by Anne Marie Turner
Calling Ruthe Winegarten for an
interview made me nervous.
Listening to Ruthe talk about her life is an entertaining and educational walk through Texas history. She tells stories that make people lean-in close to listen while a rich and detailed picture comes to life. A good example that history empowers people, especially as they strive for the democratic ideal of equality, Ruthe is passionate about people, believing "we should be all-inclusive in our democratic institutions," and she lives her life with a commitment to that philosophy.
Sparked by an influential high school civics teacher, Winegarten whetted an early interest in politics by working on Homer Price Rainey's Democratic gubernatorial campaign. That 1940's election was a contentious race, pitting Rainey who lost his job as University of Texas President due to a stand against the UT regents over personnel and censorship issues against Beuford Jester. Winegarten chuckles, remembering one of Rainey's slogans, "Oil is king, and every king will have his Jester."
Soon after and before the US Supreme Court declared poll taxes unconstitutional Winegarten served as a poll tax collector. She remembers sitting at supermarket entrances encouraging people to vote, and collecting the then-large sum of $1.75 required to vote.
Then it was on to a volunteer position with the League of Women Voters, and working on a campaign to bring roads, water, sewers and other city services to the neglected area of West Dallas. Winegarten also devoted time and energy to helping end segregation.
A growing family occupied a good portion of this time as well, then after her youngest child started school, Ruthe herself returned to school to earn a Masters in Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington. "It was like having two full time jobs: graduate student and home manager," Ruth recalls. "I was in the first graduate class in Social Work at UT Arlington, and commuted from North Dallas everyday. There were three other women, married with kids. Everyone called us 'The Intense Ladies from North Dallas.'"
Winegarten went on to serve as the Director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Welfare Federation of Dallas (now the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas), and later as the Director of the Dallas Area Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
Ruthe and former Texas Governor Ann Richards became friends through the North Dallas Democratic Women's Club early in both of their careers. After both women moved to Austin, Richards served as Board President of the Foundation for Women's Resources a national non-profit educational organization dedicated to improving the personal, economic and professional status of women and girls. Ruthe recalls her friend's quest to gain support and funding for a Texas Women's History Project after Richards' young daughter asked where the women were in the exhibits at the Institute of Texan Cultures. As the project coalesced, Ruthe joined the group as Research Director and Curator.
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Winegarten and other staff members spent two years researching the project. They sent questionnaires to anyone who might have available and applicable information local historians, authors, teachers and the Texas State Historical Association. Several people told them that they could not do justice to Texas women's history as a whole, to pick one time period on which to concentrate.
Ignoring experts, they created a 300-page bibliography with Ruthe typing the whole thing on a standard typewriter. The book gave structure and provided a launching pad for "Texas Women, A Celebration of History" an exhibit including photos, artifacts, and written material which toured the state in the early 1980's. "We made the exhibits as provocative as possible," says Winegarten. The exhibit is now on permanent display at Texas Women's University in Denton, Texas.
Winegarten has written and co-authored numerous books detailing the stories of Texas. Among her credits are Deep in the Heart: The Lives and Legends of Texas Jews and I Am Annie Mae: An Extraordinary Black Texas Woman in Her Own Words. Her books, Black Texas Women: 150 Years of Trials and Triumph and Capitol Women: Texas Female Legislators 1923-1999 (with Nancy Baker Jones), both won the Texas State Historical Association's Liz Carpenter Award for Research in the History of Women (1996 and 2001 respectively). She is now working on a book, Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History, with Teresa Palomo Acosta. Due out March 2003, Las Tejanas will be a major reference book as well as a readable history.
The book Mum's the Word, a tribute to Ruthe and written by her daughter Debra Winegarten is a testament to the elder Winegarten's rich commitment to Texas and her long life of making friends and influencing people.
Looking back, and to the future, Winegarten says, "I've had such a good time. I never felt it was work. It's important for people to follow their bliss if they can. Some people have other obligations, but they should get as close as they can. They'll be healthier and happier."
Here's a little more from Ruthe Winegarten:
You are face to face with your ten-year-old self. You have one thing to say to her about her future, what do you say?
Get a good education and a profession.
What is the biggest contradiction you see mothers are faced with today?
To hold down jobs and meet the needs of families, it's really hard - especially when many men are still not doing enough. Every woman is trying to solve their own problem. Daycare is a bi-partisan issue. Why can't women people get around this issue [to solve it]? It is a puzzlement to me. It hurts society in the long run.
What do you see as your biggest challenge in being the kind of person you want to be?
At this point, health . . . working with less energy, things are more difficult.
What makes you most happy about what you give back to the world?
Putting my books out there. People have enjoyed them.
What two notable people would you like to see handcuffed together for a day?
Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Schafly.
What do you wish you could automatically grant, like a fairy godmother, to mothers during trying times?
Loving grandparents and other people in their children's lives to offer surrogate support.
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