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Hispanic women worked to improve their communities through mutual-aid societies.
Laredo women lent their colorful presence to a 1927 parade, but few would take up political roles until decades later.
Texas politicians used traditional means such as music to appeal to Hispanic voters.
Minnie Fisher Cunningham became the first Texas woman to run for the U.S. Senate in 1928.
After a decade of suffagists, women could look back with both pride and disappointment.
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Tejano Women and the Vote
Tejanos had been largely excluded from Texas politics from statehood on. Like African Americans, Tejanos in the early 20th century faced discrimination in employment and education and violence against them if they stepped out of line. To combat these problems, they formed mutual-aid societies on the local level. Laredo women had blazed the trail for the formation of women's clubs to help serve the poor and work for improved education and health care for their people. The 1920s saw an expansion of the women's club movement for Hispanic women. For example, the Cruz Azul Mexicana club in San Antonio raised money for a free medical clinic, established a library, and offered legal assistance to workers and immigrants. Hispanic women also became involved in the PTA during the 1920s.
The first step toward a statewide fight for political rights for Mexican Americans came in 1929, when representatives of numerous civic organizations came together to form the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). In 1933, Ladies' LULAC was formed to give Hispanic women the same chance to organize as the men. Women like Ester Machuca of El Paso, Alice Dickerson Montemayor of Laredo, Consuelo Mendez of Austin, and many others worked on campaigns to end discrimination in the public schools, on poll tax and voter registration drives, and on programs to help children and the elderly.
After World War II, returning Hispanic veterans formed the American GI Forum, which was dedicated to knocking down discrimination in jobs and employment and establishing civil rights for Hispanics. Women participated from the beginning, raising money through tamale sales, dances, and "queen" contests. In 1956, the role of women was formalized when the Forum created a women's auxiliary. In the years to come, women such as Dr. Clotilde García led membership and voter registration drives and lobbying for equal opportunity legislation. The women's auxiliary was important for helping Hispanic women develop their political skills and educate women about civic affairs. The GI Forum and LULAC participated in many of the court fights that ended discriminatory election practices that had kept minorities from voting and running for office in Texas.
Texas Hispanics first began to flex their political muscle in the 1960 presidential campaign, with the formation of Viva Kennedy clubs. Robert Kennedy later said that the Spanish-speaking vote won the election for his brother. President Lyndon Johnson brought significant numbers of Hispanics into his administration to work on Great Society programs.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Hispanic women continued to struggle to find a place in politics alongside their male counterparts. A new militancy on the part of Hispanic activists was shown in the political party La Raza Unida, which was a force in Texas politics through the 1970s. Most of the leaders of La Raza Unida were male and showed little regard for the organizing efforts being carried out by women. Women formed a separate caucus, Mujeres Por La Raza, to focus on obtaining leadership positions for women in the party and on electing Hispanic women to office.
After La Raza Unida faded from the scene, Hispanics became a significant force in politics, especially in the Democratic Party. Today, thousands of Tejano officials serve in elective office throughout Texas.
By the end of the 1920s, the original group of Texas women that had led the fight for suffrage began to go their separate ways. The impulse for reform had faded in the face of the continuing popularity of Fergusonism and the reluctance of the Democratic Party to open its organization to equal participation by women. The early success of women in winning elective office was not repeated. In fact, the number of women holding office declined over from the 1930s to the 1960s. In spite of the success of the League of Women Voters and the Petticoat Lobby, women activists had not seen the transformation of Texas politics that they had so idealistically forecast during the dramatic suffrage battles.
In the 1930s and beyond, women no longer spoke with one voice. But their involvement on the political scene continued, if at a less visible level than before. Some, like Minnie Fisher Cunningham, moved to Washington and went to work for the New Deal. Others became involved in large social movements such as birth control and world peace. Most continued to fight for the causes that had drawn them into politics from the beginning -- better schools, child welfare, stricter laws against the sale of alcohol, and increased penalties for drunk drivers. Still others concerned themselves with recognition for professional women and the lifting of legal restrictions that handicapped their ability to run a business, practice medicine or law, and control their own property.
The vote was not the end of the women's rights movement in Texas. Texas women continued to be involved in their communities and to exercise their hard-won right to vote. It would be in the 1960s that the civil rights movement and the rebirth of the women's rights movement would translate into women becoming serious contenders for high public office and wielding true political power in the state of Texas.
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