The lawyer approached the bench to be certified. A member of the state bar? Check. A practicing attorney for more than seven years? Check. Never participated in a duel? Check. Hortense Sparks Ward climbed the podium, sat in the center chair, and took her place as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas.
The year was 1925, and it would be 66 years before another group of women managed to eke out a majority in any state court. So how did three women take over the highest court in Texas a mere four and a half years after women won the right to vote? The story of Texas’ “Petticoat Court” is one of old boys’ clubs political vendettas, and a group of women bold enough to serve a court that actively undermined their interests at every turn.
In 1924, Texas’ outgoing governor, Pat Neff, was a sitting duck. He had been elected twice, and though the state didn’t expressly forbid a governor from sitting for three terms, it had never been done before. But Neff was less than thrilled about his elected successor—Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, the wife of a former governor who had been barred from future office after being impeached for a retaliatory veto. Ma Ferguson wasn’t just a shrewd wheeler and dealer—she was the first woman winner of a gubernatorial election in the United States. And that didn’t sit well with Neff.
In March 1924, Neff had been informed of a conflict of interest at the state supreme court. It involved a land dispute case that had originally been heard in El Paso. The case involved the Woodmen of the World (WOW), a fraternal organization that did double duty as the insurance carrier and old boys’ network of nearly every male lawyer in the state of Texas. When attorney after attorney recused himself from the case, the state turned to Neff and told him he must appoint a special court instead. Neff hemmed and hawed—but ten months later, he landed on a solution. The WOW only admitted men, so why not assemble a special state supreme court with only women?
The scheme wouldn’t just solve the conflict of interest—it would give Neff the opportunity to one-up Ma Ferguson before she had even taken office. It was hard to find qualified women to fill the three seats of the special court, but after a few misses, Hortense Sparks Ward, Hattie Lee Henenberg, and Ruth Virginia Brazzil were certified as the state supreme court in the case of Johnson v. Darr.
Hortense Ward was used to controversy—she had fought hard to be admitted to the state bar and was the state’s first female lawyer. But she was also experienced, and even practiced before the United States Supreme Court in 1915, though she tended to minimize her court appearances for fear of the reaction of all-male juries. When she took her seat as temporary chief justice, she was already well known for her support of women’s rights, including lobbying for and winning a law that protected the property rights of married women.
To understand how revolutionary the appointment of three women to a state supreme court was at the time, it helps to realize that women weren’t even allowed to serve on juries (and wouldn’t for another 30 years). And though the Texas Bar grumbled in private, they knew there was no other alternative to the court’s conflict of interest problem.
Four months after their appointment, the “Petticoat Court” ruled in favor of WOW and the special court was dissolved. It would be 57 years before another woman, Ruby Kless Sondock, served on the Supreme Court of Texas—and today, only two of nine justices are women.
Additional Sources: The Southern Judicial Tradition: State Judges and Sectional Distinctiveness, 1790-1890; Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious; The Texas Supreme Court: A Narrative History, 1836–1986; Texas State Historical Society; Texas Bar Association