Women as heroines

Posted: Dec 01, 2004 12:00 AM

One might expect a book written by a sitting United States senator to be self-serving and pretentious. That is not the case with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's new book, "American Heroines: The Spirited Women Who Shaped Our Country." (William Morrow).

The writers of history textbooks have only recently begun to include the often ignored and sometimes censored sacrifices and contributions of women to the founding and sustaining of this nation. Hutchison, a Texas Republican and now that state's senior senator, has put together an ideologically diverse and highly readable compilation. The book features women from Hutchison's native Texas to the national stage who have made significant contributions not only to their country, but to the progress of women in the pursuit of their endowed rights as half of the human family.

"No history can be written appropriately without acknowledging the part women have played in building the greatness of our country," she writes. Indeed.

Some of these women are familiar, such as Amelia Earhart, Condoleezza Rice, Geraldine Ferraro, Barbara Walters and Sally Ride. Others are not, mostly because few have written much about them. There is Mary Austin Holly, the niece of Stephen F. Austin, a hero of Texas independence. When Holly was widowed with young children, she might have chosen security in a home with friends. Instead, she moved to the Austin colony in Texas, where she earned a place in that state's history by working toward an ideal - freedom and independence - and eschewing minimal comforts.

Among modern women there is Oveta Culp Hobby. Hobby worked with some of the most famous men in government during World War II and contributed significantly on the home front to the Allied victory. When Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, he named Hobby the first Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

The Hobby family owned KPRC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Houston, where Hutchison (then Kay Bailey) applied for a job after graduating from the University of Texas Law School. It was there that I first met her in 1969, where I was a reporter for that station and she was soon to become one. She charmed Governor Preston Smith who gave her many exclusives to the consternation of some of us men, but to the delight of the news director, Ray Miller.

ZIn the book's interview with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Hutchison and O'Connor reveal how difficult it was for women in the recent past to make careers in the law. After O'Connor, who graduated from law school in 1952, relates the frustrations she faced in trying to land a job at male-dominated law firms, Hutchison says, "I graduated in 1967, 15 years later, and I went through the same thing. Not one major law firm in Houston hired women as regular attorneys. I had interviews, but none of them ."

O'Connor interrupts, "But at least you had interviews."

Kay Bailey Hutchison has kept her charm and kindness, even while breaking down barriers. If you watch her debate or deliver a speech on the Senate floor (like her TV broadcast scripts, her speeches have improved over time), she can display conviction on the things she cares about, but she does not alienate people to the point where a relationship is broken.

When she married, she learned that the money she had been saving in an Individual Retirement Account would be substantially reduced because the law at the time prevented married, stay-at-home women from saving as much as their husbands. After becoming a senator, she worked with Senator Barbara Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, to remove that discriminatory barrier to women who choose to stay home and make a career as a mother and homemaker.

My only regret is that this book did not include some of those homemaking women among the modern heroines she selected. Such women never receive awards or recognition from culture, though their rewards are usually more valuable to them and longer lasting than anything the world can offer.

Even with this omission, "American Heroines" is a welcome book, whose author - the first woman to represent Texas in the United States Senate - knows about such things because she is one herself.