In 1925, Hortense Sparks Ward, Hattie Lee Henenberg, and Ruth Virginia Brazzil were certified as the state supreme court of Texas. The women were part of a special court convened just to hear one case: Johnson v. Darr. It would be thirty years until women were even permitted to sit on juries in the state of Texas, so how did these three women make history? The answer lies between an old boys network and the state’s first female governor.
The story begins with the political fortune of Governor Pat Neff, an outgoing two-term governor who had decided not to try for a third term. Although there was not a term limit law at the time, by tradition Texas governors left service after two. And as you are about to discover, in Texas the traditions of the good old boys’ network are taken seriously.
For Neff, his departure was made even worse because his successor was a woman. Yes, you read that right: Texas elected its first woman governor in 1925. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson was the wife of governor James “Pa” Ferguson, who was impeached and barred from holding office again. Although he was impeached in 1917, Texans have a long memory and they were not too happy about his ouster. Ma Ferguson ran for governor and was elected two times, first in 1925, then again in 1932. Ferguson ran on a platform that by electing her, voters would also get her husband. Her slogan was “two for the price of one.”
Into this morass of politicking came a case that would upend the state’s high court. With Neff set to depart, the Texas Supreme Court was scheduled to hear a land dispute involving the Woodmen of the World (WOW), the insurance agency and fraternal organization for nearly every male lawyer in the state. All three supreme court justices were conflicted out as members of WOW. But nearly every other lawyer in the state also refused an appointment to a special court to hear the case. After much deliberation, Neff decided to appoint three women to the court to hear the single case. It allowed him to get the upper hand against the incoming female governor.
Finding three women lawyers was not an easy task at the time. Eventually the three “Petticoat Court” justices were sworn in. For Hortense Sparks, this was a double-edged sword. She had fought to even be admitted to the Texas Bar, and became the state’s first woman lawyer. She had practiced before the U.S. Supreme Court, but in her home state had to limit her appearances before juries since the all-male jurors tended to overreact. But on the court she went, where she and the other two women decided in favor of WOW and then departed from the stage.
As for Ma Ferguson, she didn’t let Neff’s politics stop her from playing her own political games. Ferguson’s brand of populism is still controversial in Texas. She stood up to the Ku Klux Klan and sided with anti-prohibitionists despite being a teetotaler herself. She pushed for a state income and sales tax despite being a fiscal conservative, and is controversially considered an opponent of bilingualism (although there is much debate about her actual statements and views on the matter).
After their one-case reign, the Petticoat Court were dissolved. It would be 57 years before another woman made her way to the Texas Supreme Court.
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