On Tuesday night, a packed house gathered at the Moody Theater for the best attended KLRU Spark at the Moody speaker series so far. This event was titled Can Women Change Politics? The Life and Politics of Ann Richards and as speakers featured actress Holland Taylor, who wrote and starred in a one-woman show depicting Governor Richards’ life; political writer Wayne Slater, who covered Governor Richards’ campaign, administration and subsequent years; and documentarian Paul Steckler, who moderated the event.
While I understand that each speaker event in the Spark series has a question for a title (the final installment on April 24 is How Do You Get to Sesame Street? Education in America), I think this wasn’t quite the right question, not to mention a question we’re a little disappointed is still being asked. Women have been proving for years that they can change politics, and women from as conservative a state as Texas no less, like Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, former Texas comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, current comptroller Susan Combs, landmark Roe V. Wade attorney Sarah Weddington and, of course, the late great Barbara Jordan. And Ann Richards definitely proved it. So perhaps a better question for a title might have been “Wasn’t Ann Richards Awesome?” Because she totally was.
For someone who served only one term as governor, Ann Richards still looms larger than life nearly six years after her death and two decades after her tenure in the governor’s mansion. Compare that to Governor Rick Perry’s 12-year-long gubernatorial monopoly, and it’s pretty impressive that she cast a shadow that long with only a third of the time in office. While Richards wasn’t the first female governor of the Lone Star State (that glass ceiling was shattered by Ma Ferguson back in the 1920s), she was the first of the modern era and the last great Democrat to rouse such magnitudes of statewide support before our state turned unflinchingly red.
Over the course of 90 minutes, beginning with a talk among the speakers and ending with a Q&A, Taylor, Slater and Steckler created a vivid, loving portrait of Richards as both a woman and a leader.
Taylor had only met Richards once during her life, but she was so affected by her death that she wanted to share the former Texas governor with the rest of the country with her one-woman play.
“I was heartbroken when she died,” she said. “I was sad for America.”
“She expressed democratic values by acting not for the most of us, but for the least of us,” Slater said, while recounting stories of time spent with her while covering her administration and campaign. One story he told involved the beginning of her campaign for governor, during which reporters asked her how she was going to get fundraising as a woman, and she replied, “We’ll have shoe sales.”
As Steckler boiled it down, “No matter what she did or didn’t do, she left a legacy by appointing 3,000 women, people of different races and people of different sexualities to posts around the state. She changed the face of who governed Texas. That’s the best legacy anyone could have.”
I think this is a pretty good legacy, too.