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Hortense Sparks Ward, Texas Suffragist

by David A. Furlow

Married Woman’s Property Rights Law

Hortense Sparks Ward was the first woman in Texas to pass the bar exam and one of the first female members of the State Bar of Texas. She was also the woman who drafted the bill and then successfully lobbied the Texas Legislature to protect the property rights of women who acquired income from real property holdings, stocks, and bonds by enacting the Married Woman’s Property Rights Law.[1] In 1925, she served as the Special Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court’s “All Woman-Court,” the first all-female panel of a state supreme court in the Anglo-American world.[2] Those achievements were impressive, yet Hortense Ward’s greatest legal victories occurred between 1913 and 1920, during the long struggle to enfranchise Texas’s women voters.

Ward assisted Texas suffragist Minnie Fisher Cunningham’s campaign for ratification of a federal constitutional amendment to grant women the right to vote. That bill won passage in January 1918 when six Texas congressmen (out of eighteen) voted in its favor. As president of the Houston Equal Suffrage Association, Ward successfully lobbied Governor William P. Hobby and the Legislature to pass a bill, on March 26, 1918, that authorized women to vote in Texas primary elections.

Ward authored widely read newspaper articles and a pamphlet, “Instructions for Women Voters,” that helped convince nearly 386,000 women to register to vote in just 17 days during the summer of 1918. Members of the Houston Equal Suffrage Association honored her with a large silver loving cup on April 3, 1918, that bears this legend:

“The cup was given for…work on behalf of securing suffrage in the primaries for the women of Texas.”

In recognition of her leadership, Democratic Party officials allowed her to become the first woman to register to vote in Harris County.

 

Hortense Sparks Ward Registers to Vote in Houston

Hortense Sparks Ward registered to vote in the hallway of a Houston court.
Houston Post, June 28, 1918.

Ratifying the 19th Amendment

Texas was the first Southern state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When Tennessee became the 36th state to follow suit on August 18, 1920, the amendment obtained the necessary agreement of three-fourths of the states and became federal law. U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification on August 26, 1920. After winning the battle for suffrage in Texas, Hortense Sparks Ward and her law-partner husband William Henry Ward filed a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the Texas Women’s Poll Tax Law. A special session of the Texas Legislature created a “poll tax window” law to enfranchise women while retaining a poll tax intended to preclude African Americans, Hispanics, and impoverished whites from voting. That law conditioned the right to vote on proof that a voter had paid the previous year’s (1919) poll tax—then purported to extend that payment deadline from January 1920 until October 22, 1920.

“Tax collectors of Texas were advised today to use 1919 poll tax receipts in acknowledging payment of poll tax under the election law passed by the [special session] legislature which adjourned Saturday,” Texas newspapers reported. “Under [that statute,] voters have until October 22 to pay their poll tax…” But Texas legislators failed to pass a corresponding amendment to the Texas Constitution to extend the Texas Constitution’s poll tax payment deadline until October 22, 1920. That omission left the statute vulnerable to a constitutional challenge. Since ratification of the 19th Amendment did not occur until August 1920, Texas women could not legally pay a poll tax by the constitutional payment deadline of January 1920.

The Wards recruited a well-respected plaintiff, Mary F. Hinckley, to challenge the poll tax by filing a mandamus action to strike down the poll-tax statute in deference to the Texas Constitution. District Judge J.D. Harvey accepted jurisdiction over the lawsuit. If Judge Harvey upheld the Women’s Poll Tax Law, only 400 women would be able to legally vote, since few women had paid the poll tax. But if the Wards’ constitutional challenge succeeded, the resulting ruling would throw open the polls to voters of both genders and every race.

The Wards won their lawsuit.  Judge Harvey ruled that,

“The law attempting to impose on women a poll tax prerequisite to their voting in the general election….is void and women have the constitutional right to vote in all such elections without payment of a poll tax.”

The Wards’ legal victory enabled Anglo, Hispanic, and African Americans, men and women alike, to vote in the November 2, 1920, election—as equals. Of the 13,000 people who voted in Harris County on November 2, 1920, some 5,000 were women. Females outnumbered males in some districts. African American turnout was heavy, as many men and women voted for the first time.[3]

Houston’s Heritage Society is hosting a museum exhibition about women’s suffrage, “Houston Women Cast Their Ballots: Celebrating 100 Years of the Right to Vote!” It will continue in the society’s Museum Gallery at 1100 Bagby Street, next to Sam Houston Park, from now through March 31, 2021.[4]


David A. Furlow, attorney and historian, serves as editor emeritus of The Journal of the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society.

[1] James L. Haley, A Narrative History of the Texas Supreme Court, 1836-1986 (Austin: Univ. of Tex Press, 2013), 146, 168, and 278.

[2] See Barbara Karkabi, “Judge O’Connor’s nomination reminds us: Once Texas had an all-woman Supreme Court!,” Houston Chronicle, Sec. 4, p. 6 (July 13, 1981); Linda Hunsaker, “Family Remembrances and the Legacy of Chief Justice Hortense Sparks Ward,” Journal of the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society, 4(4) (Summer 2015): 51-64, http://texascourthistory.org/Content/Newsletters//TSCHS%20Journal%20Summer%202015.pdf, accessed Aug. 30, 2020;  Debbie Mauldin Cottrell, “All-woman Supreme Court,” Handbook of Texas Online, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/all-woman-supreme-court, accessed Aug. 30, 2020.

[3] Rae Bryant, Mary Hollis, Monica Andersen, Barbara Richards, and Ginny Davis, “Houston Area Women in 1920: Modern Crossroads? Or Cultural Collision,” Stirpes, Journal of the Texas State Genealogical Society, 59, no. 1 (March 2020): 51-60.

[4] “Museum Gallery,” The Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park, https://www.heritagesociety.org/museum-gallery, accessed Aug. 31, 2020.