The Houstonian Woman

10 Houston Women Making It Happen

These Houstonians show us what it means to be a woman in Houston in this day and age.

By Houstonia Staff January 30, 2018 Published in the February 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Jenn Duncan

Kim Ogg: Harris County DA

On November 8, 2016, for the first time in almost 40 years, voters in Harris County elected a Democrat as its district attorney. Kim Ogg, a gay female lawyer, had bested the GOP incumbent to become top cop of the South, overseeing law and order in the third most-populous county in the nation, in the very same election that brought us a Trump presidency.

The moment was the culmination of a lifelong goal for Ogg, who started in the county DA’s office back in 1987. But by the time she took the oath of office in January of last year, she was a different person than before, with a different view on crime and punishment.

“So much time has passed, so many things have changed,” she says. “And I believe we better remain flexible or go extinct.”

In the ’90s, Ogg ran for district judge as a Republican. She’s since credited her leftward pivot to the way the GOP politicized gay marriage, particularly during George W. Bush’s second campaign. For the past 13 years, she’s championed liberal causes like drug-policy reform and increased government transparency.

A year into office, Ogg contends with the status quo each day as she works to implement new ideas about criminal justice in a world rife with machismo and the need to be “tough on crime.” (She’s made international headlines for working to decriminalize marijuana, as well as the fact that last year, for the first time since 1985, no one was sentenced to death in Harris County, long known as the “capitol of capital punishment.”)

Ogg says being a woman helps her to adapt, and to be patient as she brings change to the DA’s office. “We’re used to overcompensating,” she says, “trying lots of different approaches, scrapping the ones that don’t work, flexing into the ones that will.” —Abby P. Ledoux

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Jessica Farrar: State Representative, Texas District 148

Although Jessica Farrar first ran for her seat in 1994, when she was just 27, her big moment in the national spotlight didn’t arrive for more than two decades. During the latest legislative session, she introduced a satirical bill hitting male Republican lawmakers where it hurts: The Man’s Right to Know Act proposed a fine for all male “masturbatory emissions” that didn’t result in a baby, as well as new requirements for men to undergo medically unnecessary examinations before vasectomies, colonoscopies, and in order to obtain Viagra.

Farrar, a native Houstonian and longtime champion of women’s rights, wanted to force people to consider what it’s like for Texas women who have to jump through multiple hoops and regulations just to access basic women’s healthcare. “That was about, Let’s do for the gander what they do to the goose,” she says. “And it was interesting, the people who took offense were the same people, mostly men, who were trying to limit women’s rights, and particularly their reproductive rights.”

While the bill never made it out of committee—was never intended to—it nevertheless had a very real purpose. “I end up using the system to draw out testimony and to try to change public opinion, because the numbers aren’t there for Democrats to change things within the system,” Farrar says. “The numbers are so lopsided, and there’s no compromising with the Republicans.”

It’s the steady onslaught of troubling proposed legislation that keeps her focused and in the game. “Someone files another bad bill, or says something else that makes me mad, and so I get back in there and keep fighting,” she says, laughing. “And it’s kind of sick, but when I’m fighting with them, I have a good time.” —Roxanna Asgarian

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Image: Jenn Duncan

Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Actor, Director, Author

In the span of a few months in 2013, Stephanie Wittels Wachs discovered her brother—lauded Parks and Recreation writer and comic Harris Wittels—was a heroin addict and that she was pregnant with her first child. Shortly after giving birth, her infant daughter was diagnosed with a severe hearing impairment. Within a year, her brother died of a heroin overdose.

These events prompted Wachs, an actress and the director of Rec Room, a local experimental theater, to start a journal, which became a popular blog on Medium, and as of this month, a new book, Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful. In it, she lays her life bare, wrestling with the deep sorrow of losing her brother to an insidious disease and her fury at him for succumbing to addiction.

“There’s no pretense. Nobody comes out looking good in this,” Wachs admits. “Everybody is flawed, everyone is horrible, everyone is doing the best they can.” The book is a kind of manual on how to handle (and not handle) tragedy when it storms into your life—a new millennial grief guide. The boomers had Joan Didion; and Gens X, Y and Z have Wachs.

Her daughter is now 3, and Wachs has come to accept her brother’s death. She can’t say the ordeal made her more resilient, and she’s careful not to paint that picture for anyone. “You’re just a different person than you were before something like this happens to you,” she says quietly. “You’re different when you come out the other end.”

The bright side to all this darkness is the road map Wachs has provided to help others navigate hard times. And while she may deny being stronger, as she sips her coffee and moves the conversation toward her recent, second pregnancy, we hope she’ll forgive us for having our doubts about that. —Steven Foster

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Denise Hamilton: Founder, WatchHerWork

It would be only a slight exaggeration to describe motivational speaker Denise Hamilton as a 5-foot-11 semi-truck of confidence careening through life toward success.

After a stint in PR in Florida, the Brooklyn-born Hamilton came to Houston in 2005 to co-found Jones Magazine (described as a “fashion and beauty shopping guide for women of color”) with her Abilene Christian University roommate. When she left media for the corporate world, she was unexpectedly recruited by CBRE, a commercial real estate giant she’d never heard of.

Hamilton nevertheless rose to become an industry executive within five years—no small feat in a field she jokes is all men and “one half of one percent any ethnic minority.” Now, she wants to help other women skip the learning curve on their way to the top, although that does not mean she wants to be your one-on-one life coach.

“Am I really supposed to mentor the 700 women behind me?” the daughter of Jamaican immigrants asks. “Is that realistic? No. That’s not going to happen.”

Three years ago, this realization pushed Hamilton to end her nearly decade-long real estate career to start WatchHerWork, a Houston-based online platform for professionals she calls an “aggregator of female experience.” The site, currently run out of her Montrose condo, nixes the awkward and inefficient search for a mentor and cuts straight to advice, with Hamilton and her daughter interviewing successful women about topics ranging from how to negotiate a salary to how to tell your boss you’re pregnant to, simply, Working with Men, an entire umbrella category.

Information is delivered through short video interviews, not articles, so women can hear the tone, see the facial expressions, appreciate the different skin colors and body types, and hopefully find approaches that work for their specific needs among the 25,000 uploads Hamilton wants to reach by the end of the year. (There are about 5,000 so far.) And if that sounds like a lot of advice to sift through, that’s only because there are so many ways to be a woman.

“Work is different when you’re pretty,” says Hamilton. “It’s different if you’re tall. It’s different if you’re heavy. It’s different if you’re extroverted. We can’t get all our advice from Sheryl Sandberg.” —Morgan Kinney

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Image: Jenn Duncan

Heather Brown: Orthodontist, Dr. Heather Brown Orthodontics

Growing up in Mississippi with parents who couldn’t afford to give her braces, Heather Brown was painfully aware from early on that her uneven teeth were noticeable every time she smiled. “People would always say, ‘Oh she’s pretty, but her teeth!’” Brown recalls. “That’s all I heard.”

Fast-forward to dental school, where Brown enrolled after just one month working as an office manager for her hometown dentist. There, she not only got braces, but met the woman who would define her future: her orthodontist, who always seemed happy and got to work with children. Brown decided to pursue the same profession.

Today, Brown lives here in Houston and has a booming private practice of 14 years, Dr. Heather Brown Orthodontics. She’s had to expand the space three times, coopting suite after suite in her South Loop office building and even offering a mini-movie theater in her waiting room.

Orthodontist, business owner, wife (to former NFL Texan Eric Brown), and mother of two: Balancing all these roles is challenging. Not only that, in a field still dominated by men, she’s often the only woman—and nearly always the only black woman—in the room. She remembers attending a seminar for top providers and having to endure the inevitable unsavory jokes. Her response perhaps encapsulates her entire career: “Sorry guys,” she recalls saying, “but I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”

That includes another role she plays, too, as the face of her brand. Nationally recognized clinical skills aside, Brown’s chief endorsement is right there in her marketing materials, every time she smiles: a perfect set of teeth. —APL

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Image: Jenn Duncan

Jenny Chang: Oncologist, Houston Methodist Cancer Center Director

Cancer hit Jenny Chang’s family repeatedly when she was a kid—growing up in Singapore, she lost a number of relatives to the disease—but it was the death of her cousin, from leukemia, that led her to become a cancer doctor. As she grappled with the realities of loss, Chang became fascinated with the disease itself.

“We are perfectly made systems, built to function exactly the way we do, but cancer somehow goes crazy and does whatever it wants,” Chang, now the director of Houston Methodist’s Cancer Center, says. “I wanted to understand what makes it work this way.”

Chang attended medical school at Cambridge University in England during the late ’80s, when men still dominated British medical schools. By the time she had earned her MD and started pursuing her oncology research doctorate at the University of London, she was accustomed to being one of the only women among her peers.

Chang made sure her gender didn’t matter by maintaining top grades and publishing frequently—and in top medical journals—becoming so qualified that passing her over just wasn’t an option. Her goal was to help people by gaining new understanding of this disease, and she refused to let anything get in the way of that. “I wasn’t blind to the realities of being a woman in medicine—I didn’t have a role model because there were not many women doing the kind of work I was doing—but I just treated it like any other obstacle that came up,” she says now. “I found ways around it.”

That approach paid off. Since arriving at Houston’s Texas Medical Center in the early 2000s, Chang has become renowned as a breast cancer doctor and a pioneer in stem cell research, in addition to becoming one of few women running a cancer research department in the entire Med Center when she took over at Houston Methodist in 2010.

Chang admits she’s struggled throughout her career to balance the demands of her profession and her personal life. She helped raise two nephews and has a pair of dogs, but she never had children because she didn’t feel she could fulfill the demands of both work and motherhood. “I chose the work. What makes me wake up in the morning is, I want to be a good doctor, and I want to understand what makes cancer grow,” Chang says. “In hindsight, I can see where I might have done things differently, had more work-life balance, but I didn’t feel I could do both at the time, so I chose my patients, my work.” —DW

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Jennifer Mathieu: Teacher, Novelist

When her fourth young adult novel, Moxie, was released in September of last year, Jennifer Mathieu had no way of knowing the #MeToo movement was on the verge of breaking wide open.

The novel, which takes place in East Rockport, Texas, tells the story of Vivian, a teenager who gets so fed up with her school’s sexist culture that she ends up starting a feminist movement.

Just weeks after the book was released, the New York Times published a bombshell story detailing numerous allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Since then, dozens of high-profile men have been outed for sexual misconduct.

But Mathieu couldn’t have predicted this confluence of events. In fact, as she was finishing the first draft of Moxie, just before the 2016 presidential election, she was worried about how she would promote a novel about a feminist teen when the next president of the United States was going to be a woman.

Mathieu grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and moved to Houston in the early 2000s to work at the Houston Press. In 2005, wanting to try something new, she became an English teacher—she’s now at Bellaire High School—and later, inspired by the books her students were devouring, started writing YA novels.

Growing up, Mathieu was an outspoken feminist. She remembers a heated debate in her high school current events class over the admission of the first female cadet to the Citadel, after which the teacher always referred to her a “feminazi.”

“I laughed it off because that’s what girls are trained to do,” she says. Riot Grrrl and feminist literature provided her comfort at the time, something she hopes Moxie also will do for today’s young adults. The book could reach a lot of them, by the way: It’s been optioned by Amy Poehler’s production company, Paper Kite.

Certainly, the story could not be more of-the-moment. “Women are always fighting for their rights,” Mathieu says.
“It’s just that at this particular moment, we have a lot of mainstream media picking up on these very specific explosive stories. And if Moxie can add to that conversation, I’m thrilled.” —Brittanie Shey

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Andrea Baldwin: UH-Clear Lake Professor, Playwright

In June 2013, as Texas State Senator Wendy Davis stood on the Senate floor filibustering against a bill that would severely limit Texas women’s access to abortion, Andrea Baldwin was sitting in her living room, watching along with a group of classmates from Southern Illinois University. And she remembers being startled when, that evening, a Midwestern classmate informed her that she would be ashamed to be from Texas.

Furious, Baldwin curtly responded that she was born and raised here. “Why wouldn’t you just leave?” she was asked. “There are other places that aren’t doing this to women.”

Baldwin had been struggling to reconcile her two identities—as a Texan and a feminist—ever since she moved to Carbondale, Illinois, to pursue her PhD in communication. But that night, stung by her classmate’s remark, it became clear: Baldwin knew she could be black and Texan and a feminist, all at the same time. “Everyone is so quick to joke and mock and tell our state we’re not progressive enough,” she says now. “It’s a difficult frontline, but I don’t mind being on it, because it’s my home. If not me, who?”

Now a lecturer in communication studies at UH–Clear Lake, Baldwin has also written a one-woman show, Lone Star Feminist, which she’s performed locally and around the country. The work highlights amazing Texas women—Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, Wendy Davis, and, yes, Beyoncé—while exploring Baldwin’s own, complex identity.

“All the things we love about being Texan, being generous and nice to people, knowing we’re in the best place we could be, it’s that,” Baldwin says. “But it’s also taking into account, if we do love who we are and where we are, we need to take care of the people—the women—within it.” —RA

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Image: Jenn Duncan

Rose Mary Salum: Founder of Literal Magazine 

Fifteen years ago, Rose Mary Salum was at a crossroads: Would she pursue her doctorate in philosophy as planned, or go after the dream that had begun to consume her?

She chose the latter, hurling energy previously reserved for academia into the entirely unfamiliar enterprise of founding a bilingual magazine in Houston, where she’d moved from Mexico City a few years prior for her husband’s job. The concept was simple, but novel: a periodical that would build a bridge for cultural expression between Latin America and the United States.

Since launching in 2004, Literal has published works by esteemed thinkers including Malcolm Gladwell and Martha Nussbaum and won multiple awards. In 2014, it moved to an online-only format, an initially challenging decision that, Salum says, has ultimately benefited the publication, expanding its reach.

Now boasting a publishing house and a film festival in addition to the magazine itself, Literal has evolved into a kind of cultural center. Its offices, located in a converted Bellaire warehouse, play host to events celebrating diversity and fundraisers for oppressed peoples of other nations, most recently Venezuela and Syria.

As a female Mexican immigrant of Lebanese descent in the United States, Salum has experienced being a minority on multiple levels. She recalls the time that, at a book fair, a man asked who she was there with, insinuating her presence could only be as someone’s plus-one.

“That’s a metaphor for everything that I deal with,” she says.

For Salum, gender and racial equality are inextricably linked, and achieving both requires effort and understanding. Literal exists, she says, to defy those who would deny America’s diversity.

“The fact that we close our eyes to these cultural expressions does not mean that they do not exist,” Salum says. “It’s through culture that people interact and understand each other.” APL

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Mana Yegani: Immigration Attorney

After President Trump signed his first travel ban in January of last year, Mana Yegani quickly went from being “a little immigration lawyer” to one who thought nothing of charging into Bush Intercontinental Airport to ensure clients’ rights.

There was much confusion surrounding Trump’s executive order, and as she worked to parse it, Yegani began sharing what she learned in real time, gaining thousands of Twitter followers in the process.

Today, she remains a go-to source of information on how the country’s evolving immigration policy affects actual immigrants. “We’re kind of on the front line,” Yegani says of immigration lawyers, “and I never imagined this.”

An aspiring doctor-turned-lawyer raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, Yegani has been practicing in Houston since 2011. While the travel ban and similar changes have increased the inquiries she receives, they haven’t drastically affected her caseload. The fact is, she’s limited in what she can do, particularly for those formerly protected under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a program the Trump administration rescinded last September, in a move that remained in effect as of this writing.

“I’m a lawyer, I can only work with what is the law,” says Yegani. “Congress, the President, if they’re canceling all these things that are helping immigrants, there’s not much I can do for them.”

Still, Yegani, herself the daughter of Iranian immigrants, spends her free time searching for ways the law can help her clients, networking furiously with other lawyers and poring over legal texts every night, searching for any tactic or precedent that might prove useful in court. Recently, she presented an obscure 1996 case law that compelled a judge to reset a proceeding, potentially saving a client from deportation to Mexico. And she juggles all this while repairing her flood-damaged home, doting on her dog, Cocoa Puffs, and carrying her first child.

Despite all the recent chaos, Yegani firmly believes “the law still matters and the law still works,” as she tweeted last year. The week we spoke, she’d helped a Pakistani immigrant gain American citizenship. Afterward, he gave Yegani a hug (and a five-star Google review). “Those are moments that give me so much joy and make me feel like I’m still making a difference,” she says. —MK

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