The Woman's Viewpoint
Some time ago I was pursuing through a small Galveston yard sale when I spied a box of dusty old news magazines. As reader of history, I snatched up the box for a buck and took it home. There, buried beneath the World War II editions of Life and the Saturday Evening Post, the unusual title of another magazine jumped out at me – The Woman’s Viewpoint, March 1925. The cover was resplendent with an illustrated crowned beauty reposed in a mammoth Galveston whelk shell, a sprig of oleander blossoms in her hand. Along the bottom was the Gulf surf as well as the symbols of shipping and industry.
Inside, I found the large main section dedicated to Galveston. Amongst ads for Doherty & Co. Dress Shop (Market & Tremont), The Gift Shop (2110 Avenue E), and The Bonnet Shop (418 22nd Street) were typical articles about Galveston’s recreational appeal, its wealthy families and their charity, and Galveston – “The Oleander City.” Brides, debutantes, and high society news of Galveston’s “attractive matrons” filled out the section. True to the period, none of the married women in the pieces have first names; it’s always Mrs. Jack so-and so, or Mrs. Bryan so-and-so. Only the unmarried women have possession of their full names (e.g., Miss Rose Estelle Brown, etc.).
The contribution of women in the history of Galveston has always fascinated me. Here was a city that, until the Great Storm of 1900, was considered the most affluent place between the Mississippi River and San Francisco, and while tales of the business acumen of names like Kempner, Moody, and Mitchell have always focused on the men behind the success, the stories of the women behind the men have always been the more interesting, though less heralded, part of our past. Perhaps of equal, if not more intriguing importance, are the strong and independent characters of many Galveston women who, because of their inherited wealth, were culturally domineering in this city. Take for example, women such as Rebecca Ashton “Bettie” Brown, a philanthropist and civic leader who openly smoked and drank at the parties she hosted at her Ashton Villa home. Like many suffragettes of the early 1900’s, Brown’s stance was, “at the very least, every property holder should have the right to vote.”
However, what struck me most about the magazine was noticing each piece was written by a woman, and the bent of the periodical was most definitely feminist. The Woman’s Viewpoint was published by an all-woman staff in Houston from 1923 to 1928. Its founder and president was Florence M. Sterling. Sterling was one of the “Trio,” along with her two brothers, Ross and Frank – the three sibling founders of Humble Oil. As treasurer and secretary of Humble Oil, Sterling became enormously prosperous when Standard Oil purchased a 50% share of the company. With her wealth, Sterling set her sights on being fully engaged in the women’s suffrage movement. She was a vice president of the National Women’s Party and founded The Women’s Viewpoint to give women a voice because, as she said, “No man on earth can give a woman’s point of view.” Notable contributors to the magazine included Texan writer, Dorothy Scarborough (The Unfair Sex) and Presidential First Lady, Grace Coolidge.
Perhaps, it is this drive for equality for women in business and in the vote that is notable for its appearance as nostalgia in our distant past, yet still a very reflection of the continued struggle of women today. Indeed, while women in the U.S. attained their voting franchise in 1920, we must remember that was only after a lengthy and difficult struggle; victory took decades of agitation and protest by women, including Sterling’s National Women’s Party. Thus, the voice of The Women’s Viewpoint during its time was in the timbre of a newly liberated female cohort with earnest dreams that equality in the workplace, politics, and the domestic life would come to rapid fruition.
Of particular note in my 1925 copy of The Women’s Viewpoint, is an article on the all-female Texas Supreme Court, convened in 1924 with Special Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Hortense Ward at its head. Matagorda born, Ward was the first woman to pass the Texas state bar exam, and later became the first Texas woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. A leader in the early women’s rights movement, Ward was the author of the groundbreaking legal treatise, “Property Rights of Married Women in Texas.” Ironically, Ward chose not to argue cases in court for fear her appearance would be a disadvantage for her clients when judged by the all-male juries of the era.
Finding and reading this rare copy of The Women’s Viewpoint (there are only two other copies of the magazine known to be publically archived, both from 1923) reminded me Galveston has a rich history of women pioneers. Galveston’s joie de vivre is a reflection of the women who helped build the city to what it is today. We have benefitted from women who purposefully changed the cultural landscape – in a way men wouldn’t or couldn’t – through their socially iconoclastic natures. At the same time, Galveston women also instilled the basis of the strong philanthropic attitude that weaves through our city today. Finally, our city has benefitted from, and continues to realize great success through, bold women who create successful businesses, such as our own women-owned and operated iconoclastic magazine, Culture Clash.