Nikki Van Hightower got involved in the women’s movement in the early 1970s while an undergraduate at the University of Houston. In 1976, Houston Mayor Fred Hofheinz appointed Hightower to the office of Women’s Advocate, one of the first such city offices in the country. The New York Times subsequently labeled Hightower the “best-known feminist” in Houston.
The creation of the Women’s Advocate position strongly influenced the decision to select Houston as the site of the National Women’s Conference. Hightower served as the city liaison for the event, notwithstanding the elimination of her office by the Houston City Council months before the conference opened. She attended as a member of the Texas delegation.
In 1977, Hightower helped to establish the Houston Area Women’s Center, which provides crisis and support services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. She served as executive director from 1979 to 1986, when she was elected Harris County treasurer. After losing the race for state treasurer in 1990, Hightower started teaching political science at Texas A&M University.
Nikki Van Hightower’s outspoken criticism of gender discrimination and prominent support of the Equal Rights Amendment made her unpopular with local citizens’ groups and the all-male Houston City Council. The tension came to a head in March 1977, when council members voted to reduce her salary to $1, hoping to force her resignation. Once the salary vote was ruled illegal, the City Council voted to abolish the office of Women’s Advocate altogether. Minutes after the ordinance passed, Houston Mayor Fred Hofheinz hired Hightower as the Affirmative Action Specialist on his staff, allowing her to perform essentially the same job under a different title.