Founding Mothers

By Patricia Brennan / May 18, 1997
True Women/CBS
Almost every woman can tell stories about the women of her family. But they were her stories, not histories, and they rarely ended up in print. Still, it's not every woman whose real-life family saga is produced for television. Janice Woods Windle is the exception. "True Women," the tale of Windle's great-grandmothers, Euphemia Ashby King and Georgia Lawshe Woods and King's sister, Sarah Ashby McClure, airs Sunday and Tuesday at 9 on CBS.

In a May sweeps week of dueling miniseries, the lines are drawn between this set of feminine heroes and the swashbuckling "Odyssey." It's a good time to fire up the VCR. The end of the first episode of "True Women" is one you won't want to miss. Annabeth Gish plays Euphemia, whose childhood friendship with southern belle Georgia (Angelina Jolie) is a bit of fiction that introduces the characters. Aside from that device, there isn't much in the two-night miniseries that isn't true, Windle said.

"True Women" started out in 1984 to be a wedding gift for Windle's son. She and her mother, Virginia Woods of Seguin, Tex., traveled around the state doing genealogical research. Windle intended to collect recipes of her relatives and add photographs and single-paragraph summaries of their lives. The project grew into a 451-page book, published in 1994 by G.P. Putnam's Sons. A second story about her family, "Hill Country," is due out this month. Virginia Woods, who lives in the house that was built as a wedding gift for her own mother, now leads tours of the houses, churches and graveyards mentioned in her daughter's first book. Except for Craig Anderson, executive producer of the miniseries, this is largely -- and unapologetically - a women's project.

Director Karen Arthur, who carried pages torn from Windle's book as she worked, called it "one of the singular wonderful experiences in our lives. It was challenging and provocative and filled with people who realized they were making something wonderful, and that changes the entire atmosphere. All of the actors read the book. The first person to sign on was Dana {Delany}, then Annabeth, then Angelina. What we eventually came away with was a solid piece."

The story had to be trimmed to fit CBS's two-night format with commercials. "There's another solid hour" of footage, Arthur said. "What we're trying to do is get Hallmark Entertainment to distribute a version for home video." Covering the years from the Texas Revolution through Indian uprisings and the Civil War to the early stages of the women's suffrage movement, the story gets its title from a report made to the 1868 Texas Reconstruction Convention: "We believe that the good sense of every true woman in the land teaches her that granting them the power to vote is a direct open insult to their sex by the implication that they are so unwomanly as to desire the privilege."
When, in the movie, that line is quoted on the floor of the Texas Capitol, the balcony is full of women who have chosen Georgia Lawshe Woods to deliver their retort. As the scene was being filmed, said Windle, former first lady Lady Bird Johnson, her press secretary Liz Carpenter, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, watched.

The large cast - 67 speaking roles, hundreds of extras -- is headed by Delany, who said she was in Toronto when she received the script. "I read it on the way home to L.A. and I was weeping all the way home," she said. "I said to my boyfriend {actor Henry Czerny}, I have to do this.' I thought of {Sarah} as doing everything that John Wayne does, but she did it pregnant." Sarah Ashby McClure was often pregnant, bearing nine children. But eight of them, as well as her husband, Barrett, died during her lifetime. Delany said she enjoyed the relationship between Sarah and Euphemia because "I am very close to my sister. She's my best friend. She and I are two years apart." By working with a trainer in Malibu, who taught her to ride bareback, she also overcame her fear of horses engendered when a horse rolled on her during summer camp when she was a child. After filming was completed, the prop man gave Delany the gun she had used, a muzzle-loading Kentuckian flintlock. "The gun was so beautiful," she said. "It's extremely heavy; it was made for a man. It was very similar to the rifle that John Wayne used. My hands are so small that it was very hard to pull back the flintlock and do it in one motion. It took a lot of practice to make it look like I had handled the gun." Arthur credited Delany as "the consummate actress. There's nothing she can't do. We had no rehearsal, only one day of a read-through, but when you put good actors in their costumes and force them to handle a rifle and sit on a horse, they become that person."

Like Windle, who attended every day of the filming in San Antonio and the Texas hill country near Austin, Arthur said she thinks the nation's women have long been overlooked in history. "Growing up in our country, we never find out about the women, the normal women. These women are heroes to everybody whose lives touch theirs, but they were unsung." On the other hand, Arthur said, "One thing that was very interesting were the men, who were all playing very passive roles. Powers {Boothe, who plays Sarah's husband} particularly said, I'm used to carrying the mail. I hate this.' He and Jeff {Nordling, who plays Georgia's husband} were there to support the ladies."

Another supporting male role is played by Michael Greyeyes, trained in ballet and now specializing in traditional Native American dancing. As Tarantula, who pillages settlers' homes and decimates families, he is nevertheless in awe of Sarah and treats her with respect. "He did his own makeup," said Arthur. "Traditional Comanche, with black lips and stripes. The women who were in charge of our makeup department had done quite a few Indian pieces, but this was something he came up with. I thought it was absolutely beyond interesting, and it is authentic." Because there aren't many actual dresses left from that time period, 90 percent of the costumes were made by seamstresses in Austin, Tex., of original pre-Civil War fabrics from other clothes or fabrics resembling them, said Austin. "These ladies sewed around the clock," she said. "We had at one point $2 million worth of clothes. Women {of the period} would wear their black clothes until they came out of mourning and then they'd burn them." Of all the characters in her story, Windle said she invented only three names. Two are those of the Lawshes' slave and his wife, a Creek Indian, played by Charles Dutton and Irene Bedard. She called the slave Josiah because the name means "he who gets revenge," she said. For his wife, she chose the name Tobe, which means "I have lost everything" in Creek. "The third character was a man who owned a livery stable, but he was known for abusing African-American women, she said. "I wanted to put that story in the book, but my mother said I should think of his great-great-grandchildren. I decided to name him for something people would consider unpleasant, so I called him Dewey Roach."