It’s Women’s History Month, and there’s no better time to give major props to some of the legendary women who come from or have made Texas a better place. From the “mother of Dallas” to the one and only Janis Joplin, our list of inspiring women really give meaning to the saying “Don’t Mess with Texas.” Keep reading to discover more about these iconic females. 

Sarah Horton Cockrell (1819-1892)

Considered to be the "founding mother of Dallas," Sarah Cockrell's family was one of the first pioneering families in Dallas county. She was a businesswoman who played an essential role in the development of the city, and at one point, she owned nearly a fourth of downtown Dallas. She and her husband, Alexander Cockrell, owned a ferry service on the Trinity River, a sawmill, and were involved in brick making, construction, real estate. Besides managing all the home duties of the era, she also oversaw the records, handled the money and kept up with the correspondence the businesses required. After her husband was killed in 1858, Sarah took over and expanded the businesses. She was also responsible for the construction of an iron suspension bridge that went over the Trinity, which was a developmental milestone for the city of Dallas.

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)

As the first African American and Native American to earn her pilot’s license, Bessie was an early American aviation pioneer. Born to a family of sharecroppers in Atlanta, TX, she worked the cotton fields while attending a segregated school. After developing an interest in aviation, she saved her money and went to France to get her license. Upon her return to the United States, she became a high-profile pilot in dangerous air shows. Popularly known as Queen Bess and Brave Bessie, her life was tragically cut short when she died in an airplane crash in 1926.

 

 

photo: Wikimedia Commons

Carrie Marcus (1883-1953)

Carrie Marcus was an American businesswoman and one of the co-founders of Nieman Marcus, a luxury department store based in Dallas, TX. While she never received a formal education, she was taught at home and spent hours reading German newspapers and European fashion magazines. In 1899, after moving to Dallas, she became a top saleswoman at A. Harris and Company. In 1907, Carrie, her husband Al Nieman, and her brother Herman started Nieman Marcus. The men handled the finances and the logistics, and Carrie, with her knowledge of fashion and department stores, handled the buying. Soon, she was traveling to New York Paris to bring back ready-to-wear fashion to an eager Dallas society. 

The store was a success, due in part to the fact that it carried specialized items that couldn’t be found anywhere else. She established the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award in 1938, which pushed the store into the upper echelons of fashion and couture. In 1950, Marcus became the chairman of the board of directors when her brother died, and she remained involved with the day-to-day decisions until she died in 1953.

Emma Tenayuca (1916-1999)

Born into a Mexican Comanche family, Emma Tenayuca was an American labor leader, union organizer and educator. Famous for her work during the 1938 San Antonio pecan shellers strike, Tenayuca helped 12,000 workers strike in protest of a wage reduction of one cent per pound of shelled pecans and inhuman working conditions. Later that year, the National Labor Relations Act raised wages to 25 cents an hour. Until and even after her death, she continued to inspire activists, as can be seen in the bilingual book, That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice.

Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

One of the most famous musical artists of all time, singer/songwriter Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, TX. Known for her mezzo-soprano vocals and electrifying stage presence, Joplin’s music was highly influenced by female jazz greats, like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. An outcast at her high school, Joplin eventually attended the University of Texas, Austin, which is where she made her musical debut—her first song “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do” was recorded inside the home of a fellow student.

She left for San Francisco, CA in 1963, where she lived in the Haight-Ashbury district and worked with local musicians like future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and band Big Brother and the Holding Company. After her breakthrough performance at the 1967 Monterrey Pop festival, Joblin became a worldwide sensation. She performed at Woodstock and released three iconic albums before her death in 1970. She has inspired generations of musicians and singers for generations, including Florence Welch, Pink and Stevie Nicks.

Sheryl Swoopes (1971-)

Born in Brownfield, Texas, Sheryl Swoopes is a basketball legend. The first woman to be signed on to play for the WNBA, she has been awarded MVP of the WNBA three times, and she’s been named as one of the top 15 league players of all time. She’s won three Olympic gold medals and is one of only 10 women who have an Olympic gold medal, an NCAA championship and a WNBA title. In 2017, she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Her college basketball career took off once she landed at Texas Tech, where, in 1993, she led the Lady Raiders in winning the NCAA Championship. Her jersey was retired the following year, making her only one of three players to be awarded this honor. In 1994 she was named to the USA National Team and went to Australia to compete in the World Championships. In 1997 she was signed on with the WNBA’s Houston Comets and spent 11 years playing with the team. After that, she had a short stint with the Seattle Storm, and then in 2011, after coming out of retirement, at the age of 40, she scored the buzzer-beating winning shot for the Tulsa Shock, ending their 20-game losing streak. In 2017, Swoopes returned to her Alma Matter, Texas Tech, and is still an assistant coach today. 

Mary Kay Ash (1918-2001)

Yup, that Mary Kay. The Texas entrepreneur was the founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics. She started at Stanley Home Products in the ‘60s, and when Kay was passed over for a promotion (which was given to someone she had trained), she grew frustrated with the challenges women faced in the workforce. She started to write a book in hopes of assisting women in business, and that book turned out to be her business plan for what would become one of the most famous cosmetics companies in the world. Her first storefront location was in Dallas, TX; it was 500-square feet and had nine saleswomen. The business was set up in the “house party” mode similar to what Stanley and other companies such as Tupperware used. She would offer friends facials, and then she would pitch her products, which proved to be enormously successful.

At the time of her death, her personal wealth was approximately 98 billion, and her company had a sales force of over eight hundred thousand in over three dozen countries. Mary Kay Ash received many awards in her lifetime, including receiving the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement in 1980 and being inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1996.

Erykah Badu (1971-)

A Dallas, TX native, Badu is an American singer-songwriter, and actress and producer. She is a graduate of the prestigious Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual and Performing Arts. Her musical influences include R&B, ‘70s soul and ‘80s hip hop. She’s been compared to jazz legend Billie Holiday and is oftentimes referred to as the Queen of Neo Soul. Her breakout performance was in 1994 when she opened for D'Angelo in Fort Worth, TX. Her first album, Baduzim produced four singles, including classic songs like “On & On” and “Appletree.” She was awarded a Grammy for “On & On,” and the album won Best R&B Album of the year. She went on to record five more albums, several of which have been certified gold, platinum and double platinum. 

Known for her funky style of bold colors, large headwraps and even larger hats, Badu has had a long, successful career in the music industry, as well as in Hollywood. She’s appeared in several movies including Blues Brothers 2000 and The Cider House Rules. Badu splits her time between South Dallas and New York, and she remains extremely active in her hometown. In 1997 she set up the Beautiful Love Incorporated Non Profit Development (B.L.I.N.D), and one of their first ventures was the save and restore the Black Forest Theater. Serving as a community and cultural center in South Dallas, the theater has played host to illustrious musical icons, like Snoop Dog, Jill Scott, Talib Kweli and Questlove.

photo: courtesy Jenny Boucek

Jenny Boucek (1973-)

Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Jenny Boucek is the third female coach in NBA history, and the only single mom coaching in The Association. She was born and raised in Nashville, TN. She played basketball at the University of Virginia from 1992-96, where she helped lead the team to four regular season Atlantic Coast Conference Championships and three NCAA Elite Eight appearances. She was recognized as a GTE All-American and Defensive Player of the Year twice, and she finished her tenure at Virginia with over 1000 points. 

Boucek has enjoyed a long and illustrious basketball career. As an inaugural WNBA player, she played for the Cleveland Rockers in 1997 before an injury ended her career in 1998. She came back as a coach for the Washington Mystics in 1999, spent three seasons with the Miami Sol, and she was an assistant coach with the Seattle Storm when they won their first WNBA Championship in 2004. She spent two seasons as the head coach for the Sacramento Monarchs before moving back to the position of head coach for the Storm. She then made the move to the NBA, where she was an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings before moving to the Dallas Mavericks. About parenting, she says “I can’t imagine life without my daughter,” and several Mavs players, who were also raised by single moms, can identify with Coach Boucek. 

Edna Gladney (1886-1961)

Born in Milwaukee, WI, to an unwed mother, Gladney was an early advocate for disadvantaged children in Texas. In 1904, she was sent to stay with an aunt and uncle in Fort Worth; she eloped with her husband in 1906, and they moved to Sherman, TX in 1913. As a member of the Sherman Civic League, Gladney discovered the Grayson County Poor Farm—a spot of abandonment for mentally ill, handicapped and unwanted children. It had abhorrent living conditions, especially for the children, so Gladney spearheaded a campaign to make improvements. She went with other Civic League volunteers to clean it up personally. 

Gladney went on to be an influential member of the Texas Children's Home and Aid Society. With the help of philanthropist Aamon Carter, she was able to secure the first kids’ home for the organization. She lobbied the Texas legislature on behalf of adopted children, and it is that said she personally oversaw the placement of over 10,000 kids. Active until she died in 1961, Edna Gladney paved the way for children’s rights in Texas for generations to come. Gladney's life story was told in the Oscar-award-winning film Blossoms in the Dust.

—Gabby Cullen

 

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