13 inspiring Texas women who reshaped U.S. history

These athletes, businesswomen, politicians and mavericks should be praised during Women’s History Month — and any other day

SAN ANTONIO – First female governor of Texas, first Black woman to fly a plane, first woman to coach an NBA team, first Black woman from a Southern state to serve in the U.S. House.

These Texas women were trailblazers in turning society on its head — and they raised hell by doing so.

This Women’s History Month, KSAT is highlighting 13 iconic women of Texas who helped change the course of history, either in businesses, politics or everyday life.

While many of them were the “firsts” in conquering a male-dominated faction, title, political seat or sport, they certainly won’t be the last as they continue to inspire women of all ages and across all societies.

Clearly, there are dozens and dozens of pioneers in Texas history that deserve to be honored this month and every day. Is there a woman you want to recognize? Share their legacy in the comment section below.

Here are 13 iconic women who reshaped Texas and U.S. history:

  • Barbara Jordan (1936–1996): Born in Houston, Jordan graduated from Texas Southern University in 1956 and earned a law degree from Boston University in 1959. The following year, she worked on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and helped manage a get-out-the-vote program that served African-American communities in Houston. She ran for Texas Senate in 1966 after losing two bids for the Texas House in 1962 and 1964. As Texas senator, she became the first African-American state senator in the country since 1883. She became president pro tempore of the Texas Senate in 1972, and served as governor for the day that year. She also ran for and was elected into Congress, serving three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. That made her the first African American woman from a Southern state to serve in the U.S. House. She also gave a keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 1976, and delivered striking opening remarks in President Richard Nixon’s impeachment trial in 1974 as a member of the Judiciary Committee. “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total,” Jordan said in the remarks, according to U.S. House archives. “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” She retired from Congress in 1976.
Representative Barbara Jordan tells a House Judiciary subcommittee that she favors extension of the ratification period for the proposed Equal Rights Amendment in this 1978 image. (Bettmann / Contributor via Getty)
  • Ann Richards (1933-2006): A former school teacher, Richards was a trailblazer in Texas politics, with her iconic white hair and wit. The Baylor University graduate was the first woman elected as a Travis County commissioner in 1976, defeating a three-term incumbent after Richards’ husband, David, declined to enter that race. She was elected state treasurer in 1982, becoming the first woman to hold that office and the first woman since Miriam “Ma” Ferguson to hold a statewide office in 50 years, according to TSHA. Her keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention thrust her into the national spotlight, and she successfully ran for governor in 1990, defeating the Republican nominee Clayton Williams to become the second female governor of Texas. During her time as governor, the Texas Lottery was instituted and a substance abuse program for inmates was established. She was defeated by George W. Bush during her bid for re-election in 1994. She is also a recipient of the Texas NAACP Presidential Award for Outstanding Contributions to Civil Rights. The Texas Monthly in 1990 wrote that people gravitated toward Ann Richards. “Ann, pretty and sharp-tongued, became their star. She could cuss and laugh as loud as any man, and she could argue civil rights as well as she could make tamales,” author Mimi Swartz wrote. The Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation will honor Richards this month with series of 96 “Ann Banners” along Congress Avenue.
Texas Governor Ann Richards dove-hunting. (Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images) (©Bob Daemmrich)
  • Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (1875–1961): Ferguson became the first female governor of Texas and the second female governor in the U.S. after she defeated, George C. Butte, a Republican and a former dean of the University of Texas law school, in November 1924. She entered the race when her husband, James, who served as Texas governor from 1915-1917, wasn’t able to get his name on the ballot, as he had been impeached during his second term, according to TSHA. Her platforms included opposing the Ku Klux Klan and Prohibition, according to Baylor University. Controversies, including a slight increase in state expenditures, surrounded her first term and she was defeated in her run for re-election in 1926. She campaigned again for Texas governor in 1932 and defeated the Republican nominee, Orville Bullington, that November. She temporarily retired from politics soon after.
Ma Ferguson was the first female Governor of Texas and the second female Governor elected in the United States. James "Pa" Ferguson was the Governor of Texas from 1915 to 1917, when he was impeached and convicted on several charges. The ruling declared that he could no longer hold office in Texas, but he ran the campaigns of his wife, Miriam "Ma" Ferguson. Ma Ferguson was elected twice as Texas governor. (Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images)
  • Selena (1971-1995): Twenty-six years after her death, Selena fans are still raving about the Queen of Tejano Music. Her legacy as a musician was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards. Her father, Abraham Quintanilla, told People magazine that she would have been honored to receive the reward that “represents all the hard work and more importantly, represents our Latin culture.” Selena was the first female Tejano artist to win a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album for “Live” (1994), according to the Grammy’s. She was killed by her assistant as she was becoming a music and fashion icon. Her crossover album “Dreaming of You” was released posthumously in 1995. To see more about her life and legacy, check out the KSAT special “Siempre Selena.”
Selena attends the 36th Annual Grammy Awards held at Radio City Music Hall circa 1994 in New York City. (Photo by Mitchell Gerber/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images) (Corbis Entertainment via Getty Images)
  • Emma Tenayuca (1916-1999): San Antonio native Tenayuca began her activism as a teen when she was inspired to join women who were striking against the H.W. Finck Cigar Company in 1933. “Her subsequent arrest and the mistreatment of workers she witnessed at the hands of local law enforcement strengthened her resolve to work in the labor movement,” the TSHA wrote. The complacency she perceived on the part of the Catholic Church during the strike also deeply affected her faith.” She graduated from Brackenridge High School in 1934 and gained notoriety in movements to protest economic and labor issues regarding the Mexican community and women. At 21 years old, she became the leader of a strike among pecan shellers when plant owners cut wages, which already averaged $1 a week, according to the Smithsonian. About 12,000 employees walked out of the plant, and Tenayuca led their efforts by organizing pickets, handing out flyers and feeding workers who were on strike. The Smithsonian said police arrested more than 1,000 workers during the three-month strike, often using tear gas and billy clubs to threaten them. The Texas Industrial Commission eventually investigated the grievances, and employees were eventually paid the minimum wage. She married Homer Brooks, the chairman of the Communist Party of Texas, in 1937, and later became chair of the Communist Party of Texas in 1939. In 1991, she was inducted into the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame. On this Women’s History Month, the Smithsonian honored Tenayuca in its “Because of Her Story” series.
This image from the San Antonio Light shows Emma Tenayuca in Bexar County Jail in 1937. According the Light, she was accused of unlawful assembly and disturbing peace. (UTSA Special Collections San Antonio Light collection)
  • Becky Hammon: The NBA coach and former WNBA star has been an honorary Texan since 2007, when she began playing for the San Antonio Silver Stars. Her tenacity impressed San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, and she became an assistant coach with the Spurs in 2014, making her the first paid female assistant on an NBA coaching staff. She was promoted to the front of the coaching bench in 2018, and became the first woman to direct an NBA team in December, after Popovich was ejected during a game. “Obviously, it’s a big deal,” Hammon said after the game, according to ESPN. “It’s a substantial moment. I’ve been a part of this organization, I got traded here in 2007, so I’ve been in San Antonio and part of the Spurs and sports organization with the Stars and everything for 13 years.”
San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon breaks from a huddle during a timeout in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers in San Antonio, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. Hammon became the first woman to direct an NBA team, taking over the Spurs after coach Gregg Popovich was ejected in a 121-107 loss to the Lakers. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
  • Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956): Born in Port Arthur, Zaharias was a star athlete in multiple sports. She won two gold medals for the javelin throw and the 80-meter hurdle at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. According to the National Women’s History Museum, she trained by jumping over hedges in her neighborhood. She also won 82 tournaments in golf and co-founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association with golfer Patty Berg. She was voted the Greatest Female Athlete of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press in 1950. According to Texas Monthly, she also excelled in baseball, volleyball, tennis and other sports. She was called “Babe” for hitting so many home runs as a youth, Texas Monthly reported. The NWHM stated she was diagnosed with cancer in 1953, had surgery and played in a golf tournament three months later.
Legendary American athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1911 - 1956) stands in a sand trap on the sixth hole of a golf field and swings out as a crowd of spectators watch by during the first round of finals of the 1946 US Women's Amateur Golf Championship at Southern Hills Country Club, Tulsa, Oklahoma, September 29, 1946. The champion golfer and former track and field Olympic medalist not only won the match but the entire championship. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (2005 Getty Images)
  • Clara Driscoll (1881–1945): Driscoll made her legacy by remembering the Alamo. She saved the Alamo’s old convent, otherwise known as the long barracks, from the hands of developers, who planned on making a profit on the property by possibly turning it into a hotel. According to TSHA, the state of Texas owned the Alamo shrine, but local merchants owned the long barracks and put signs and billboards on it. She worked with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas to preserve the structure and personally paid for most of the structure to acquire it in 1905. The state repaid her, and gave the Alamo and the long barracks to the DRT. Her work to preserve the property made her known as the “Savior of the Alamo,” and a plaque at the Alamo recognizes her efforts. Upon her death, she left part of her fortune to establish the Driscoll Foundation Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi.
An undated image of Clara Driscoll giving a speech in San Antonio. (UTSA Special Collections San Antonio Light collection)
  • Adina Emilia De Zavala (1861–1955): Also a preservationist, De Zavala helped block the razing of the Alamo’s long barracks. Before she was affiliated with the DRT, she belonged to a group of preservationists who “organized for patriotic purposes in the state,” the TSHA states. She secured a verbal promise from Hugo and Schmeltzer Company, a wholesale grocery firm, who bought the long barracks in 1886 to give the group a chance a buying the property. Driscoll joined the society and the DRT in 1903 and bought the Alamo the following year. In 1912, De Zavala organized the Texas Historical and Landmarks Association.
  • Sheryl Swoopes: Born in Brownfield, Swoopes was raised by a single mother and grew up in an underprivileged home, according to Texas Monthly. She played basketball at Texas Tech University and helped lead them to their first National Collegiate Athletic Association championship in 1993. Texas Tech retired her jersey in 1994, the same year she was named to the USA Basketball Women’s National Team. She also joined the USA Olympic Team and won the gold medal in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, according to the WNBA. That year, she became the first player to be signed to the WNBA, which had its first season in 1997. She joined the Houston Comets and helped them win that year’s NBA title. She also helped with two other Olympic gold medals in 2000 and 2004. ESPN reported that she was also the first woman to have a signature athletic shoe — the Nike Air Swoopes. In 2016, she was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
FILE - Sheryl Swoops of the USA dribbles the ball down the court during a game against China at the Palestra in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The USA won the game 85-52. (Image: Doug Pensinger /Allsport) (Getty Images Sport)
  • Molly Ivins (1944–2007): Ivins, who grew up in Houston, was fierce in her reporting and writing on politics, government and social issues. She wrote for the Houston Chronicle and Minneapolis Tribune before working at the Texas Observer. She later wrote for the New York Times, Dallas Times Herald and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The 6-foot-tall Ivins, who even called President George W. Bush “Shrub,” raised hell. She told NPR that she would have drinks with politicians to fish out information that no others could. “I have drunk enough beer to float the battleship Texas in pursuit of political stories,” she told NPR. Her columns were syndicated nationally, and she also wrote articles for magazines and books, including one titled “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” And according to the Briscoe Center for American History, Ann Richards called Ivins “a Texas treasure.”
Portrait of American journalist Molly Ivins (1944 - 2007) in 1996. (Photo by John Pineda/Getty Images) (2007 Getty Images)
  • Mary Kay Ash (1918-2001): “Mary Kay Ash was ahead of her time, all the time,” is the first line in Ash’s biography on the Mary Kay website. It goes on to say how she changed the business world for women who wished to be in control of their own future, both personally and in the entrepreneurial world. With $5,000, she started her business Beauty by Mary Kay that brought a new approach to skincare. The company grew over the years and gained national attention in 1979 when she was profiled by “60 Minutes.” She was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986.
  • Bessie Coleman (1892-1926): Born in Atlanta, Texas, Coleman was the daughter of an African-American maid and a sharecropper of both Native American and African American descent. She became a pilot after her brother, who fought overseas in World War I, teased her that “French women were allowed to learn how to fly airplanes and Bessie could not,” according to the National Women’s History Museum. “She applied to many flight schools across the country, but no school would take her because she was both African American and a woman,” the museum states. After learning the French language, she applied to flight schools in France and was accepted into the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. The museum states that she earned her international pilot’s license in 1921. That made her the first Black and Native American female pilot. Before she was a pilot, she was a manicurist in Chicago. She died during a test flight, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett performed at her service.
A photo of Bessie Coleman circa 1920. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Read also:


About the Author: