My birth mother was destined for great things. Born into a first-generation immigrant Greek-American family in New Jersey, she was the first girl in her community to graduate from high school, and then the first woman to graduate from college. She was brilliant and idealistic, and like many young people coming of age in the 1940s, she believed in the possibility of positive social change through government and the innovations of Roosevelt’s New Deal. I don’t know the details or even for sure if it is true, but I was told by family members that my mother served as an intern in the Roosevelt White House; family lore has it that she attended teas with Eleanor Roosevelt. I think it is definitely true that she held a prestigious position while quite young.
Unfortunately for my mother and our young family, all that promise was not to be. She died in 1951, the day after my fourth birthday, of infectious hepatitis, a condition usually treatable today, though back then it had a high mortality rate. My mother had a good friend from her post-college days on the East Coast, a woman named Louise Raggio, who hailed from a tiny rural, town in Texas (in those days they all called her “Tex”) who like my mother aspired to be a lawyer. At some point Louise went back to Texas and attended law school at night for five years while raising three children in Texas; I think of her as the heir to my mother’s unfulfilled aspirations to make a difference in the world. When she graduated in 1952, there were no positions for women in Texas law firms, unless they wanted to file and type. Nevertheless, Louise persevered and finally found a job as an assistant D.A. specializing in family law.
Louise Raggio’s incredible life story is told in the book Texas Tornado: The Autobiography of a Crusader for Women’s Rights and Family Justice, with a forward by Anne Richards, former governor of Texas. According to her book, in Texas at that time “a married woman had no property rights, no chance of getting a bank loan or starting a business, no protection for herself and her children in the event of abuse or divorce. Outraged by all of this, Louise began a decades-long crusade for legal equality for all women.” She counted Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson as well as Anne Richards and Eleanor Roosevelt among her friends, and over time became recognized as “one of the greatest legal voices of the past century.”
Why is Louise’s story important today? First of all, it is important for us all to recognize how far we have come in the last 75 years in winning for women all the rights of full citizenship which they enjoy today—rights which by now we have all come to take for granted but which didn’t exist in many places in the 1950s. The second reason is that Louise’s hard-won victories are not, it seems, permanent. There are forces in our country today that would like to take undo many of the successes that Louise worked so hard to achieve. Louise spent her whole career—a span of over 50 years—fighting ceaselessly for what she believed, against entrenched male power structures, prejudice, and long odds. It wouldn’t take 50 years to undo that work. Much of it could be undone quickly under the right political and social circumstances. It is much easier to destroy a complex tapestry than it is to weave it—a few tears or ruptures in the right places, and the whole thing could fall apart. Were Louise alive today I’m sure she would be appalled to see how fractured our society has become over women’s issues.
I met Louise myself toward the end of her life. My sister and I heard that she was coming to our area to visit one of her sons, and we arranged to have dinner with the two of them. For us—especially my sister, who was 9 when our mother died—Louise was one of the few living connections to our birth mother, and we cherished our mealtime with her and the stories she told us about our mother as a young woman at the beginning of her adult life. Louise was small of stature but large in presence—in that sense she reminded me of another legal giant, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Meeting her was a reminder of how much one person who is focused and dedicated can do.
Our society needs more people like Louise.