In honor of Women’s History Month, we are sharing “Oveta Culp Hobby” from American Heroines: The Spirited Women Who Shaped Our Country by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Copyright © 2004 by Kay Bailey Hutchison. Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.
One of the most interesting American women of the twentieth century has had very little written about her. Oveta Culp Hobby did not write (or talk much) about herself and discouraged any biographies or articles about her by others. I knew her because she gave me the first break in my fledgling career.
When I graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 1967, there were thirteen women in my class of 390. None of the major law firms in Texas hired women as associates in the partner track. Harriet Miers, who is now deputy chief of staff at the White House, also graduated in 1967, from Southern Methodist University Law School, and became a law clerk to Federal District Judge Sarah T. Hughes.
Finding a job as a lawyer in Houston, Texas, was a serious challenge for a woman. As I describe it: “I hit my first brick wall in life.” I went to law firm after law firm—for months. My law school classmates were going right to work, while I was still looking. It was a tough time for me.
Finally, I decided to look for some other way to use my law degree. Driving to my apartment (shared with my college roommate, Mary Anderson, who was a wonderful friend during those challenging times, and is now Mary Anderson Abell, godmother to my son, Houston) one day after yet another discouraging interview, I made a snap decision. I dropped in cold, without an appointment, to KPRC-TV, the local NBC affiliate and Houston’s number one station at the time. It was owned by the Houston Post; the chairman of the board of the Post was Oveta Culp Hobby (though I did not know it at the time).
I asked the receptionist if I could talk to someone about a job. She said, “What kind of job?” I said, “News reporter.” She said, “Oh, you want to talk to the news director?” I said, “Yes, the news director,” not knowing what the head of a newsroom was called.
To everyone’s surprise, Ray Miller, who was known as one of the best local news directors in the country, came out to visit with a person who didn’t have an appointment. We had a nice interview. He said, “We don’t have an opening right now, but don’t take another job until you talk to me.” Subsequently, Ray told me that most news directors would never meet a drop-in, but he believes it can be very productive. He has told people he hired Tom Jarrell (later a network correspondent for ABC) and me from cold calls, a record he considered successful.
There were no women television news reporters in Houston at that time. Of course, I had no journalism experience or background. I was a government major in college. But Ray later told me he was intrigued because no one with a law degree had ever applied for a job at KPRC before. He went to the station manager, Jack Harris, and said he thought they should find a place for me. Jack Harris later told me he talked to Mrs. Hobby, who was enthusiastic about a young woman with a law degree working for the station. Jack said that having her television station put the first woman on broadcast news was right up her alley.
The station assigned me to a post in Austin during the legislative sessions, covering the legislature full time. After being exposed to it, and being well known because I was on TV every night, in 1971 the Harris County Republican Party chairman, Nancy Palm, asked if I would consider running for the Texas House of Representatives myself in the election of 1972. I thought about it and decided to go for it.
About the same time, I interviewed Anne Armstrong, a Texan who had just won the cochairmanship of the National Republican Party. She asked me if I would go to Washington with her, to be her press secretary. I told her I wanted to run for the legislature, but asked if I could go to Washington temporarily to help set up her office and find her a press secretary. She said yes, so I left KPRC and worked for Anne for six months, learning politics from her before returning to Houston full time in January 1972 to launch my campaign. I was elected and held that position until I resigned in 1976 to become vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, appointed by President Gerald R. Ford.
So I had two of the most remarkable women I have ever known giving me that early boost, when there were still very few women in careers. They were on top—and they reached down to give a start to the next generation.
By giving me my first chance, Oveta Culp Hobby changed my career path dramatically. Had she not taken the bold step of putting Houston’s first woman television reporter on the air, I would probably be a partner in a Houston law firm today. I jokingly say that I would have been wealthier, for sure, but life would probably not have been nearly as interesting!
It is no exaggeration to say that Oveta Culp Hobby got her start in public service at her mother’s—and her father’s—knee. Born on January 19, 1905, in Killeen, Texas, she was the second of Ike and Emma Culp’s seven children. By the time she enrolled in the town’s elementary school, she had begun helping her mother deliver baskets of food, clothes, and cash to needy people in the community. Her father, an attorney in Killeen, encouraged the young Oveta’s curiosity about the things that most interested him: law, government affairs, and riding horses. After school, she got into the habit of stopping at Ike Culp’s office on her way home, to listen while her father discussed his legal and legislative work and to read the books in his extensive library. By the time she was ten, the Congressional Record was part of Oveta’s regular reading, and when Ike Culp served in the state legislature in 1919, Oveta accompanied him to Austin to attend the sessions as an observer, even though that meant missing school.
That time in Austin only served to broaden Oveta’s intellectual range, and she graduated from Temple High School near the top of her class. Along the way, she won prizes in elocution (dramatic recitation) and was chagrined when her parents forbade her to join a touring troupe of entertainers. Instead, she entered Mary Hardin Baylor College for Women in Belton, Texas. She was active in the college dramatic society, but it was the law that continued to hold the greatest fascination for her. She attended the University of Texas Law School, and, when barely twenty, was invited to become the parliamentarian for the Texas House of Representatives, a post she held for six years.
Throughout her time in Austin, Oveta was active in Democratic politics—secretary of the Democratic Club, National Convention planner (the 1928 Democratic Convention was held in Houston), and campaigner for Al Smith’s presidential bid and Thomas T. Connally’s successful contest for the U.S. Senate. After the national elections, she helped Walter Monteith win election as mayor of Houston, and he, in turn, asked Oveta to become assistant to the city attorney in his administration. She accepted, with the proviso that she return to Austin for the legislative session, so she could continue as parliamentarian there.
Austin had been Oveta’s base throughout the late 1920s; besides her duties as parliamentarian, she’d codified Texas banking laws as clerk to the State Banking Commission and clerked for the House Judiciary Committee. But in 1930, after the Houston mayoral election and an unsuccessful campaign of her own for a seat in the state legislature, her focus shifted to Houston. While working in the city attorney’s office, she renewed her acquaintance with an old family friend, William P. Hobby. The former governor of Texas—and still known to everyone as “Governor”—Hobby was now president of the Houston Post-Dispatch. He was also a widower (Willie Chapman Cooper Hobby had died in 1929), and in February 1931, twenty-six-year-old Oveta married the newspaper publisher, fifty-three, and formed the partnership that made an indelible impression on her future. Later in life she would say, “Everything that ever happened to me fell in my lap and nothing would have been possible without Governor.”
In rapid succession, Oveta went from being book page editor to assistant editor to, in 1939, executive vice president of the paper. By then it had been renamed the Houston Post, after Governor Hobby bought it from his friend Jesse Jones, who had obtained it from former Texas governor Ross Sterling. The Post remained closely associated with both Governor Hobby and Oveta, despite several leaves of absence for Oveta, once precipitated by a horseback-riding accident in which she broke her leg and wrist, others by the births of her two children. Both children were born on her own birthday, January 19—William Jr., in 1932 and Jessica in 1937. Even a more serious accident—in 1936, a small plane flying the Hobbys and others from Dallas to Houston caught fire and was forced to crash-land in a cotton field—failed to slow her down. Oveta and the others who were not badly hurt pulled the unconscious Governor Hobby and the pilot from the burning plane, borrowed a car, and drove into town, where they found an ambulance to take her husband to a Dallas hospital. It was only after they had arrived that the doctor realized that Oveta, too, had been a victim of the accident, and hospitalized her as well.
During her breaks from journalism, Oveta wrote Mr. Chairman, a widely consulted parliamentary manual, and returned for two more brief stints at the legislature in 1939 and 1941. At the same time, she threw her energies into local cultural organizations and community service. She joined the board of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, helped to found the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and served as regional chairperson of the Mobilization for Human Needs, which had been created to address the economic deprivation that resulted from the Depression. When downtown Houston was flooded in 1935, she was the only woman on the committee set up to develop a flood-control plan, and she later chaired the Texas branch of the advisory group for women’s participation in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
Back at the Post after her daughter, Jessica, was born in 1937, Oveta, now an assistant editor, introduced a series of articles about “subjects of international significance” in their historical contexts, including pieces on the Ottoman Empire, the constitution of Turkey, the pact between England and Egypt, Afghanistan, and the Greek constitution. At about the same time, she served on the Texas State Committee for Human Security, an organization that solicited funds for blind and needy children. This experience inspired a series about community welfare—health, child welfare, leisure-time problems, the merging of social agencies—that revealed interests and expertise Oveta would later call on when she became the first secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Eisenhower.
By 1941, as the United States edged closer to entering World War II, Oveta was often in Washington, DC, to deal with the Federal Communications Commission, now that the Hobbys also owned the Houston radio station KPRC (“Kotton Port Rail Center”). Men were being drafted for military service—the first peacetime draft in American history—and as many as ten thousand letters a day were pouring into the capital from women who wanted to know what they could do to aid the war effort. General David Searles asked Oveta to direct a woman’s initiative in support of the army, but she refused on the grounds that she could not be away from her family in Houston. Searles then proposed that she merely outline what such an organization would look like, but after she sent him the organizational chart he again asked her to serve as director. She refused a second time, but when Governor Hobby heard about the offer, he told her, “Any thoughtful person knows that we are in this war, and that every one of us is going to have to do whatever we are called on to do.” She accepted the job.
At a salary of a dollar a year, Oveta moved to Washington, DC, to head the Women’s Interest Section, War Department Bureau of Public Relations, where her role was primarily informational. As she explained it, “For every one of the 1,500,000 men in the Army today, there are four or five women—mothers, wives, sisters, sweethearts—who are closely and personally interested. Mothers are more interested in their son’s health than they are in army maneuvers. They want to know what their man or boy is doing in his recreational hours, what opportunities the men have for training and promotion, about the health of camps and the provisions made for religious life.”
Her mandate changed with the country’s declaration of war on December 8, 1941. Henry Stimson, secretary of war, and General George Marshall wanted to know which military jobs women could do with minimal training, and they requested a plan for forming a women’s army.
Congress passed a law establishing a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The author of the bill was Representative Edith Nourse Rogers (R-MA). General Marshall asked her whom she would recommend to lead the new WAAC, and Congresswoman Rogers suggested Oveta Culp Hobby.
General Marshall asked Oveta to submit a plan for the new corps, which she did, and to lead the organization, which she agreed to do. Oveta considered General Marshall a mentor as they worked together to craft the women’s corps into a viable and essential part of the war effort.
The idea now was to free men for combat by having women do as much of the noncombatant work as possible. General Marshall identified the areas in which civilians could perform, and Oveta implemented the training and development of the new women’s force. As Oveta explained in her speeches, “The gaps our women will fill are in those noncombatant jobs where women’s hands and women’s hearts fit naturally. WAACs will do the same type of work which women do in civilian life. They will bear the same relation to men of the Army that they bear to the men of the civilian organizations in which they work.”
At first, the work of the director of the WAAC was essentially a one-person recruiting marathon. Racing from city to city, wearing the one WAAC uniform that had been made, Major (later Colonel) Hobby carried an electric fan and iron in her luggage so that each night she could wash, dry, and press her dress khakis before the next day’s appearance. “I never did learn to salute properly or master the thirty-inch stride,” she later said, but she proved herself a masterful speaker, persuading large numbers of women to take the unprecedented step of enlisting in a women’s army. Along the way, she learned quite a bit about the subtle—and not so subtle—ways in which women were discriminated against. To house the women who had volunteered for the WAAC, she requested army engineers to draft plans for barracks, only to be told that since the WAAC wasn’t the army, the engineers didn’t work for them. To design an appealing uniform, Oveta called on clothing designers to donate designs, but the Quartermaster Corps objected to pleated skirts as a waste of material and the belt as without function.
The director’s job involved a difficult balancing act between concerns that being in the army was unladylike and fears that women would be a corrupting influence on the male soldiers. One volunteer, Charity Adams, who later rose to lieutenant colonel, stressed the concerns of propriety when she said, “I made a conscientious effort to obtain every item on the list of suggested supplies for training camp except the slacks and shorts. I had never owned either, feeling that I was not the type to wear them.” Still, many army commanders were so fearful of the effects of fraternization between soldiers and WAACs that they went to extraordinary lengths to limit contact—restricting the nights that women were allowed to go to the movies shown on army bases, or even fencing in the women’s barracks. Given Oveta’s status as an officer, she was personally invited to use the Army-Navy Club, but the invitation requested that she enter through the club’s back door.
No issue was too important—or too insignificant—to become a bone of contention, not even medical care. The comptroller general claimed that WAAC doctors couldn’t be paid because they weren’t, strictly speaking, in military service, so Secretary Stimson had to ask Congress to pass special legislation authorizing salaries for them. Despite the fact that in the army even NCOs had a jeep at their personal disposal, when the director of the WAAC needed a car, she had to request one from the motor pool.
These discouragements aside, the WAACs were invaluable. The initial list of fifty-four army tasks that women might perform quickly mushroomed to 239, and in many of them—ranging from office work to folding parachutes—the women’s aptitude, experience, and dexterity led them to outperform their male counterparts. The army came to recognize it, too; within two years, there were more than six hundred thousand requests for WAACs from around the world, though the strength of the women’s army wasn’t authorized to exceed two hundred thousand. In 1942, their name was changed to the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, and the corps was better integrated into the military services. Ultimately, WACs were posted in Europe, the South Pacific, and the China-India-Burma theater. Everywhere they went, they served with distinction, despite the continuing discrimination against them. Sometimes the inequities were simply insulting—as when WACs in the South Pacific were restricted to barbed-wire compounds except when they were working, and had to be accompanied by armed guards on their way to and from work. Others, however, posed serious risks; for example, women were much more likely than men to catch malaria, because they were not issued the sorts of lightweight protective clothing the men were.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt supported the WACs and was impressed with their leaders. She asked Oveta to accompany her to England just before D-day. There, Oveta met with General Eisenhower, a meeting that began a long friendship and resulted in Oveta’s crucial support for him when he later ran for president.
In July 1945, with the war in Europe at an end and the Japanese close to surrender, a exhausted Colonel Hobby resigned her commission and returned home with new perspectives on the importance of equal opportunity for all Americans. The first woman to wear the uniform of a U.S. Army officer and recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal, the nation’s highest noncombat award, was again a private citizen, but one with an unusual profile. Director of KPRC and the new KPRC-TV and executive vice president of the Houston Post, she also resumed her role in Houston’s community affairs. Among other things, when she cochaired the local Armed Forces Day celebration in the years immediately after the war, she ruffled more than a few feathers when she declared that “No celebration of Armed Forces Day will be held in Houston which is not open to every one who has served in our armed forces—regardless of race.” Governor Hobby, who had intervened during the war to protect local Japanese Americans from discriminatory treatment and the threat of internment, supported Oveta’s stance, and he later used his newspaper as a forum for discussion and support of the 1954 Supreme Court decision mandating the integration of public schools.
Oveta’s convictions about diversity were straightforward: “The rule of thumb is a simple one,” she wrote. “Regard each man, each woman, as an individual, not as a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Jew; not as an Indian, American, or European. Like or dislike a person for his own intrinsic qualities—not because he belongs to a different race or subscribes to a different religion. Dignify man with individuality.”
An enthusiastic proponent of the United Nations, Oveta covered Security Council meetings for the Post and later was a delegate to the UN Freedom of Information Conference. She declared her support of the UN as early as 1946, in a speech to the National Council of Jewish Women, where she stressed that it was imperative to implement the body with “an international bill of rights.” At the same time, she expressed her suspicions about the USSR’s intentions, in words that harked back to England’s misguided attempt to appease Germany in 1939: “Shall we now insist that one of our former allies observe its agreement with Manchuria? Observe its agreement with Iran? Or shall we make a timid bid for peace in our time? . . . Does Russia think that we have not learned that small aggressions lead to larger ones?”
Her interest in politics never waned, and as the presidential elections of 1952 loomed, she decided to get involved. Her 1945 meting with General Eisenhower, and her respect for him, impelled her to take a bold political position. After decades of prominence in Democratic politics, she became the chairman of Texans for Eisenhower. Her son, Bill, a student at Rice University, recalls going to his first precinct convention with her in their Houston neighborhood. It was at the Republican conventions that the Texas delegation started to move toward support for Eisenhower. The state convention that year was held in Wichita Falls. It was a raucous fight between delegates for Taft and Eisenhower. Oveta was there, working for Eisenhower. The Texas delegation did go for Eisenhower at the national convention—a pivotal point for his nomination. General Eisenhower picked up another prominent Texas Democrat, Governor Alan Shivers, who based his support on the refusal of Senator Adlai Stevenson to support Texas ownership of its tidelands, which had been a part of Texas’s treaty with the United States when it entered the Union in 1845. General Eisenhower agreed to support the treaty, and that strengthened his support in Texas in 1952 and his success in carrying the state in the November vote.
Because Oveta Culp Hobby had been one of the new president’s early and most influential backers, leading the efforts from the local precinct to the national campaign, he wanted her to be part of his administration. She was first appointed chairman of the Federal Security Agency. When that agency was reconstituted as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953, Oveta Culp Hobby became its first secretary and a member of Eisenhower’s cabinet. As with the WAC, she now faced the bewildering task of creating order out of myriad responsibilities. In this case they spanned the life cycles of Americans from cradle to grave. Besides administering the Social Security funds that provide pension and health-care benefits to millions of disabled and retired people, the HEW secretary, as a Time magazine profile published a month after the formation of the department, stated,
manages one of the world’s greatest medical research centers, provides operations for harelipped children and blue babies, maintains hospitals for merchant seamen and dope addicts, an insane asylum and a leprosarium. Through the Office of Education, she distributes funds to land-grant colleges and administers the teacher-student exchange program with foreign countries. She is legally concerned with the problem of tape-worm control among Alaskan caribou, with cancer research, and with the attitude of Congress toward fluoridation of children’s teeth. She prints Braille books, extends credit to deserving citizens, bosses the nation’s largest Negro university (Howard, in Washington), and brings out new editions of the Government’s most durable bestseller. (The Children’s Bureau’s Infant Care, which is published in eight languages, has sold 8,519,000 copies over the past thirty-nine years.)
All in a day’s work for the indefatigable Oveta, who, as one newspaper profile of her quipped, “[w]hen she learns her job, . . . may trim her week to seventy hours.” During her thirty-one-month tenure as HEW secretary, she had little opportunity to relax. She oversaw the introduction of the Salk polio vaccine, a major expansion of the federal hospital and health-care infrastructure, an emergency plan to build new schools to meet the demand created by the postwar baby boom, the development of new forms of medical insurance, and a spurt in the number of people covered by Social Security. She resigned from HEW only when Governor Hobby, by then seventy-seven, became ill in Houston, and she wanted to be at home to help him recover and to pitch in to run the family business, the Houston Post and the radio and TV stations.
Besides becoming president and editor of the Post (her husband recovered and continued as chairman until his death in 1964), Oveta assumed a number of other prominent positions: first chairman of the board of directors of the Bank of Texas, first female trustee of Mutual of New York, member of the board of trustees of Rice University, and countless memberships on nonprofit and governmental commissions and advisory boards. One honor that especially pleased the woman who spent so many of her formative hours among the books in her father’s law office was the dedication of the Central Texas College Library in her hometown of Killeen, as the Oveta Culp Hobby Library. President Lyndon Johnson did the honors. In the late 1990s, it was renamed the Oveta Culp Hobby Memorial Library.
In 1983, the Hobby family sold the Houston Post. The newspaper closed on April 16, 1995. On April 17, 1995, Oveta Cup Hobby suffered a severe stroke. She died at home in Houston on August 16, 1995, at the age of ninety.
The last time I saw this incredible woman was at the governor’s inauguration in 1975, when her son, William P. Hobby Jr. was beginning his second term as lieutenant governor of Texas. He served from 1973 to 1991, one of the longest-serving and most powerful lieutenant governors in Texas history.
His first election was the same year I was elected to the Texas legislature from Houston, so we served together in the legislature in 1973 and at the state constitutional convention in 1974. In 1975, we were both entering our second terms. Before the ceremony began that day, he had a few friends into his office for coffee. His mother was there. We had a wonderful visit. At the age of seventy, she was just as active and informed as ever, and had the bearing of a venerable personage. I thanked her for giving me an unprecedented opportunity six years earlier. She said she had watched my career and was proud of what I had been able to do. She left a legacy of service to our country and blazed trails that other women will follow, made easier by her stellar performance in every office she held.
The magnificent World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, has quotes etched in granite from war leaders: Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, and Admiral Chester Nimitz. The only woman so honored is Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby. Her quote: “Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the nation, not as women. This was a people’s war and everyone was in it.”
Both of her children followed their parents into public service: the aforementioned lieutenant governor, William P. Hobby Jr. and his wife, Diana, who was associate editor of the academic journal Studies in English Literature, published at Rice University, for thirteen years; and Jessica Hobby Catto, who served with her husband, Henry Catto, from San Antonio, during his tenures as chief of protocol in the Nixon administration, and as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain for President George H. W. Bush.