big deal, and to make this long story very short I had done everything I needed to do. I had gotten a new suit that looked like a Queen's suit, one of those with a pleated skirt and silk jacket. I had learned the things that you do and you don't do with royalty. And as I was running through the rotunda of the capital building to greet the queen at the front, a voice ran through my head, my mother's voice, just as clear as a bell saying "Where do you think you're going? to see the Queen of England?" And you know? Sure enough, I was. And at the conclusion of the Queen's visit, she and the Prince entertained all of the mayors and distinguished people who had entertained her while she had been visiting in Texas. And we were all standing in a receiving line. There was Kathy Whitmire who was then the mayor of Houston. There was the Queen. There was the Prince. There I was and all of the mayors starting to come through the receiving line. There was the mayor of Dallas, the mayor of San Antonio, the mayor of Galveston, the mayor of Corpus Christi, the mayor of Houston, the mayor of San Marcos and every single one of them was a woman. And the prince looked at the queen and he looked at Kathy Whitmire and he looked over at me and he said to his wife "I say, it looks rather like a matriarchy." And the Queen said, "I think that's rather nice, don't you?"

Sometimes it takes a visual confrontation to recognize the enormity of change that has taken place in this country, but matriarchy really was never our goal, not in the past and certainly not in the future. We've learned, I hope, that when the scales are weighted in favor of one gender or one race or one privileged group or one with different background, government and all of our society suffers. When my grandmother was a girl, according to Texas law the only people denied the right to vote in Texas were idiots, imbeciles, the insane, and women. And of course the idea of minorities voting at least without close supervision was just completely beyond the pale. So it should not be a surprise that when I began my involvement in politics, women made the coffee and men made the decisions. In fact, I suspect there are still a few places in Mexico where that might still be true. But we are moving forward not only in this country, but all over the world, and it was fascinating earlier this week to turn on the television and watch Hillary Clinton visiting with a group of women from a class in India called "Untouchable." To some it might have illustrated the gulf that divides women in the advantaged and disadvantaged countries, but when Mrs. Clinton read a poem by a fifteen year old Indian girl that spoke of freedom and spoke of power, we had a glimpse of a better day and a better India in the future. It is encouraging to note that the progress of women becoming financially independent played a role in the First Lady's visit. In going and visiting with those third world women, one of the facets that came out that was of most interest to me was that women all over the world are beginning to secure small financial loans. So that they may farm; they may trade; they may develop industries ,even though they may be small cottage industries. Women's world banking reports that of small business loans that they made to women around the world, 99% of those loans were repaid, which I would suggest to you is a remarkable record of women's interest in financial independence. Ultimately, women successfully taking places of equity is not a question of law. It not a question of policy. It is a question of economics. And I am speaking more and more to young women because I think that women are socialized. Women are educated and women are taught to believe that their first responsibility is to take care of everybody else, and not themselves. And until women command economic security and financial responsibility, they will never be able to demand the equal rights that should come to them.

All the progress that we've made in politics in this country may seem a world away to some of our friends from Mexico, where the numbers of women in office are small. We know that the cultures are different, that women in contemporary Mexico must overcome barriers that are higher even than those our mothers and grandmothers experienced in this country. But, we should remember that our sisters in Mexico began in a different place. When I was preparing for today, I started looking through some books in my own library, and I took down a copy of one of the most critically acclaimed books about Mexico by a North American. The book is called "Distant Neighbors" which was published in 1984, just 11 years ago. So I looked up Women in politics and I found a grand total of two pages. In fact, women are mentioned in less than 30 of the book's 371 pages. The list of references to women is followed by the notation "see also family, maids and mistresses." But the women of Mexico have been busy rewriting their destiny since that book was published. Over the last decade Mexican women have increased their ranks among professionals from just one in five to more than one in three. Now Victoria tells me, that the political elite in Mexico is still 98% male, but women like Griselda Alvarez, the first female governor of a Mexican state, are certainly more visible and more powerful, and as they become even more visible, let me tell you what the impact is really going to be -- the impact that you women are going to have. Young girls in school, young women in college are going to see you in positions of power and responsibility and get the idea for the very first time in their lives that it is possible for them to aspire to those positions. The numbers will change as those of you in power are more visible for those who are going to follow you. And the truth is, we may be farther along in the United States because we started earlier. We can talk about how terrible it is that Texas women could not serve on court juries until the 1950's. But, Mexican women could not vote until 1953! And no matter where we are on a time line, every women in this world has to deal with her own culture's version of "pero es doble jornada."

We must remember that Mexico is a courageous country. In a very short time, it has established itself as a nation and a people on the brink of modern greatness. Those of us from the north must imagine what it is like. Mexico is now trying to move from a country where the government owns most of the industry and owns a great deal of what we call private enterprise in this country. They are going to privatize those sectors and at the same time, they are embarked on that revolutionary and difficult pursuit, they are trying to establish regulations to regulate industries that they have never regulated before. The very fact that the government is undergoing this enormous change is an opportunity for women to put themselves in positions of responsibility associated with that change. If you become a part of the change, your opportunities for acceptance as a matter of course with the change in Mexico will be of great benefit to all of us. It's an immense undertaking. It requires a change not only in practice, but in attitudes, in the way people think of Mexico, in the way they think about themselves and their relationship with their government and with each other. And no matter what happens, two things are certain. There is no going back, and that change is a woman's friend.

Now that may seem hard to realize when inflation drives up the cost of putting dinner on the table, but we all know that the status quo has never done us any good. It is not easy to be a pioneer or a first in anything. María De Los Angeles Moreno says, "I have a double responsibility because they'll judge other women by me. They'll say the old bags can't do it." Well, the old bags can do it and it is important that we never forget why we must make the effort.

What difference does it make? You see the truth is that we are all involved in politics everyday of our lives, whether we are homemakers or professional women, or community leaders or volunteers -- whether we choose it or not -- we are told that women's issues are issues related to reproduction and having babies or perhaps domestic violence or child care and the like -- and that's fine because they are important issues. Lord knows there were not many of those issues discussed with much seriousness until we were there and brought them up. After all, it took a women to ask the CIA if some of that wonderful technology used to detect every fly speck on Saddam Hussein's wall could not be put to use in helping us to detect breast cancer in its early stages. But women's issues are health care, taxation, crime, utility bills, housing, education, retirement, war and peace. The same issues that affect all human beings are women's issues.

Government touches every part of our lives no matter what country we live in. The equality of education that's available to us and our children, the prices we pay at the grocery store, everything from whether the garbage gets picked up to the most profound questions that deal with life and death on this planet affect our lives. There's no aspect that is so secure that it is shielded from the influence of public policy. And if we choose not to participate...if we choose to remain aloof...if we somehow think of ourselves above politics, then we have only yielded our power to others and left one half of its intelligence out of the decision making and out of the solutions.

It's not that women are better than men, but I hope that we all accepted long ago that we are different. The most sympathetic and sensitive of our men friends, no matter how hard he tries, cannot hear through a woman's ear, or process information through a women's experience. This shouldn't be a great revelation to any of us. Hispanics and African Americans in the United States patiently and usually with uncommon gentleness have tried to explain to Anglos for years that issues are seen differently from inside a brown skin or a black skin. The experience is different. The perspective is different. The knowing is different.

We see it in many ways in our society now and I see it often in policy deliberations. A debate about funding for mental retardation facilities is changed tremendously when the presence of a parent of a child with Down's Syndrome is seated at the table. A dialogue about equal opportunity takes immediacy and new meaning when a person of color is in the room. A discussion about Mexico becomes a richer dialogue when a Mejicana participates. And when I'm a part of a meeting and the subject is affirmative action or local government or the public schools, the nature of the discussion changes because I'm a woman, a former governor, a former local government official, and a former school teacher.

The analogies are endless, but the point's always the same -- that when you add someone who's understanding is not intellectual but instinctive, the whole equation of the debate changes. Their presence creates sort of a confrontation with the obvious, a close encounter with reality, and believe me...the jokes are different...when you're in the room. Now I'm not suggesting to you that we're needed in the corridors of power because we'll make different decisions about stereotypical women's issues. Nor am I suggesting that only women are qualified to deal with those issues. What I am saying is that because our background is different, we pick up different nuances. We bring valuable skills to the process. We are more likely to understand that we are not one bit smarter the day after we are elected than we are the day before. And because we are not vested in the status quo, we are the ones that are more likely to ask the impertinent questions. My favorite question is "why are we doing it this way?" You know what the answer is? "We've always done it that way." And that is not good enough! The real question for women, for minorities, and for all of us who've been excluded in the past is "What changes is our public service going to cause?"

Virginia Wolfe wrote:

"There they go -- our brothers, mounting those steps, passing in and out of those doors, ascending those pulpits teaching, preaching, administering justice, making money -- a procession like that is always a solemn sight. And there traipsing along at the tail end we go. And that makes a difference. We too can lead the house, can mount those steps, can pass in and out of those doors and administer justice and make money, but we have got to ask ourselves on what terms shall we join this procession?"

Virginia Wolfe wrote that at a time when it was not at all certain that women could join the processions, when we were watching the show from a discreet and Victorian distance. In an incredibly short time we have moved from watching at the end of the procession and now we move with our brothers to the head of the procession into leadership. And what, Virginia might ask, are our terms? Of the procession we ask only that our perspective as women be valued. But of ourselves we ask that our participation make our society more just, make it more humane, make our government more determined to meet the needs of all human beings who live in it -- and not just for those who have enough money to affect the next election. is not matriarchy we're after. It is something far more important. It is a better world for ourselves, for our daughters, for our granddaughters and for our sons. I know that you in Mexico are considering embarking on a program that I helped start here in Texas. It is called Leadership of Texas. It is an organization that brings women together to offer their strength in shared experiences, abandonment of their isolation, an exchange of techniques and practices and ideas that work. Leadership Texas led to Leadership America, and now we hope very much that it will lead to Leadership Mexico, where you will have an opportunity to share with each other and with women from this country, who are more than willing to share what they have learned. And I guess sharing what we've learned is a goal that's worthy of the best in all of us, because the future will be better for the fact that we have passed this way.

God bless you and thank you very much.

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