Victories of the past empower us to shape the future.

By Becky Bullard. Photo by Nicki Lemon

As a pleasure activist and the founder of Democrasexy (making democracy sexy so more people do it), I work to address the emotional and psychological barriers that prevent people from attempting to make change. Our current political moment can feel discouraging, especially for women. So I often look to those before me who, despite powerful forces working against them, managed to bend the arc of the moral universe a bit closer toward justice. Here are five lessons from my chosen ancestors of Texas politics.

What is right and just will not stay “fringe” forever.


In 1938, 12,000 pecan shellers in San Antonio—mostly Mexican-American women—went on strike. Led by 21-year-old Emma Tenayuca, they were protesting long hours (10 hours a day, seven days a week) and low pay ($36 to $54 a week, in today’s dollars). Tenayuca’s success as an organizer made her a threat to the patriarchal status quo, and in 1939 she fled town when an angry mob stormed the auditorium where she was speaking. Tenayuca’s ideas were seen as fringe at the time, but now we recognize what she was fighting for—minimum wage, equal access to education, disability benefits—as basic building blocks of a functional society.

Underestimated? That can be its own kind of power.

Lady Bird Johnson became first lady of the U.S. during the same year that The Feminine Mystique inspired many women to begin rejecting their narrowly prescribed societal role as demure helpmates to men. But second-wave feminism was still new, so if onlookers noticed Lady Bird taking copious notes when her husband LBJ was deep in a presidential discussion, they assumed she was his secretary. In fact, she was his top adviser. When it was deemed too dangerous for LBJ to campaign in Southern states after he passed the Civil Rights Act, Lady Bird took his place. Her femininity and gentility were a kind of Trojan horse for the social justice message she brought to Southerners who would have shouted down her husband.

It takes true self-possession (and sometimes self-sacrifice) to change systems that were designed to keep you out.

To maximize her impact as a changemaker, Barbara Jordan kept much of her authentic self hidden from the public, especially her 20-year partnership with a woman. But at 5’8” and 175 pounds with dark skin, she still couldn’t help but stand out amongst her pale male colleagues when she became the first Black person to serve in the Texas Senate since 1883. Undaunted, she was confident in her belonging and her equality, managing to charm some of the biggest racists in the Senate. Her confidence continued to carry her through barriers, as the first Black woman from a former Confederate state elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, and the first Black woman to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery.

Just because you’ve never done it before doesn’t mean you won’t be wildly successful.

Sarah Weddington was the Texas attorney who argued and won Roe v. Wade in front of the U.S. Supreme Court when she was just 26 years old. It was her first time ever litigating a case. Less than a month later, Weddington won her election to the Texas House of Representatives, becoming the first woman ever to represent Austin and Travis County in the house.

Be aware of the contours of your power so you can wield it most strategically.

When Ann Richards served as governor of Texas, she was clear-eyed about the limitations of the position. Unlike the lieutenant governor who sets the legislative agenda for the Texas Senate, the governor has less power to create law. Richards instead focused her ability to shape state government through appointments, putting more women, people of color and openly queer folks in leadership positions than any other governor. She used her power to make the government of Texas look like the people of Texas for the first time.

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