A Woman Can
The Texas Story Project.
Nina Cavanaugh’s time in San Antonio, Texas was marked by her dedication to advancing the women’s movement and her perseverance in the endless battle to empower those most in need.
In 1965, following her husband’s transfer to Lackland Air Force base, Nina Cavanaugh left her hometown of Middletown, Pennsylvania and headed south to San Antonio with her husband and their two small children. Within two years of her move, she found herself living as a single mother with three young girls after the deterioration of her marriage. The desperation of her circumstances sparked a new-found sense of resilience in her.
Her first step into the community of activism was her work with the Crisis Center for Suicide Prevention, located on the third floor of Chaminade Tower on the St. Mary’s University campus. She started as a volunteer and before she knew it she was on call 24 hours a day and ensuring that the center was staffed at all times. She did all of this while not yet holding the official title of President. Except for her boss, Nina enjoyed her work with the center. She specifically recalled one conversation where her boss sat her down and said, “he didn’t think a woman could run this organization. I had no idea how we could say that because he was too busy making out with the young female volunteers while I was keeping the thing staffed.” Despite her boss’s beliefs the community took notice. On September 23, 1973, her work with the Crisis Center gained her recognition from San Antonio Express News as “Woman of the Week.”
One of her volunteers at the Crisis Center also worked for the alternative Healy-Murphey High School, located on the eastside of San Antonio. The woman told Nina that the boys had formed a football team but had nobody to cheer for them because the area was low-income, and their parents were either working or not involved. Nina decided to start attending their games, so they would have someone cheer for them. She will never forget the time she was sitting in the bleachers and Sister Mary Boniface pointed to her in the bleachers and told her that she belonged at Healy-Murphey. Nina was hired on at the Healy-Murphey Child Development Center and with Sister Boniface by her side she became a pillar of the community. She recalls the anger and frustration she felt over the lack of resources available to her students. There were days she would cry from the guilt of taking her own children to their privileged schools while thinking of the very different lives the kids she worked with everyday experienced.
Her catapult into the women’s movement was the culmination of her divorce and her attendance at the first San Antonio N.O.W (National Organization of Women) meeting. She describes her first meeting as “the beginning of the end for Nina Cavanaugh. Oh, my goodness I had no idea how badly we had it.” She worked with Bettie Naylor, a fellow activist who pointed out that N.O.W was excluding the Lesbian community and there was a need for a safe place for lesbians. At the time the only place for them to meet was at the bars. “One of the things we did…in those days police would raid gay bars. We didn’t have that many, but the police were raiding them. One of the things Bettie Naylor wanted straight people to do was to go to the bar and be a witness, which means you could be arrested, to the injustice of it all. I did that twice.”
They decided to organize a gay-straight conference and Nina joined the board dedicated to making the conference happen. Shortly before the scheduled date of the conference, the owner of the Oak Hills Motor Inn called to cancel their reservation for a conference room because of death threats to the hotel. They were rescued when the Ella Austin Community Center on the Eastside of San Antonio offered to have the conference held at their center. The night before the conference Nina recalls “I wrote a letter to each of my children in case I was killed, telling them I loved them no matter what and these were just things I had to do for the community. You probably don’t understand but it’s just the way your mama is.” Nina always felt compelled to do what she could to speak out and help women and those who were marginalized. There was no going back to ignoring the world around her.
Having spent more than half a decade as a single mother, Nina learned first-hand the challenges of being a woman on your own in the world. In 1975, Nina along with a group of fellow feminists, were becoming more frustrated by the lack of credit the banks were willing to give single women. You needed a man to get loans from most banks. Together, they founded the San Antonio Women’s Credit Union to work with struggling women in San Antonio to establish savings and good credit. They credit union did not have a brick and mortar location and was strictly volunteer. Once a week 3 or 4 of the members, including Nina would meet at the local YWCA to take payments and offer loans to the women in the community who needed them.
This was Nina’s spring board to starting her own business, something few women were able to manage even though women ran businesses from behind the scenes everywhere. Though it was hard to leave Healey-Murphey behind, she moved into the next phase of her life. Nina started Adventure Preschool and it was like coming full circle from her days at the Crisis Center when her boss told her she could never run a business. She was finally President and could run things her own way, use inclusive hiring practices, and continue to work with children day in and day out. She continued her community involvement helping when she could and where she could and has continued to rely on that spark of resilience to keep her involved to this very day.
Mariah Cavanaugh is a second-year history major seeking teacher certification at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. Within the past year she designed a walking tour of downtown San Antonio for the Western Historical Association Conference and published two articles with StMU History Media. Mariah is passionate about history and wants to educate future generations because as Marcus Garvey said, “a people without the knowledge of their past and history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Posted November 27, 2018