Texas is home to a long line of strong, independent women who blazed trails in every area – from ranching and education to the arts and aviation. Names such as Lady Bird Johnson, Ann Richards, and Barbara Jordan are widely recognized across the country for their tremendous accomplishments. March 2010 marked 30th anniversary of National Women’s History Month, which celebrates the many historic achievements of women. While the list of iconic Texas women is long and diverse, this month is a fitting opportunity to recognize a handful of these women who have created opportunities for women across Texas for generations to come.
Considered one of Texas’ founding mothers, Rosa Maria Hinojosa de Balli, born in 1752, was a famous rancher known as Texas’ first cattle queen. After inheriting 55,000 acres in present-day Harlingen, she proved a keen businesswoman, continually making strategic investments in new land, acquiring large herds of livestock, and managing her holdings from her headquarters at La Feria ranch. By the time of her passing, Balli had amassed more than one million acres of ranch land located in present-day Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy, Starr and Kenedy counties. Nick-named "La Patrona," Balli is considered one of the most influential Texas women of her time.
Also famous for her business savvy, Sarah Horton Cockrell built the first iron bridge over the Trinity River in Dallas in 1872. After her husband passed in 1858, Cockrell, a mother of five, started from the ground up, first paying back her husband’s debts and eventually beginning to acquire property in what is now Dallas’ central business district. Cockrell built Dallas’ first three-story hotel, led construction on the first iron suspension bridge across the Trinity River, and bought, sold and leased commercial and residential properties from Dallas to Houston to Mineral Wells and Cleburne. In 1892, the year of her death, Cockrell owned nearly one-fourth of downtown Dallas. It is said that her holdings were so extensive, her will had to be published in pamphlet form.
Minnie Fisher Cunningham of Galveston was an accomplished leader on behalf of women’s rights. One of the first females in Texas to earn a degree in pharmacy, she graduated from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in 1901. After working for a year as a pharmacist in Huntsville, Cunningham grew frustrated with the disparity in pay for women and said it "made a suffragette out of me." Cunningham went on to become president of the Galveston Equal Suffrage Association and began touring the state on behalf of the suffrage cause. In 1919, she helped to form the National League of Women Voters and served as its executive secretary. Eleanor Roosevelt would later say that Cunningham made her feel "that you had no right to be a slacker as a citizen, you had no right not to take an active part in what was happening to your country as a whole."
The first black woman to vote in Dallas County, Juanita Shanks Craft fought tirelessly to eliminate racial discrimination in Texas. The granddaughter of slaves, Craft began her civil rights activism in 1935, when she joined the NAACP’s Dallas branch. She was later appointed membership chairman and eventually, field organizer. All told, Craft, along with Lulu Belle White of Houston, worked to establish 182 NAACP branches across Texas over an 11-year timeframe. Craft led the effort to desegregate the State Fair of Texas and also open up both the University of North Texas and North Texas State College to black students. Craft was recognized with several awards and honors during her 50 years of public service, including the Linz Award, Dallas’ highest civic award, and the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award for public service. Craft was invited to the White House on several occasions by presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter. Carter later called Craft "a living treasure."
While just a sampling of Texas’ most influential female figures, these individuals made great strides that have opened doors and opportunities for countless women who followed them. As we celebrate National Women’s History Month, I hope we can each take the time to celebrate the historic contributions of Texas women and also honor the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters who have played an important role in shaping shaping our own lives. Sources: Womenintexashistory.org; Texas State Historical Association.