In 2015, the Austin city manager’s office prepared to welcome its first female-majority council by training its staff on how to work well with women. But an invited facilitator drew citywide outrage by suggesting women asked a lot of questions and didn’t like to deal with numbers.
Among those picking their jaws up off the floor was Susan Combs, the former Texas comptroller who previously served as the state's first female agriculture commissioner.
“I flipped out,” Combs said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “I got so mad, and I thought, 'What on earth? Austin is not exactly right wing land. What are they doing in 2015 to women? Women who advocated for themselves, who had persuaded the voters that they could do the job.”
She subsequently tapped her leftover campaign contributions to launch HERdacity, a nonprofit online platform and mobile app that will — starting in February — give women with shared interests and career ambitions a forum to exchange ideas and offer each other support.
Combs hopes to promote HERdacity with her new book, "Texas Tenacity," which goes on sale the first week of December. It's a memoir that highlights Combs' experience running for office, her cattle-ranching background and her struggles as a 6-foot-2 woman, which she said eventually became her biggest strength. (Read the first chapter of the book here.)
“It was very hard to be that tall,” Combs said. “Either I was going to let it own me or I was going to own it. I decided I had to own it. I ran against guys who were all shorter than me. We were standing on this stage [at] these debates and I said, 'You know, all of my opponents look up to me.'”
Combs’ memoir is deeply personal; it delves into her experience in an abusive marriage, which she says she put up with as a result of low self-esteem. Combs said she shared her story so that women in similar situations could learn from her experience and disregard the stigma around failed marriages.
“What you have to do as an individual is stand up for yourself mentally,” Combs said. “I wanted women to know, 'Don’t settle. Don’t ever accept less than the best for you.'”
Combs started her political career in 1992 with a successful bid for the Texas House; the Republican represented District 47 in Travis County. In 1998, she was the first woman elected Texas agriculture commissioner; in 2006, she was elected comptroller.
Combs knows she's an outlier; women are seriously underrepresented in state politics. She said many women don't run because they lack self-confidence.
“There’s a lot of literature about the arrogance and unreasonable self-confidence by the guys, and the unreasonable lack of confidence by the women,” Combs said. “I want women to feel that they can go to HERdacity and get encouraged. It’s meant to connect, to give power, and to say to women: You are the one that directs your destiny.”
Women also shy away from politics because they don’t have enough role models to look up to, Combs said, adding that many history books don't even include information on female pioneers. If women knew more about female leaders across the world, she argued, it would drive more of them to engage in politics.
“You can’t model something if you can’t see it,” Combs said. “Hillary Clinton, she ran for office, absolutely, but way late. Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher ran decades ago. There is nothing weird about a woman running for president of the United States. There is nothing weird about a woman doing anything as long as she knows it exists.”
Combs hopes her project will reach beyond Texas women. HERdacity is getting trademarked in Europe, China, Australia and New Zealand.
"You won’t be successful in achieving your goals unless you are determined and tenacious, and all of us in HERdacity are here to help each other," Combs said.
Read more of the Tribune's coverage on Susan Combs: