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Former activist inspires young women

By Sara Sneath
June 30, 2014 at 1:30 a.m.

Peggy Dobbins, 75, has formed a group of women in Calhoun County to do projects directed at activism. Shown with her are Candice Rochelle Contreras Garza, 25, left; Aubrey Garza, 2; Ana Garza, 30, right; and Dobbins' husband, Mike Dobbins.

INDIANOLA - In the living room of a beachside cottage, next to a sculpture of Robert de La Salle, a television flickers with black and white images of a 1968 protest of the Atlantic City Miss America pageant.

Two Port Lavaca women watch the video in awe.

Women in the video carry a giant puppet in a Wonder Woman-esque bathing suit and throw girdles, bras and hot rollers in "freedom trash cans."

"Step right up. How much am I offered for this No. 1 piece of prime American property?" a woman in a black men's suit is seen shouting in a mock auction of another woman.

"Is that you, Mrs. Peggy?" one of the Port Lavaca women asked.

"Yes," said Peggy Dobbins, 75, who participated in the 1968 Miss America pageant protest, which has been called the birth of the contemporary women's liberation movement.

Dobbins was arrested during the protest for spraying perm product Toni Home Permanent, which sponsored the pageant, onto the floors of the pageant auditorium.

"In the beginning, it was arguing about the importance of theoretical research and the importance of getting out in the street and acting funny, crazy," Dobbins said of the women's liberation movement.

Dobbins studied sociology at Tulane University and continued her political actions for decades, extending her focus beyond the women's movement to include civil rights and the labor movement. Throughout much of this time, she didn't have a name for her political actions, until a friend helping her to write a grant proposal for yet another demonstration told her she was a "performance artist."

"I didn't think of myself as a performance artist at all. I thought of myself as a sociologist who did political actions, but I did things like the Miss America puppet or dressed up like a witch and hexed Wall Street," Dobbins said.

Decades later in her Indianola cottage, Dobbins told the two Port Lavaca women that they, too, are performance artists.

The women, Candice Rochelle Contreras Garza and Ana Garza, are behind Port Lavaca's first World of Arts Show, an April talent show that the women organized to showcase the diversity of talent in the community. The women want to make the show an annual event.

"This is what people need to be able to come and express themselves," Garza, 30, said of the World of Arts Show.

The three women have been collaborating together on a joint project that will extend upon the annual Parade of Ancestors, which they hope will highlight Calhoun County diversity both historically and today.

"It's going to be a pageant about South Texas history - about how everybody came and ended up here," Contreras Garza said.

But the three are more than collaborators. They're muses for one another.

Dobbins has taught Contreras Garza and Garza female empowerment.

"She's so much different than me. She's a part of the women's liberation movement," Contreras Garza said. "Growing up, I always thought that I needed a man. But there's more to us than just wives and moms, and I think that's important for me to teach my daughter."

For Dobbins, Contreras Garza and Garza are a flashback to a connection she felt with other women in her youth.

In the late '60s and early '70s, Dobbins was viewed by other women in the liberation movement as a Texas debutante. Raised in Corpus Christi, Dobbins was educated at Wellesley College. Her political ideas were not passed down from radical parents but discovered between book covers.

"We had this absolute trust that we were all about the same thing, but we didn't know what the strategy should be, so we were arguing about that all the time. One of the main things that they struggled with me about was what they called 'male-identified book learning,'" Dobbins said.

But years surrounded by other activists taught her that most people don't respond as well to peer-reviewed articles as they do to personal narratives.

And, thus, it's two Port Lavaca women who work full time while raising children and organizing community events that have invigorated Dobbins once again.

"What I had really hoped was possible really is possible, but it is really hard. With young women having multiple jobs, raising children and trying to organize community events," Dobbins said.

Together, the three are writing a play they hope to debut next spring based on historic figures who influenced South Texas, such as members of the La Salle Texas Gulf expedition and Karankawa Indians.

"We needed to do something that affirms the diversity of this county," Dobbins said.

Though the play is a ways off, the conversations the women are having during the organization process and the effects of those talks are ongoing.

"I just sent an email to a friend; she's the one who sprinkled the permanent with me. Just being able to email her and tell her that I had shared that moment with young women who I felt more like since '67 to '68 with her and a few others. It made me teary," Dobbins said.

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