Monday, March 22, 2010

Losing Liz

Friday I was among several women who were honored as a "Veteran Feminist of Texas" by the VFA of America at the Women's Museum in Dallas.

While there, I treated myself to a red T-shirt with one of my favorite sayings. It is a quote from the writer Laurel Thatcher Ulrich -- "Well behaved women rarely make history."

I was literally holding that shirt on Saturday when my husband walked in and said, 'Liz Carpenter died."

I hugged the shirt to my chest and cried. And then I had to laugh, thinking of Barbara Jordan, Molly Ivins and Ann Richards greeting Liz with big hugs and cries of "Well, I guess they'll let just anyone in here!"

Heaven is a lot more fun this week than it was last week. But what a loss for us all.

Liz Carpenter was the incarnation of Ulrich's saying. Killer smart, bawdy, irreverent, kind-hearted, generous and feminist to the core of her being, Liz Carpenter never DID behave the way society thought "good girls" are supposed to behave. And she taught at least two generations of Texas women how to do the same.

One of the prime evenings of my life was when a group of us from Leadership Texas found ourselves sitting around at Liz' house with Barbara Jordan, Ann Richards and other amazing Texas women. I remember thinking, "Thank you, God, for letting me live to be in this room."

I laughed so much that night my stomach muscles were sore for days afterward. Barbara Jordan taught us all how to sing Gospel songs right and Ann and Liz tried to top one another with one-liners. We were almost too weak to walk when it came time to leave -- a common affliction of anyone who spent much time around Liz and Ann.

Liz' most common greeting upon meeting new people was not "Hello," it was, "Do you support the ERA?"

She was never afraid of that second "F" word -- "feminist" -- and it grieved and puzzled her that so many younger women are so comfortable using the first "F" word and so uncomfortable naming themselves as feminists.

Her battles for women's rights began as a young reporter trying to get equal access with male reporters to the halls of power. She credited Eleanor Roosevelt with breaking down barriers for women reporters, because Roosevelt would allow only women to come to her press conferences, forcing many newspapers to scramble to hire women.

Another Texas politician -- and a friend of Liz Carpenter - did the same thing for women reporters of my generation. When Sissy Farenthold ran for governor of Texas in 1972 [she ran again in 1974], she was largely ignored by the Texas press. The only reporters who covered her at all were women working in "women's sections," having been denied jobs in the main newsrooms of the large Texas dailies.

Then suddenly it looked liked Farenthold might actually win the Democratic Primary, which in those days meant she would win the General Election. The newspapers sprang into action, trying to get interviews with her. She would agree, but only if they sent one of the woman reporters who had already been covering her. I was one of those reporters.

Her support meant women reporters all over Texas were found suddenly to be capable of doing "real" reporting by their editors. Dozens of us were finally allowed to do political reporting, a job formerly reserved for male reporters as it was thought to be too tough and rough for a woman to cover.

Sissy's act of solidarity was cheered on lustily by Liz, who was constantly exhorting us to keep a toe stuck in the doors we had pried open so women coming after us would have an easier way in.

It is that sense of sisterly solidarity that Liz worried younger women are losing. She worried that if they don't understand how hard fought were the battles to get them into the rooms of power, how could they be expected to stay vigilant on behalf of other women? She worried that our daughters would have to fight all the same battles again and again.

Liz understood power. Hell, she worked with LBJ, the politician who understood power better than anyone -- and Liz would regularly face LBJ down in arguments. She would go head to head with him, giving as good as she got. He adored her.

Liz understood that power is a neutral thing that can be used for good or for ill. She understood that reserving power into the hands of less than half the population is not healthy for any people or nation. She knew that any nation that refuses to use the resources that reside in its women and girls will never thrive.

Liz understood the interlocking nature of oppressions -- we can't fight sexism without fighting racism, and we can't fight heterosexism without fighting sexism and racism.

In her early 70s she took on the raising of the three youngest children of her brother Tom Sutherland, who had died of cancer. When the mother of the children, who ranged from 11 to 16, and their older siblings were unable to look after them, Liz took charge.

Her 1994 book “Unplanned Parenthood: The Confessions of a Seventy-something Surrogate Mother,” is a hilarious and deeply touching account of that time in her life. But the things she learned from those teenagers honed her insights and kept her keenly attuned to changes in our our culture.

Liz never "retired." She was engaged down to her toes every minute of her life.

I know we are supposed to say, "rest in peace," but I think that would bore Liz to tears. So I'll just say, "Give them all my love when you see them."

I am going to miss her for a long long time.


judyalter said...

Nice, nice tribute to a wonderful woman, Katie.

Unknown said...

This is a great tribute, Katie--and also a good story. I think that Liz and all the other women in the room with you that night would love it! Maybe they're rejoicing over it together this very minute and basking in your love.

Liz's brother, Tom Sutherland, used to teach in the English Department at UTA when I was there. He told me once that he had seen me walking through the Highland hills of Scotland. And, who knows, maybe he did, since I am in fact part Highland Scot. Anyway, he was a smart and kind man, and I was extremely pleased and comforted that Liz took over care of his three children after he passed away--when she was in her seventies, no less! Maybe she is with him too now, giving her love to him along with all the other Veteran Feminists there--both women and men. Shows again how incredibly strong and kind she was.

She deserved this tribute, as did the other women. I'm glad you wrote it!