Mary Elizabeth Sutherland Carpenter was born in Salado, Bell County, Texas in 1920 to Thomas Shelton and Mary Elizabeth Robertson Sutherland. Her father was a state highway inspector and her mother was a homemaker. Liz was the middle child of five children. According to traditional genealogical sources, her mother, Mary Elizabeth Robertson was the daughter of Maclin Robertson who was in turn the son of Sterling Clack and Sarah Maclin Robertson. Sterling Clack Robertson was born in 1785 in Tennessee and came to Texas as empresario of his own colony, settling in what would become Bell County near the current town of Salado. Robertson was also a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. On Liz’s father’s side, her Texas roots went back just as far. Her father was Thomas Shelton Sutherland III. His father was Thomas Shelton Sutherland II and his father was George Sutherland, born in Alabama and by profession a cowboy and rancher, who is noted as having served in the Texas Army and fought in the Battle of San Jacinto.
When Liz was about seven, her family moved to Austin, Texas where she spent a great deal of the rest of her life, except for around thirty years when she and her husband Les lived in Washington, DC. Liz graduated from Austin High School where she was editor of the school newspaper. She also met her future husband Leslie E. (Les) Carpenter there when he was business manager for the same newspaper. Liz and Les both majored in journalism at University of Texas and also worked together on the university newspaper, The Daily Texan.
Early in her career, she worked the Capital beat as early as 1942 when she wrote for the Austin American-Statesman. While posted in Washington, DC, she and Les were married in 1944 not long after Les was discharged from the Navy in World War II. She and Les formed the Carpenter News Bureau where they both worked for many years, providing Capital Hill news to various newspapers.
Around 1960, she was invited to join the staff of candidate Lyndon B. Johnson acting as spokesperson to the press during his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President. Johnson lost his bid for the nomination to John F. Kennedy who went on to defeat Richard Nixon, the former Vice President, in the national election. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, being succeeded by Johnson as President. Liz is said to have drafted the first short public speech that Johnson gave when he returned to Washington from Dallas after having been sworn in as President.
Early in the Johnson Administration, Liz served as press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson. She was well known around the White House for her humor and was frequently sought by reporters for quotes. After Johnson retired in 1969, she wrote her memoirs regarding her time in the White House in her book “Ruffles and Flourishes.”
Carpenter was always known for being quick witted. The following story has been reported in newspaper accounts, following the release of her book. When Arthur Schlesinger, also a noted author, greeted her and quipped “I liked your book, Liz. Who wrote it for you?” Liz is said to have replied “I’m glad you liked it, Arthur. Who read it to you?” One of her obituaries would later say that Carpenter always “gave as good as she got.”
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Carpenter was a noted feminist and supporter of women’s causes. She is credited for co-founding the National Women’s Political Caucus, and joint chairperson for ERAmerica, a national organization that unsuccessfully sought to pass the Equal Rights Amendment for women in the 1970s.
Her husband Les died of a sudden heart attack in 1974 and for the next several decades Liz lived in Austin. She was the author of several more books and was a popular speaker on women’s causes.
Her awards include being named a Distinguished Alumna of University of Texas in 1975. Texas Governor Mark White named her to the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame. The Liz Carpenter Lectureship was begun in 1984 and brought national speakers to the University of Texas College of Liberal Arts. Also named in her honor is the Liz Carpenter Award, begun in 1992 to be given to the author who has published the most notable work during the year on the subject of the history of women and Texas.
Carpenter died in the spring of 2010 from pneumonia, after a short hospitalization. She had no cemetery burial, but rather her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered at the highest point in her home town of Salado, Texas.
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