A Texas Trailblazer

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By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas, became a political celebrity with her silver tongue and silver hair. But her legacy goes beyond the memorable partisan phrase. Richards, who died last month at age 73, was a pioneer in two social revolutions: the women's movement that redefined women's place in society and the Age Boom that is transforming what it means to grow old.

Coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s, Richards belonged to the original wave of First and Only Women (FOWs), who defied female stereotypes and broke down the doors of the old-boy establishment. "A woman's place is in the dome," she quipped after capturing the governor's mansion.

In recent years, she also defied stereotypes of aging. She celebrated her 60th birthday by getting a motorcycle license.

Social pioneers do not go gently. FOWs had to take off their white gloves and be pushy and loud and obnoxious. Creating drama -- at home, in the workplace, in the streets -- was the way to get attention and bring about change. FOWs made mistakes (dissing the homemaker) and they made enemies (men in general and sometimes husbands). But the goal was clear: Tear down the barriers for future generations.

As Richards said in 1995: "I did not want my tombstone to read, 'She kept a really clean house.' I think I'd like them to remember me by saying, 'She opened government to everyone.' "

Like many FOWs, Richards started out as the little woman at home and catapulted herself into prominence, forming the North Dallas Democratic Women as an alternative to the regular Democratic Party, which blocked women from leadership roles. Then she climbed up the "first and only" ladder, getting elected state treasurer and finally breaking the male dominance of the governorship.

It's not easy to be a social pioneer. FOWs often paid a price in their personal lives. Richards's work was reportedly a factor in the breakup of her marriage. A mother of four, she also spoke openly about her struggle with alcoholism.

In every movement, the first wave is the generation that defies the status quo; the second wave redefines it. Women today expect to be able to go to medical school or join a once-all-male club. They don't usually have to sue their employer to get a promotion. They may have more equitable relationships with their spouses, the sons of the first wave. As definers, they have yet to figure out how to keep a clean house, raise children and get ahead in an economy that usually requires two incomes for a family to have a middle-class lifestyle. But they owe a lot to the first wave of FOWs who made these choices possible.

At the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Richards famously declared that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, "only backwards and in high heels." Her generation demonstrated that women, like men, could lead -- in government, in business, in the arts. The second wave has gone a long way to fulfill the promise of the first wave. But implicit is a warning to tomorrow's women not to go backwards on the dance floor of public life.

The social upheaval of the Age Boom is just beginning. By 2030, the number of people over 65 in the United States is expected to double, to more than 70 million. Once again, Richards was in the first wave of older Americans defying the image of aging as a time of decline and despair.

Richards kept herself in the public spotlight as a commentator on television. She did not fall into the cosmetic trap of denying her age. Her hair was silver, her smile wide. She was a defier, not a denier. She seemed to glory in her image as an older woman with elegance, humor and confidence.

We need more role models like Richards. After all, aging is a women's issue. We tend to outlive men by about seven years -- though the gender death gap is narrowing. Yet, after the age of 85, there are about twice as many women as men, according to the 2000 Census.

That means women must take the lead in defying ageist stereotypes and breaking down barriers against older people in the workplace and in popular culture. Like the FOWs of the past, we are going to have to be loud and obnoxious to pave the way for future generations.

Richards has left us some good advice. When she was asked what she might have done differently as a one-term governor, she said, "Oh, I would probably have raised more hell." ยท

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