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An Homage to Hortence Sparks Ward, the First Woman to be Admitted to the Texas Bar

The Association of Women Attorneys (AWA) hosted a luncheon meeting in November where Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehermann spoke.  Justice Lehermann talked about women’s participation in the Texas Bar.  Specifically, she introduced me to the fascinating historical figure of Hortence Sparks Ward, who was the first woman that the Texas Bar admitted to practice.

Born on July 21, 1872, Hortence must have been a dedicated and headstrong person.  She married in 1881, but divorced in 1903.  After her divorce, she began working as a court reporter.  She married again in 1908, this time, to a Houston attorney and judge, William Henry Ward.  In 1910, she sat for, and passed the bar exam, and became the first woman ever admitted to practice law in Texas.

She (probably wisely) decided that she would not appear in court for fear that the all-male jurors at the time would revolt.  Hortence became a well-known advocate for women’s rights.  She lobbied the Texas Legislature and published papers.  She worked for the passage of the Married Woman’s Property Law of 1913; fought for a domestic relations court, a women’s division of the Texas department of labor, and for women’s rights to vote and to serve as corporate officers.

She was also one of the first women Texas Supreme Court Justices – even if it was on a temporary basis.  In 1924, just 4 years after the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote, the case of Johnson v. Darr came before the Texas Supreme Court.  This case involved an all-male organization known as the Woodmen of the World, and all three sitting justices of the Texas Supreme Court were members of the Woodmen of the World and thus were disqualified from hearing the case.  After faithfully searching for replacements, the governor realized that women could not be members of the Woodmen of the World.  He appointed Hortence Sparks Ward, who sat as chief justice, and Ruth Brazzil and Hattie Henenberg as the other two panelists.  All three were licensed Texas attorneys.

After her stint on the Texas Supreme Court, Hortence Sparks Ward continued to work for women’s rights.  She died in 1944, survived by a daughter and eight grandchildren.

Thank you, Hortence Sparks Ward, for beginning to pave the way for women attorneys!