Frances ‘Sissy’ Farenthold, trailblazing politician and activist, dies at 94

Houstonian Frances “Sissy” Farenthold.
Houstonian Frances “Sissy” Farenthold.

HOUSTON – Frances “Sissy” Farenthold, a Texas trailblazer in civil rights, died at the age of 94 on Sunday after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Sissy was born in Corpus Christi in 1926 and spent her life working for equal rights and social justice.

She 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.

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In 1946, Sissy graduated 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.

After graduating from law school, Farenthold returned to Corpus Christi to practice law in her father’s firm. In 1950, she married businessman George Edward Farenthold. Together they had five children: Dudley, George Jr., Emilie, Vincent, and Jimmy. She was also step-mom to Randolph, George’s son from his previous marriage.

She took a hiatus from law practice while raising her young children. But she maintained her bar membership at her father’s urging, who paid her dues, and she became engaged in civic affairs. She served on the Corpus Christi City Council’s Human Relations Commission from 1963-1965.

In 1965, she returned to law practice as director of the Nueces County Legal Aid Program. The experience exposed her to the racial and economic injustice Mexican-Americans, poor women and children in South Texas experienced and strengthened her commitment to social and economic justice. It also inspired her run for the Texas Legislature.

In 1968, Farenthold was elected to represent Nueces and Kleberg counties in the Texas House of Representatives. At the time, she was the only woman in the House. Farenthold spent her first two-year term focusing on civil rights and economic opportunities for poor women and children. She also co-sponsored the Texas Equal Rights Amendment, which was approved by state voters in 1972.

But it was her support for open government and ethics reform as a key member of a coalition of lawmakers known as the Dirty Thirty that made her a statewide name and a political force.

After retiring, Farenthold served as Honorary Director of Rothko Chapel, and served on the advisory board of the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice of UT Law. She also continued to lend her voice and support to human rights efforts around the world and in Houston.

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner released the following statement regarding Farenthold’s passing:

Political icon “Sissy” Farenthold passed away Sunday, September 26. Please attribute the following statement to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Frances “Sissy” Farenthold’s life was an inspiration to women, people of color, and the powerless. She came from a privileged upbringing but possessed a sincere desire and ability to connect with Texans from all walks of life. Sissy believed that every person deserved to be treated fairly regardless of where they were born, their gender, or the color of their skin.  “She was a dogged defender of civil rights and a fierce advocate for women in public office. I will always admire her courage to campaign for the Texas House of Representatives and run twice for governor at a time when women did not run for public office. She won against the odds, and in 1968, she was the only woman serving in the Texas House. Sissy never allowed a male-dominated legislative body to discourage her from using her voice and intelligence to make a difference in the lives of all Texans.  “Now more than ever, Texas needs leaders who can unite rather than divide us and who dare to fight for abortion rights, voting access, the poor, and families and children.  “I will miss Sissy Farenthold. There will never be another like her.”