Chapter 1: A Dollar a Year

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.


Excerpt from That Woman: The Making of a Texas Feminist (Texas A&M University Press) by Nikki Van Hightower; copyright 2020 by Nikki Van Hightower; used with permission.



Chapter 1

A Dollar a Year


In May 1976, I landed what was for me the perfect job: I was appointed to the position of Women’s Advocate for the City of Houston by Mayor Fred Hofheinz. It was the only such position in the country.


Ten months later, I was attending an afternoon meeting at city hall when, to the surprise of all of us, a group of media representatives walked in loaded with cameras and notepads. With eyes focused on me and cameras rolling, someone asked if I were aware that the members of the city council had just reduced my salary from $18,000 to $1 per year. Tension filled the room as everyone waited for my response. Baffled, I asked them to repeat what they had just said. It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard them; I didn’t understand what was happening and needed an extra minute to pull my thoughts together. Something vague spilled out of my mouth like, “Well, this is news to me, I’d better see what’s going on.” I stood up, excused myself, and headed to the mayor’s office.


The mayor was also in a meeting, so I planted myself in his waiting room, intending to stay there as long as it took to talk to him. What I had just learned was seriously disturbing. I had been involved in the women’s rights movement for several years, beginning in 1972 as a member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in Long Island, New York. I had a passionate commitment to feminism, and, after being lucky enough to find a position where I believed I could really make a difference, it seemed now to be slipping away. I wasn’t sure if I had any support or if I would simply be ushered out with my final paycheck of $1.


I knew what the reduction to $1 per year meant. In a dramatic move, the council members were expressing what they thought not only of my role as the Women’s Advocate but also of the women’s rights movement as a whole. When I had accepted the position, one of the all-male city council members had been quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying that “the Advocate was not necessary. . . a waste of taxpayers’ money.” The complainer was probably thinking of city taxes, though funding for the office of Women’s Advocate came from the federal government.


What I felt as I sat there waiting for the mayor was not merely anxiety from the loss of a salary and, presumably, a job that I cared deeply about, as well as the resulting humiliation. It was more than that. No woman had ever been elected to any office in Houston’s city government, and the Women’s Advocate position had been created by the mayor in response to pressure by activists who wanted better representation for women’s needs. I took that very seriously. Long before I knew anything about feminism or the feminist movement, I recognized that women were shortchanged in multiple ways, and I had built up a lot of anger over the years of being a woman in this male-dominated society. Until I became part of the women’s rights movement, I didn’t think there was anything that could be done about it. Now I was wondering if I had been correct in my earlier assessment.


After what felt like forever, the mayor finally returned. He didn’t seem surprised to see me. After the miserably long wait, I was immediately put at ease by his explanation of the situation. Supposedly, the council was reacting to a keynote speech I had given at a rally in support of the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and a woman’s right to have an abortion. The week following the rally, several citizens complained that it was inappropriate for me to take a public position in support of those issues. The council immediately decided to reduce my salary to $1 per year. The mayor vehemently opposed the move.


He assured me that he supported me in the job I was doing. The elected city controller, Leonel Castillo, who had been ordered by the city council to make the change in my salary, refused to do so.


Furthermore, the city’s legal department had issued a statement informing the council that they did not have the authority to make any changes in my salary. Mayor Hofheinz encouraged me to carry on the work I was doing, reassuring me that my salary would not be reduced.


Media coverage of this confrontation quickly spread throughout the country. The coverage was generally of a humorous nature with the brunt of it targeted at the city council members. What happened to me that day in Houston was but one in a very long list of injustices to women, but it served as a reminder of the struggles of the many women who came before me.


For women, the early history of this country was one of second-class citizenship. Largely restricted to home and family, women were denied property rights, the right to keep any wages they earned, to sign contracts, and, of course, the right to vote. The earliest efforts for change addressed a broad spectrum of issues, such as the ones just mentioned.


In 1848, the first real convention for women’s rights, organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was held at Seneca Falls, New York. More than 250 women and about forty men attended. At the time of Seneca Falls, women were not mentioned in the US Constitution. At the convention, women claimed the right to vote and own property, and demanded that they be given opportunities for better education and other personal and public rights. It has often been said by those who study women’s history that marriage for women at the time was comparable to “civil death.” When a woman married, all rights and property shifted to her husband. The dominant thinking was that when a couple married, they became one. For all intents and purposes, that one was the husband.


The Seneca Falls Convention concluded with sixty-eight women and thirty-two men signing a Declaration of Sentiments, patterned after the US Declaration of Independence:


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.


As it turned out, the convention became known primarily for the demand for suffrage, and, ironically, the most conflict was generated by the resolution for suffrage rights.


Following the Civil War, in 1868 and 1870 respectively, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were ratified, giving civil rights (Fourteenth) and the right to vote (Fifteenth) to all male citizens. Women had hoped to be included in this broad extension of rights but were instead explicitly excluded by the use of the word “male” in the Fourteenth Amendment—the first time the Constitution had specifically referred to gender. It was a crushing setback for the women’s movement activists and women in general.


Seventy-two years after the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention—seventy-two years of intense struggle and sacrifice on the part of the suffragists—the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified. It was a long and exhausting battle, and even though they won the right to vote, women continued to be denied full protection under the Constitution. One of the significant leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, Carrie Chapman Catt, warned at the 1920 victory convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), “If you stay there long enough and are active enough, you will see something else—the real thing in the center, with the door locked tight, and you will have a long hard fight before you get behind that door, for there is the engine that moves the wheels of your party machinery. Nevertheless, it will be an interesting and thrilling struggle and well worthwhile. If you really want women’s vote to count, make your way there.”


While serving as president of the NWSA and following up on her concern of post-suffrage activism, Catt founded the League of Women Voters in 1920. Her belief was that the league would educate women about voting and politics and thereby transform American political life for the good.


Regretfully, Catt’s utopian vision of women’s suffrage seemed to apply only to white women. Catt, along with other white suffragists, left a stain on the movement by using racism to appeal to Southern states to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. She is noted in the New York Times archives for a well-known quote: “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened by women’s suffrage.”


In the 1960s, about forty years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, new generations of women once again began to organize. Over the course of those years, women had become better educated; they had entered the workforce in large numbers, especially during and after World War II; and they had continued to engage in public life. Taking aim at a wide range of issues, the movement focused on equal employment and educational opportunities, family relationships, reproductive rights including abortion, credit rights, and violence against women.


Key books that helped shape and inspire the movement included Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique. Under pressure from women’s groups, President Kennedy established the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. Other major influences on the movement included development of the oral contraceptive pill, which helped women control their reproductivity, and the formation of a powerful organization, the National Organization for Women, in 1966.


Many women were introduced to the movement by “consciousness-raising,” a concept described by Anne Forer Pyne in the mid-1970s. Small groups of women would get together and share their personal experiences of discrimination, injustice, and unfairness. “As women shared their firsthand accounts of slights and injustices they had endured—at work, at home and in the bedroom—they found patterns, and solidarity. Experiences that they assumed had been theirs alone turned out to be collective, and swapping stories became one of the foundational tools of the Second Wave feminist movement.”


In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was first introduced in 1923 by famed suffragist Alice Paul, was finally passed by the US Congress. The twenty-four plain words of the Equal Rights Amendment are as follows:


Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of the article.

Section 3. This Amendment shall take effect two years after ratification.


Amending the US Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress, followed by ratification of three-fourths (or thirty-eight) of the state legislatures. The state ratification process won the support of only thirty-five states, falling three votes short. The amendment would have made women explicitly equal under the Constitution, with the word “women” inserted for the first time. Not having it there leaves little constitutional protection when either states or the federal government choose to ignore the rights of women. Many of the worst violations to women’s rights have been corrected by an array of federal legislation, but when I was the Women’s Advocate in Houston in the 1970s, many loopholes in the laws protecting women’s rights remained, particularly in state laws.


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the following statement about her support of the Equal Rights Amendment at a 2014 talk at the National Press Club:


If I could choose an Amendment to add to the Constitution, it would be the Equal Rights Amendment . . . I think we have achieved that through legislation, but legislation can be repealed, it can be altered. So I would like my granddaughters, when they pick up the Constitution, to see that notion—that women and men are persons of equal stature—I’d like them to see that this is the basic principle of our society.


Since the deadline for ratification was 1982, it was assumed that the Equal Rights Amendment was dead. Surprisingly, there are still signs of life. Nevada approved the amendment in 2017 and Illinois in 2018. Great hope was put on Virginia, where polls show there is overwhelming support among voters, to be the thirty-eighth state to ratify, but the ratification measure died by one vote in a committee in the House of Delegates. The house tried to force it out of committee, but the vote was 50–50, and to do so would have required fifty-one votes. As Garrett Epps reported in the Atlantic, even if it had passed, finally providing the necessary thirty-eight states for ratification, passage would still have to overcome numerous anticipated court battles over the matter of the 1982 ratification deadline and also the legitimacy of four states rescinding their ratifications. The legal battle will be a tough one. As they say, “Where there is life, there is hope.”


Excerpt from That Woman: The Making of a Texas Feminist (Texas A&M University Press) by Nikki Van Hightower; copyright 2020 by Nikki Van Hightower; used with permission.


Nikki R. Van Hightower is a founder and former executive director of the Houston Area Women’s Center. She has taught at the University of Houston, Lee College, and the Texas A&M University School of Rural Public Health. Van Hightower retired as senior lecturer in political science at Texas A&M University, where she helped establish the women’s studies program. She lives in College Station, Texas.