"Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels." This line was part of Gov. Ann Richards' keynote address to the 1988 Democratic National Convention, and it was one of many pieces of her speech that had audiences in the room and in front of their televisions roaring in their seats.
Women especially appreciated this sharp point, and we cheered the bright, bold woman who was onstage saying it. Many Americans had never seen the silver-haired politician with the deep Southern drawl before this speech, but the convention made the then-Texas state treasurer an instant political star.
Her lines poking fun at Republican nominee Vice President George H. W. Bush became one of the most memorable parts of the entire campaign: "Poor George. He can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."
Ann Richards would go on to be elected the next governor of Texas. When this trailblazing pioneer passed away on Sept. 13 at age 73 from cancer, Americans across the country mourned a strong advocate for including more women and people of color in positions of power. And she was never afraid to speak her mind.
Richards grew up near Waco, Texas, and graduated from Baylor University. She didn't go directly into politics; at the time, few women did. Instead, she worked as a schoolteacher, married and reared four children. She was part of a group who founded the North Dallas Democratic Women in the early 1960s "basically to allow us to have something substantive to do; the regular ... party and its organization was run by men who looked on women as little more than machine parts."
After volunteering and working for several successful campaigns, Richards finally began running for office herself. In 1976, she became the first woman elected to the Travis County Commission. In 1982, she ran for state treasurer and won, becoming the first woman elected to statewide office in Texas in 50 years. In 1990, she was elected the second woman governor in Texas' history.
As governor, she promised that in her "New Texas" she would make appointments of women and people of color in numbers more proportional to their share of the population. She made good on that promise and appointed more women and minorities to state posts than any governor of Texas before her. Richards remained popular throughout her term, but as the political climate in the state grew more conservative, she was defeated for re-election in 1994 in a tough race with George W. Bush. But after leaving office she remained a powerful role model for women in politics.
Richards co-founded the Foundation for Women's Resources, which led to Leadership Texas and eventually Leadership America, organizations that identify women leaders and provide them with leadership development programs. Next year, the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders will open as a college preparatory school in Austin, eventually serving 800 girls in grades six through 12.
Ann Richards once said, "I did not want my tombstone to read, 'She kept a really clean house.' I think I'd like them to remember me by saying, 'She opened government to everyone.' "
Just as she wished, she is being remembered as a pioneer who inspired women across the country.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.