John Ben Shepperd: Bluebonnet Girls’ State

June 18, 1953

Bluebonnet Girls’ State (Austin, Texas)

It does me good to see so many young women taking part in Girls’ State. I have a profound respect for girls and what they can do. According to the old saying, boys will be boys—and too often that is a static condition—they remain boys all their lives. But girls always grow up to be women.

Down through history women have always been a source of trouble. The face of Helen launched a thousand ships and caused the destruction of Troy. Pandora opened the lid of a box and let out all the evils of the world. But in spite of these things, I want you to know I am not in favor of doing away with women.

Girls are like the weather—unpredictable, inescapable, and irresistible. And like the weather, everybody talks about them but nobody does anything about them. That is not just a silly statement. What are we going to do with our young women? American womanhood is like an unsplit atom—a source of tremendous power, as yet unutilized.

In this country women slightly outnumber men, and for that reason they make up the better half of the population. If they would, they could cast more than half the votes. Women control the automobile industry, and own seven out of ten shares of railroad stock. They control seven and a half out of every ten consumer dollars spent in this country. It has always been that way—the Roman poet Ovid observed 2,000 years ago that women are always buying something. They say it’s a man’s world, but it could be a woman’s.

But why should it be? We’ve been saying for thousands of years that a women’s place is in the home. I agree to that—her place is in the home; but not in the home alone. A women’s place is wherever she can serve her fellow human beings with her talents and abilities, and there is ample room for women in government.

In the future more and more public offices are going to be occupied by women. We may have a women Attorney General. (Why not? The men have messed it up enough.) For the moment let’s suppose that each of you is the first woman Attorney General of Texas, newly-elected, sworn in and ready to take over the job.

You are the head of one of the nation’s biggest law firms, with 45 assistant Attorney General and an equal number of other employees. You are legal adviser to more than 800 clients, including 298 state boards and agencies, both houses of the legislature, and all the county and district attorneys and county auditors in the state. Besides advising your clients, you have to defend their interests in court when the occasion arises, and it arises about 2,000 times a year. The cases you handle involve hundreds of millions of dollars belonging to the people of Texas.

Your office is always busy, but when the Legislature is in session it’s a beehive, and you’re the queen bee. You have the responsibility of advising the Legislature on the constitutionality of bills, writing those bills in legal form, rendering opinions on matters of policy, and interpreting established laws. You are the chief prosecutor of the state and must cooperate with all law enforcement agencies to see that state laws are put into effect.

Besides all this, you will serve on more boards and commissions of the state government than any other state official—25 of them, including the banking board, the tax board, the elections board, and the school and veterans’ land boards.

In all, I think a woman would make a good Attorney General. I’ve never seen anybody who can beat a woman when it comes to laying down the law. But all these things are important to you whether you become attorney general or not. As a public office holder on any level of government, or as a private citizen with a family to feed and a mortgage to pay off, the question of government is one of the biggest you will face. How big will you let it be? How much of your family income or your career-girls’s salary will you let it take away? To what extent will you let it control your life? How much of it will you send to Washington, and how much will you keep at home in Taylor and Lockney and Waco?

Don’t say you know nothing of government, and finances, and public affairs. I never met a girl who wasn’t concerned about men, money and manners—and that’s all government is: men are running it with your money, in a particular manner. You have the duty to decide who they shall be, how much they shall spend, and on what they shall spend it.

Nobody is better qualified than you are to decide who shall occupy public office. Any girl who has ever canned a jar of pickles and held it up to the light to see if it is leaking air and is going to spoil in a few months can do the same to a political candidate. Nobody can size up a man the way a woman can, and if you don’t do it, a lot of sour pickles are going to get into public office.

But most of your men troubles are still in the future. Your money troubles are here and now. We are paying 400 times as much for state government as we did in the 1870’s when our state constitution was written. In the last 10 years the cost of living has risen 86%, while the cost of state government has risen 500%. We are spending $1,700,000 a day—that’s $1,180 a minute for state government.

Maybe you have been saying, “When I get to be 21 I’m going to be a good citizen—I’m going to take these problems by the horns.”

I hope you are not like the old colored preacher who used to point up his sermons by saying: “I aim to do this” and “I aim to do that,” until finally one of his parishioners stood up and said, “For goodness sake, parson, hurry up and pull the trigger.” I hope you’re not doing a lot of aiming and no pulling. If you are, you’re afflicted with “21-itis.”

You are putting everything off until a later date. It isn’t a rare disease—your mother and father probably have a form of it. You probably hear them say, “I won’t vote this time since the important elections don’t come up till next year. And I won’t write my Congressman—he wouldn’t listen to a mere taxpayer anyway.” That’s like saying, “Nobody will notice if I wear tennis shoes to the dance.” If you don’t shake off 21-itis now, it will leave you sickly citizen.

If this is your first date with state government, don’t let it be your last. Get out on the dance floor now, and you won’t be a wallflower citizen later one. That’s what Girls’ State is for; it’s your coming-out party—your formal introduction into the society of self-governing Americans.

But you have wasted your time here if you let it stop with you—if you get learning without a yearning to tell others about it. You must go home and give Girls’ State to others who couldn’t come. It is up to you to talk about it in class, in assembly, and in club meetings. It is up to you to write about it for the school paper. It is up to you to help make Civics class come alive with explanations of the things your classmates see only in the book, but which you have seen with your eyes. It is up to you to remember the state officials and other people you have met here, and to write letters to them. Let the folks at home know that their state officials are just poor sinners like everybody else and need the people’s help to run a government.

Back in your home town there are too many unpaid poll taxes, unused ballots, weak voices, undecided issues, shrugged shoulders, and blank faces. You will be sent home from Girls’ State like a charged battery. You can make live wires out of a lot of people with loose connections, if you will only make contact. The American Legion Auxiliary has a right to expect a return on its investment in bringing you to Austin. Don’t let the fine women of the Auxiliary down. But even more important than that—don’t let America down.

Please note: The views expressed in these speeches were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.