Looking At A Fascinating Point In History When Women Ruled In Texas

By Pamela Billings Ewen

In August of 1920, one hundred years ago this month, women won the right to vote. From that time until today the battle for equality between the sexes was fought step by step through the years—with one exception in the State of Texas. Because in 1925, due a confluence of extraordinary events, women ruled for five stupendous months.

Here’s how it happened…

In 1922 Woodmen of the World, a national fraternal order with massive political power in Texas, instituted a lawsuit over two tracts of land in El Paso. The property, originally owned by Woodmen of the World, had been transferred to Mr. F.P. Jones years ago, on condition that Jones would transfer the tracts back to Woodmen upon demand. Jones agreement to the condition was written, but not filed in property records. Some years later, creditors of Jones filed a lien on the two tracts. Woodmen claimed the lien was worthless since Jones was merely holding the land in trust for the organization. 

The creditors argued that the condition that Jones would return the property to Woodman on demand created a ‘secret’ trust which was invalid.

Over the next few years the case wound its way up to the Supreme Court of Texas. That’s where the trouble began. Because each of the three male judges on the final court announced that they were members of Woodmen of the World, disqualifying them. New judges must be found.  After ten months the search revealed that every qualified male lawyer in the state was a member of Woodmen of the World. Aghast, the men finally faced the fact: they were forced to turn to the fairer sex for help. 

The search for three qualified women lawyers to serve on the court took almost year. Qualifications for office, among other things, included a sworn oath that the candidate had never fought a duel. Guns and dueling were not problem, but experience was. At last, Texas Governor Pat M. Neff reluctantly swore in Hortense Sparks Ward as Chief Justice, and Hattie Leah Henenberg and Ruth V. Brazzil as Associate Justices. A New York Times headline exclaimed this Supreme Court of Women was the first such Body in the country. Back in Texas, the clerk of court was outraged at this turn of events. He skipped the swearing-in ceremony and went fishing, stating he’d be damned if he’d stick around to nursemaid the women. 

New Chief Justice Hortense Ward was a strong, determined woman at a time when life was hard if you stepped out of line. The oldest of 14 children, she married in 1891 and divorced in 1906—a shocking rebellion in those days. In the divorce petition she claimed her husband was a no-account lazy man and worked only half the time. 

With three children to support after the divorce, she studied law at night through correspondence courses, working as a secretary to a male lawyer during the day. She passed the bar exam in 1910, the first woman to pass the exam, and immediately began a fierce fight for a woman’s right to control her own property in a marriage. At that time, the law provided a husband held total control over his wife’s possessions—he could do anything without permission—even sell her dresses if he so desired! But in 1913 Ward obtained passage of the Married Women’s Property Rights Law, allowing married women in Texas to control and protect their own property. 

In 1917 Hortense continued her fight for suffrage using a unique strategy when Governor Ferguson vetoed a bill allowing women the full right to vote. After losing that battle, Ward tightened the screws with an end-run around the Governor, obtaining passage in the Texas legislature on a bill allowing women the limited right to vote at least in local primaries. This was no small victory as, in Texas at that time, with one party dominant, primary votes usually decided elections. 

At the same time as women took the highest court in 1925, Mariam A. Ferguson, known as ‘Ma’ Ferguson, was elected Governor of the State of Texas with the help of her husband, formerly impeached Governor James Edward Ferguson. On January 20, 1925, she was sworn in as the first woman ever to serve as Governor in the State of Texas. And only the second woman governor of a state in the USA. On an anti-prohibition and anti-Ku Klux Klan platform, Ma Ferguson’s campaign promised that a vote for Ma was a vote for Pa, that voters would get two for the price of one. Once in office Ma was no angel, but she held fast on her platform priorities, most important fighting against the Ku Klux Klan. Though courts soon overturned it, she managed to secure an anti-mask law against the Klan—a fairly decisive victory at the time!

1925 was a fine year for the fairer sex in Texas, holding seats as Governor of the State and in the Supreme Court. The Associated Press, New York Times, and news outlets around the country covered the sensational story. Women ruled, even though thirty years would pass before women could sit on juries in Texas. 

By the way, all was not lost for the men. The female Supreme Court held for Woodmen of the World, upholding the secret trust.

Pamela Binnings Ewen is the author of one nonfiction book, ‘Faith on Trial’, and five novels, including ‘The Moon in the Mango Tree’, awarded the 2012 Eudora Welty Memorial Award. Her latest book, released in April 2020, ‘The Queen of Paris: A Novel on Coco Chanel’, received a Starred Review from Publisher’s Weekly and was ranked No. 1 in Hot New Spring Releases in biographical historical fiction by Amazon Kindle. After practicing law for many years in Texas, she retired to write. Ewen has a literary pedigree and is the latest writer to emerge from a Louisiana family recognized for its statistically improbable number of successful authors including cousin, James Lee Burke, Andre Dubus, and Alafair Burke. Visit Pamela online at pamelaewen.com. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.