Women's History Month Profile: Hortense Sparks Ward

Hortense Sparks Ward
Hortense Sparks Ward
Photo courtesy of the Texas State Library & Archives Commission

Hortense Sparks Ward (1872-1944) was the first woman admitted to the State Bar of Texas, the first woman attorney in Houston, the first Southern woman attorney admitted to practice before the Supreme court, a Special Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, and an influential women's suffrage advocate.

Attorney

Ward's interest in studying law began while working as a stenographer and a court reporter. After passing the bar exam in 1910, she practiced civil law in Houston with her husband — attorney and judge William Henry Ward. Most accounts of her life say that she chose to remain behind the scenes rather than appear in court because she was concerned  that all-male juries might react poorly to a female lawyer.

In 1915, Ward and her husband were admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ward practiced law until her husband died in 1939. She died five years later in 1944, survived by a daughter and eight grandchildren.

Women's Rights Advocate

As a suffragist and activist, Ward wrote stirring newspaper articles and lobbied Texas elected officials to vote for bills promoting women's legal rights. She played an important role in the passage of the 54-hour workweek for women in industry and in the passage of the 1913 married women's property law, which gave women control of their separate property and wages.

In 1918, Ward led a successful campaign to allow women the right to vote in Texas primary elections, and on June 27, 1918, she became the first woman to register to vote in Harris County. She also helped persuade 386,000 women to register to vote in 17 days through her newspaper articles and a pamphlet entitled, "Instructions for Women Voters."

Special Chief Justice

Ward was appointed Special Chief Justice of a temporary all-female Texas Supreme Court in 1925 to hear a case involving a lien on two parcels of land in El Paso County belonging to the Woodmen of the World (WOW). The supreme court justices at the time had recused themselves from the case because of their membership in the all-male fraternal organization.

Gov. Pat Neff searched unsuccessfully for ten months for male judges or attorneys not associated with the WOW. Finally, one week before the case was to be heard, the governor appointed three women to a special court — Ward, Hattie Leah Henenberg, and Ruth Virginia Brazzil. This first all-woman high court in the United States served for five months, met twice, and heard only the one case. The final decision was in the WOW's favor.

Women's History Month

This year's National Women's History Month theme - Our History is Our Strength - pays tribute to the millions of women who helped to create a better world for the times in which they lived, as well as for future generations.

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