Happy birthday, Molly Ivins
Ode to a feminist Texas icon
A couple years ago as I was striding through the Denver airport wearing my “Texan feminist” t-shirt, a woman dropped her floral overnight bag to the polished-tile floor, stared at me with eyes the size of margarita glasses, and gasped, “You do exist!”
Visit any liberal bastion outside the bounds of this great state and folks will tilt their head to the side, give you “there, there” eyes and mentally pat you on the shoulder when you tell them you live in Texas. This insufferable condescension is exactly why my “Texan feminist” shirt has become my travel uniform — I enjoy scrambling smug, blue-state brains.
But Texan feminists existed long before I arrived to the Lone Star State in 2008 (and well before my best bud Brené and I started wearing matching shirts).
Though we lost her to cancer in 2007, Molly is still known as the shrewdest, funniest political commentator maybe ever. She’s also been called “America’s favorite professional Texan,” as Texas and its larger-than-life characters were her top fodder. In her words, “I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.”
I consider Molly to be a chosen ancestor and a north star for me as a modern-day Texanthropologist. So when one of her political protégés and friends recently told me that I was carrying on Molly’s legacy by bringing fun, humor and humanity to Texas politics, I had to choke back bewildered tears.
I’m not sure Molly and I are the same flavor of feminist, though, and I’m having a bit of shame about it. (Paging Brené!)
My first thought when I decided to write a Democrasexy essay about Molly was, “But I can’t post any sexy photos… Molly probably wouldn’t approve.”
Of course I can’t know for sure, but lately I’ve been reading her old stuff trying to piece together clues of her approval (or disapproval) of my particular flavor of feminism.
In an essay she wrote for McCalls magazine in 1990, Molly observed: “Texas women are socialized to want to be cheerleaders and then beauty queens. Any passable-looking female in the state can become at least third runner-up for Miss Miracle Mulch or Miss Congeniality at the Onion Festival.”
I grew up in California but apparently I’ve always been a Texas woman at heart because my high school cheerleading uniform still holds a special place in my closet. And just the other day I humble-bragged to a friend that I’d been named Miss Congeniality in my town’s pageant when I was 17. (At the time I thought that if I couldn’t be the most beautiful or talented, by golly it was no small consolation to be the most “pleasant and agreeable.” Now I shake my head realizing that I got a literal medal for people-pleasing: a compulsion I’m trying to unlearn as an adult.)
The folks running my local pageant acquiesced to 1990s feminist outcry by insisting that contestants wear one-piece bathing suits on stage rather than more-revealing-ergo-less-erudite bikinis. After all, as they emphasized at every turn, this was a scholarship pageant and NOT a beauty pageant. Okurrr.
(Please know that if I could find any photos of me in this pageant I would absolutely have included them here.)
Now here I am with Democrasexy... is this just my latest scheme to wrap a thin sarong of pseudo-smarts around a blatant excuse to prance around in a bathing suit?? Is this just another “scholarship” pageant version of feminism?
I have an inkling that Molly wasn’t judging certain Texas women for setting their sights on the pinnacle of a human pyramid instead of the top rung of a corporate ladder. Her writing often illuminates how we’ve been forced into unfair boxes since forever. She points out that, “Until 1918, the state maintained a legal class consisting of ‘idiots, aliens, the insane and women,’ and it’s been slow going ever since.”
The Debbie-Does-Dallas-stereotype of Texas womanhood made Molly feel like an outsider growing up. In a 1986 essay she said,
“I should confess that I’ve always been more of an observer than a participant in Texas Womanhood: the spirit was willing but I was declared ineligible on grounds of size early. You can’t be six feet tall and cute, both. I think I was first named captain of the basketball team when I was four and that’s what I’ve been ever since. I spent my girlhood as a Clydesdale among thoroughbreds. I clopped along amongst them cheerfully, admiring their grace, but the strange training rituals left me secretly relieved that no one would ever expect me to step on a racetrack. I think it is quite possible to grow up in Texas as an utter failure in flirting, gentility, cheerleading, sexpottery, and manipulation and still be without any permanent scars. Except one. We’d all rather be blonde.
“Please understand I’m not whining when I point out that Texas sexism is of an especially rank and noxious variety--this is more a Texas brag. It is my belief that it is the virulence of Texas sexism that accounts for the strength of Texas women. It’s what we have to overcome that makes us formidable survivors...”
That is what raises my hackles when some New Yorker recoils with a mixture of shock and pity upon learning I live in Texas. The insulated ignorance of a lifelong blue-state liberal who thinks Texas is nothing but a toxic Salton Sea of red hats and swastika tats makes me quietly seethe. I recently spent the better part of a month in New York and I kept thinking to myself, “These people have no idea what it’s like to claw and fight for their basic rights every day.”
I don’t want their fucking pity. I want their awe.
I want them to have the same awe I have for my transgender friends who show up to the state Capitol and listen to old, white men draped in confederate flags tell them they shouldn’t exist over and over and over again. I want them to have the same awe I have for my friends who work at Planned Parenthood and Jane’s Due Process and the Lilith Fund and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice and so many others who are summoning every lawyer, witch, and TikTok wizard to keep the nation’s most extreme abortion ban from going into effect this Wednesday. If they aren’t successful, anyone in the nation could sue anyone in Texas who helps a person with a uterus get an abortion, and that vigilante would receive $10,000 for their efforts, plus any legal costs.
Molly never stepped onto the racetracks that had been carefully manicured to keep Texas women in clearly marked lanes, and thank goddess. She showed future Texan feminists what it looked like to run free, run our mouths, run afoul, and maybe one day (in the words of a certain Texan feminist from Houston) run the world.
Maybe thoroughbred-on-the-outside, Clydesdale-on-the-inside is an okay flavor of Texan feminist to be after all. Maybe whatever kind of feminist comes naturally to us is exactly the kind of feminist we should be.
Little note for paid subscribers: I have a thank you gift that I want to send you via United States Postal Service! I will be reaching out individually soon to get your address. <3