June 23, 2024


Built General Tough

Houston’s Original Nasty Woman | Houstonia Magazine

Thesay well-behaved women seldom make history. Such an expression couldn’t be truer of Judge Hortense Sparks Ward, the 20th-century version of today’s nasty woman, who forever changed the lives of women in Texas during her unprecedented legal career. “Starting in a society that deprived women of legal rights, she worked her way into becoming a lawyer and used her legal background to help give women equal rights to men,” says retired Harris County District Judge Mark Davidson. “By itself that is a major accomplishment. Doing it in the context of the decade in which she lived, that is a monumental task.”

Records of Ward’s proclivity for breaking the socially accepted rules of the time appear soon after she moved to the Houston Heights in 1903. Just three years later, Ward, then working as a stenographer in a cigar shop, ditched her first husband in what was likely the scandal of the week—good Catholic girls never divorced their men, even if they were lazy good-for-nothings, as Ward’s divorce petition states. Most women of the era who suddenly found themselves single mothers to three young girls would have set their sights on netting a new man to bring home the bacon. But Ward wasn’t ordinary.

Instead she trained herself to be a court reporter, began studying law by correspondence course, and, in 1910, made headlines when she became the first woman to pass the Texas State Bar exam (with the second-highest grade in her class, no less), and the only woman lawyer in the Bayou City. Almost immediately she joined her second husband, William Henry Ward, whom she’d married two years prior, in practicing law at their civil firm, Ward & Ward.

Ward was riding high. After all, she’s got a shiny new job and a new man—she even owns property in the Heights. But not everyone wished her success. The very next year Harris County refused to re-certify her as a notary, a job she had held in Houston for the past six years.

As you probably can guess, Ward didn’t take this lying down and set about securing legal opinions opposing the ruling. After winning her notary case appeal in a move that reshaped Texas legal precedent, Ward turned her sights toward increasing the rights of her fellow women in the Lone Star State.

See, back in those days when the Patriarchy ruled the roost, Texas law gave a woman’s husband legal control over any property she brought into the marriage as well as any income she earned after the union. It also didn’t allow a married woman to enter into contracts without her husband’s permission, basically rendering her unable to make any business decisions without getting hubby’s blessing first. That was simply unacceptable to Ward, so she began a forceful campaign that would gain her the attention of the national women’s magazine The Delineator, and eventually lead to the adoption of the Married Women’s Property Rights Law of 1913, commonly known as the Hortense Ward Act.

So essential was her role in passing this pro-women legislation that Ward, who attended the bill’s signing at the governor’s house in Austin, also received the pen he used on the occasion. Guaranteeing women this win would have been enough of an accomplishment. But Ward was just getting started. In 1915 she became the first woman in the South admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Over the next several years she advocated for the labor rights of women and children, fought for their right to be stockholders and directors of for-profit businesses, and helped create the women’s division in the state department of labor—and that’s not even mentioning her incalculable role in securing the vote for women in Texas, among other bold moves. “She diligently, and perhaps more than anybody else, fought the Ku Klux Klan when they ran in the Democratic Primary in the late ’20s,” adds Davidson. “She was not only willing to fight for what was right, but she did so against some of the power brokers of Houston.”

How did she accomplish so much? Ward’s success likely lay in her approach to combating willful men—as her daughter, Rita Crooker, told the Chronicle in 1981, “She was a woman who thought you could get more from molasses than vinegar.”

The delicate touch paid off as the Texas Senate honored her work with a resolution and an opportunity to address the legislature, a first for women in the state’s history in 1919. But the true pinnacle of her career arrived in 1925 when Ward was appointed chief justice of a special, all-woman Supreme Court in Texas after the three male members of the actual Texas Supreme Court stepped down from a case because of conflicts of interest. Ward, who had actually lost a Harris County judgeship race five years earlier (she did temporarily serve on the bench in 1923), would write the unanimous opinion in the insurance case—a case that, according to the Texas Bar Journal, Lone Star State courts still cite today.

Though she rarely presented a case in court for fear her femininity would turn the all-male juries of the time against her clients, Ward would continue practicing law until the death of her husband in 1939. And while she never lived to see women receive the full freedoms she knew they deserved, Ward’s gaze never wavered as she faced down the man. “I want this position very much,” she told a crowd when she ran for judge in 1920. “But if I lose, I will win for the women who come after me.”