Feminism was still a dirty word in macho Texas when Maura McNiel, wife, mother, Sunday school teacher and community volunteer, dared to speak up for women’s rights.
An irresistible force with stamina, brains and winning ways, McNiel would go on to lead the Dallas feminist movement for more than 20 years. And until her death July 18 at age 99 in Los Altos, Calif., her mantra was “Do it now.”
McNiel was the founding president of the Women’s Center of Dallas, which closed in 2001 after 30 years of operation.
“Maura’s courage in speaking up for women in the ’70s and ’80s was remarkable and led to many breakthroughs,” says Tegwin Pulley, who served as president of Dallas NOW, The Women’s Center and Women’s Issues Network.
“From job discrimination to child care, abuse, rape and access to credit and mortgage, Maura voiced the need for change and brought women together to stand up for their rights.”
Over 34 years, the Texas Women’s Foundation has awarded $46.6 million in grants to help achieve its vision of an equitable society where girls and women are full participants. With assets of more than $36 million, the foundation is one of the largest women’s funds in the world.
Born in Minneapolis on April 11, 1921, the year after women got the vote, McNiel was the daughter of second-generation Scandinavians who taught their four children inclusion: Everyone was worthy and all should be treated with dignity.
A cum laude graduate of the University of Minnesota, McNiel studied with B.F. Skinner, Buckminster Fuller and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
She met West Point graduate Tom McNiel on a job interview and married him in 1953.
McNiel discovered the power of sisterhood in May 1971. What she called her “a-ha” moment came at a meeting of 13 women in a North Dallas living room.
Stimulated by an SMU Symposium on the Education of Women for Social and Political Leadership, the women were invited to discuss their frustrations and what to do about them. Judge Sarah Hughes took charge.
Hughes, who administered the presidential oath to Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, was a formidable feminist.
In her life story, written for the Veteran Feminists of America, McNiel explained what happened next. “You get your act together,” Hughes ordered. “Decide your main concerns. Find a leader. Maura, you will be president. You’re not working so you have the time … and you get things done.”
And that’s how McNiel came to lead the feminist movement in Dallas. That advocacy group, Women for Change, became the Women’s Center of Dallas in 1975.
“Much of the credit for organizations that grew out of that era, such as The Family Place, belong to Maura and the women she brought into the feminist movement of the ’70s,” said WFC secretary Sandra “Sandy” Tinkham, who also later served as president of The Women’s Center and director of SMU’s Women’s Center.
At its first official meeting, when 350 women who showed up and heard keynote speaker Hughes describe the mission and McNiel what they had done, 300 paid dues to join.
Within weeks, Dr. Carolyn Galerstein, who became the first chair of the Dallas Commission on the Status of Women and first woman dean at the University of Texas at Dallas, had found donated office space.
Soon their efforts to do research, educate and assist women needing help with affirmative action yielded to crisis management. For the first few months, nearly every phone call in the office came from a woman who’d been raped or beaten.
In 1972, Women for Change brought Gloria Steinem, the world’s most famous feminist, to Dallas to speak. As membership soared, Women for Change published a monthly newspaper.
That year, McNiel, a persuasive, disarming speaker who went everywhere she was invited, made 72 speeches, even to fraternal all-male-then clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis. Members worked rallies for the Equal Rights Amendment, which passed the Texas House and Senate during a special session in March 1972 but fell three states short of ratification.
They also backed Dallas attorney Linda Coffee, 29, who once clerked for Hughes, and Austin attorney Sarah Weddington, 26, as they prepared to argue Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court. At first, court gatekeepers, assuming the young Texans were secretaries, refused to let them in.
But Dallas reproductive rights advocate Virginia Whitehill was there when Weddington pressed the case for women’s right to abortion. Asked her opinion of the 7-2 decision by the all-male court on Jan. 22, 1973, McNiel said, “No more back alley tragedies.”
In 1976 came McNiel’s darkest day. Daughter Andrea, “born,” her mother said in her VFA story, “with a magic touch that enhanced the life of everyone she met,” was involved in a fatal car accident at 19. Her death cast a shadow of grief across McNiel’s life for years.
Meanwhile, Women for Change’s proactive agenda cost money that the low membership dues couldn’t cover. Bette Graham, the mother of musician Michael Nesmith of The Monkees whose invention of the correction fluid Liquid Paper had created a multimillion-dollar business, was a supporter of Women for Change and The Women’s Center of Dallas.
Graham bought property and hired an architect to draw up plans for a mixed-use women’s building that would generate income for the cause. That dream died with Graham’s sudden death from a stroke in 1980.
In 1985, the Women Helping Women Award, established to honor those who improve the lives of girls and women in Dallas-Fort Worth, was renamed for McNiel as founding president of The Women’s Center and one of the co-founders of the Texas Women’s Foundation. The Maura Women Helping Women Awards are now given out each year by the Texas Women’s Foundation.
In 1990, McNiel left her marriage and Dallas, landing in northern California with daughter Bridget McNiel and granddaughter Catalina.
“For 20 years,” McNiel said in her VFA life story, “The Women’s Center changed lives, our own and the lives of others. By the end of the century, it became clear that we should no longer continue. Many of the original founders, including myself, had moved away from Dallas. Other organizations, several of which we birthed, were doing the work we were founded to do.”
Written by Jane Summer, for the Dallas News
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