Mary Beth Rogers is an activist, historian and an influential figure in Texas politics – known best for serving as chief of staff in Gov. Ann Richards’ administration.
In her decades-long career, she’s been involved in labor activism in San Antonio, boards and commissions in Austin, and the women’s movement in the 70s.
Rogers has also served as CEO of PBS Austin and written books documenting the history of Texas women, a biography of Texas civil rights hero Barbara Jordan, and most recently a memoir titled “Hope and Hard Truth: A Life in Texas Politics.” She joined the Texas Standard to give some reflections on a life in Texas politics.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: What was it that was in the water there when you were growing up in Dallas that made you want to pursue this kind of life? You write about going to see Eleanor Roosevelt when you were a little girl.
Mary Beth Rogers: Well, I think it was always the issue of opening the doors to political life and political power to people who had always been shut out. And so the civil rights movement was very important in my life. The women’s rights movement was important in my life. These movements began to provide opportunities for people who had never shared in power or politics or positions of influence.
Why do you think that time was special? What was happening in Texas? These days, ideologically speaking, we are so polarized – you almost have to squint to imagine what it was like back then.
Well, it helps to go back and tell some of those stories and realize that there was actually bipartisan cooperation on a few issues now and then, and people were collegial and got along as Ann Richards was coming up as state treasurer. We got [Republican] Kay Bailey Hutchison to serve on our advisory committee. And Kay later became treasurer and a U.S. senator. You could cross the aisles. And so it was an exciting time if you were interested and involved in politics.
I know you must have heard a lot of people sort of wax nostalgic about the old days and how things were different in politics, not just in Texas, but in Washington and, frankly, around the country. And I’m curious, is that sort of rose-tinted glasses a bit, that there were more opportunities, that things were more collegial? I mean, you describe the time you watched a state senator jump up and down in your office
And we were the same political party.
Well, there you go. I mean, but passions have always run high around a lot of these issues.
Absolutely, because there’s a lot at stake. We did not have an easy time making change in Texas. I think that has to be very clear when you look back. Nothing ever comes easy when you’re trying to make significant changes. It didn’t then and it certainly doesn’t now.
A lot of people have commented on the interesting structure for your book. You’re not doing a chronological memoir – instead, you’re building around these points in your life where your personal life and your political life sort of merged. I don’t reckon there were many hours where they didn’t.
Well, because I was fortunate enough to have a family. I have a husband who supported my efforts and children. There was plenty of time for my family life, and Austin was a great place at the time to raise children. You had the wonderful lakes; you had good neighborhoods and good schools. And so there was always more to my life than politics. And I think for many of us, that helps create a balance that’s necessary for people who enter the political world. If you’re just totally one-sided, you miss what’s going on in life. And so that means that you’re out of touch with what ordinary people are doing and needing in their daily lives.
Given how much you did behind the scenes without a whole lot of fanfare, you watch some of these other prominent figures like Ann Richards, who’s received so much attention, certainly during her time in office and in many years subsequent. Did you ever think about maybe taking a higher profile, or did that matter to you?
I did not want to be in the limelight. I was very comfortable helping people who had that personality or that charisma that made them really wonderful performers in a way, in the political sphere. And that was not my strength. And fortunately, I learned that early on in life.
What inspired you to take the course that you did – was there something that gave you a core political belief that everything else sort of seemed to spring from, that would explain if someone were standing there talking with you, you know, who you are?
I think if I had one strong character element from a kid growing up, it was curiosity. I wanted to know what on earth was going on and I wanted to know what was going on in the community. I wanted to know what was going on in politics. I wanted to know what was going on in journalism, entertainment. You know, it was a great movie, but I wanted to know what the culture was like. I wanted answers to all my questions. I loved to do research into history. I love reading biographies of people who are active in the world. What made their lives different, what propelled them?
So I think if there was any characteristic, it was curiosity. And fortunately, I think in my parents’ world – and I was very lucky growing up in a large family with unconditional love from my parents, and I think that gives you a sense of stability that if you’re lucky, you can carry it through your lives – they also instilled in me a curiosity about what was going on in the world, and I think that sustained me. What on earth is going on and how can we explain it, or how can we tell others about it if we know.
You were there when they were filing the lawsuit in Roe v. Wade, which ultimately ultimately established a right to abortion in the United States. And, of course, recently the Dobbs decision overturned that. And now a lot of people are thinking about the future for abortion, voting rights, a lot of things. Where do you stand as you think about the future?
Well, I think, first of all, my reaction to the Dobbs decision was like a lot of women of my generation: we remember what it was like before Roe v. Wade and certainly don’t want to go back to that awful, terrible period for women and young women. But, you know, one of the things that I’ve learned about hope, which is why hope is in the title of my book, is that hope is part of our human nature. It’s a survival mechanism, and it’s most necessary when you’re dealing in the darkest times.
It does require a leap of imagination to see a better world, a different world ahead. And if you have that leap of imagination, your hope can give you the energy to propel you to move forward. What I think has happened, and particularly in light of the Dobbs decision, is that a lot of women are imagining a different future from what this decision lays out for them. And they have hope, and they have energy, and they are likely to change it one way or the other.