Trailblazing Woman: Houstonian Frances “Sissy” Farenthold reflects on almost a century of advocating for women’s rights
Images and some film footage courtesy of Frances Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold: A Noble Citizen (2015), produced by the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at the University of Texas School of Law, with images from Sissy’s papers at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
HOUSTON – Women’s History Month is a time to reflect upon the contributions made by trailblazing women who weren’t afraid of speaking up and challenging the status quo.
One of those women lives right here in Houston, and her work in public service spans almost an entire century.
Frances “Sissy” Farenthold was one of the first female Texas State Representatives, a candidate for governor, wife and mother of five, and a champion of equal rights for everyone. And that list only scratches the surface.
Take a deep dive with us into the remarkable and inspiring life of Sissy Farenthold by watching the video above, by watching one of the Rapoport Center’s films about her life here, or by viewing the timeline below.
1926 - Frances “Sissy” Farenthold is born in Corpus Christi. Growing up, Sissy saw the struggles facing her neighbors, especially non-white minorities.
1946 - Sissy graduates from Vassar College in Dutchess County, New York, and decides to continue on to law school at The University of Texas. In a student body of 800, Sissy was one of just three women.
“There was always a lot of talk," said Sissy. "But I just left that alone and worked. And I’ll tell you when I had my greatest pleasure - to see my name on the honor roll... I liked the competition.”
1949 - Sissy graduates from law school. She returns to Corpus Christi to practice law at her father’s firm. Around this time, Sissy marries and has five children. She takes a hiatus from practicing law to raise her young children, and took this as an opportunity to engage with civic affairs and economic justice.
“I thought I was voting for these people because they were taking care of these things. But they weren’t,” said Sissy, referencing the local politicians she was observing. That’s when she decided to take action herself.
1969-1973 - Sissy served in the Texas House of Representatives. At the time, she was the only woman in the House. She spent her first two-year term focusing on civil rights and economic opportunity for poor women and children. She co-sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment with State Senator Barbara Jordan. In 1973 she was chosen as the first chair of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
“I don’t think there was any question about ever quitting. I didn’t have that in my head. I was gonna do this.”
1972 - Several women’s groups tap Sissy to run as a vice-presidential nominee at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. She came in second to the presidential nominee’s choice, U.S. Senator Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri. She garnered more delegate votes than future U.S. President Jimmy Carter of Georgia.
“It is she and she alone who truly represents what is different about the 1972 convention,” said activist Gloria Steinem at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. “In us, her supporters, you see before you, a coalition of women, black people, Spanish speaking people and young people who support her. Make history know that this was a different convention. Vote for Sissy Farenthold for Vice President of the United States.”
1972 & 1974 - Sissy unsuccessfully seeks the Democratic nomination for Governor of Texas.
1976-1980 - Sissy serves as president of Wells College in Aurora, New York. In this role, she founded the Public Leadership Education Network on the thought that women’s colleges need to work together to educate and prepare women for public leadership.
“To me, the pursuit of public office is the corollary to full citizenship,” said Sissy when asked by a reporter if a woman could be nominated as a vice presidential candidate. "Until you’re able to pursue that without any qualifying adjectives, I don’t think you have full citizenship.”
1980 - Sissy returned to Houston to practice law and teach at the University of Houston and Texas Southern University School of Law.
NOW - Sissy serves as Honorary Director of Rothko Chapel, and serves on the advisory board of the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice of UT Law. She continues to lend her voice and support to human rights efforts around the world and in Houston.
“Well there certainly has been a transformation... of the role of women," said Sissy. "There is an awareness I believe was not there before. I’m hopeful.”
You can watch a film, produced by the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice in the link below.
Visit https://law.utexas.edu/farenthold/ for the Rapoport Center’s interactive archive and series of films depicting Sissy Farenthold’s life’s work at the state, national, and international levels.
The archival material on the site is just a sampling of Sissy’s papers, which are housed at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.
If you would like to celebrate or help support the legacy of Sissy’s relentless pursuit of social justice, the Rapoport Center and Rothko Chapel co-sponsor an annual lecture series in her honor. You can find more information here.
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