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Extraordinary Texas Women - Judy Alter

Judy Alter, Extraordinary Texas Women

(Fort Worth: TCU Press, 2008. Pp. 96, $8.95.)  

“Texas just may be the state in the Union with the strongest masculine image.  Our heroes, from cowboys to the Alamo to Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston, have always been men.  But Texas has had some important women, and the state has been good about recognizing some of them, less responsive about others.”  So contends Judy Alter at the beginning of her superb little overview of influential Lone Star women.  

 A prolific author who served for over twenty years as Director of the TCU Press, Alter divides her book into ten sections:  Introduction, An Early Settler, Women of the Texas Revolution, An Indian Captive, Ranch Women, The Alamo Again, Authors, In the Public Eye, Culinary Entrepreneurs, and Politics on the Distaff Side.  She also includes a Books to Explore section at the end.  Alter succinctly discusses more than twenty-five Texas women, including Jane Long, Cynthia Ann Parker, Henrietta King, Katherine Ann Porter, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Miriam Ferguson, Barbara Jordan, and Ladybird Johnson.  She calls her book “a sampling, an introduction to Texas women, an invitation to explore more deeply.”   

While all of Alter’s women have compelling stories, three are particularly fascinating:  a pioneering businesswoman, a controversial novelist, and a crusading journalist.  Fort Worth entrepreneur Ninnie Baird (1869-1961), who began baking and selling bread to support her children and ill husband, eventually built “the largest independent bakery operation” in the nation:  Mrs. Baird’s Bakeries.  Cowtown denizens undoubtedly recall the “landmark” plant at Summit and Lancaster, which “treated everyone in the area to the delicious aroma of fresh-baked bread.”  (The business, however, is no longer in the family.  A Mexico-based company purchased Mrs. Baird’s in 1998.)  Texans remember Dorothy Scarborough (1878-1935) as the author of the disturbing novel, The Wind, published anonymously in 1925.  Set in Sweetwater, the book “dramatizes the toll that wind and drought can take on a fragile woman,” driving her to murder and suicide.  Alter asserts that The Wind enraged Texans, who believed “that a northerner had written this negative book about conditions in Texas, at a time when Texans prided themselves on the mystique of their state.”  Despite its provocative material, it remains “a Texas classic.”  Alter also covers the colorful career of Molly Ivins (1944-2007), the legendary liberal columnist and activist, who was lionized by some Texans and loathed by others.  In one of her final columns before her premature death from cancer, Ivins encouraged her readers to “keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it.  Lord, let your laughter ring forth.  Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce.  And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”   

Extraordinary Texas Women belongs to the Texas Small Books Series, diminutive texts of approximately 100 pages each, published by TCU Press.  Other titles in this commendable collection include Don Graham’s State Fare:  An Irreverent Guide to Texas Movies, Carlton Stowers’s Texas Football Legends:  Greats of the Game, and Texas Country Singers by Phil Fry and Jim Lee.  Texas history enthusiasts and educators who teach about the state’s past will treasure these pocket-sized studies, which are brief, lucidly written, entertaining, and informative. 

Review by Dr. Kirk Bane

Blinn College, History