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Hortense Sparks Ward

HORTENSE SPARKS WARD (1872–1944)

In 1910, Hortense Sparks Ward became the first woman admitted to the Texas state bar. Fifteen years later, Ward was one of three lawyers who became the first women to serve on the Texas Supreme Court, albeit briefly.

Born in Matagorda County in 1872, Ward was 11 when she moved with her family to Edna, where her father was a deputy sheriff. After attending Nazareth Academy in Victoria, Ward returned to Edna, where she began teaching in 1890. Ward married Albert Malsch and had three daughters with him. The family later moved to Houston. In 1906, the 34-year-old Ward divorced Malsch and supported her daughters by working as a court stenographer.

The law captured Ward’s interest. She studied law through correspondence courses while working in the law office of William Henry Ward, who became her second husband. After successfully passing the Texas bar exam, with the second highest score of 94.7, Ward began practicing with her husband. The couple formed the firm of Ward & Ward. Some biographical reports indicate Ward did not appear in court, because she feared that having a female lawyer involved in a case might prejudice all-male juries. But in 1915, she represented the plaintiffs in an insurance case, James W. Lawson, et al. v. Supreme Lodge of the United Brotherhood of America, heard in the 17th District Court in Fort Worth. Ward won the case. Also in 1915, she became the first Texas woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Throughout her career, Ward championed the rights of women. In 1913, she led a successful effort to persuade the Texas Legislature to pass the Married Woman’s Property Rights Law, which gave married women partial control over their separate property and community property.

Ward also played a key role in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1918, Ward became president of the Houston Equal Suffrage Association and lobbied Governor W.P. Hobby and the Legislature to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote and for a bill allowing women to vote in primary elections. Ward drafted the primary suffrage bill, which the Legislature passed in 1918. In the following year, Texas became the ninth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. On June 27, 1918, Ward became the first woman to register to vote in Harris County and, within 27 days, she had persuaded about 386,000 women to register to vote. She wrote newspaper articles on women’s suffrage and a pamphlet titled Instructions for Women Voters.

Winning the vote for women did not help Hortense Ward in 1920, when she was the first woman to run for judicial office in Texas. Ward ran for Harris County judge on the slogan: “Don’t vote for me because I am a woman but don’t vote against me because I am a woman.” She lost the race. But in August 1923, the Houston City Council appointed Ward as temporary judge of the city’s corporation court while the presiding judge was on vacation. Ward, the first woman in Texas to hold a judicial position, served six days on that court, handing out fines for traffic law violations and drunkenness.

In January 1925, Governor Pat Neff appointed Ward and two other women to the state Supreme Court to hear Johnson v. Darr. The case involved a dispute over a trust and title to two tracts of land in El Paso. The land was claimed by Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization that sold insurance to men who became its members. Almost every male lawyer in Texas was a WOW member. The only three justices on the state’s high court at the time were disqualified from considering Johnson, and Neff opted to appoint women to temporarily serve on the court. Of the three women Neff originally appointed, Ward was the only woman who had the seven years of legal experience required for service on the Supreme Court. Neff subsequently appointed Hattie Leah Herenberg and Ruth Brazzil and designated Ward as the chief justice.

Before making the appointments, Neff had contacted H.L. Clamp, the Supreme Court’s clerk, regarding the qualifications for serving on the court. As the story goes, Clamp jokingly told Neff that women could be qualified to serve on the court if the governor could find three women who could agree on anything. The three women Neff appointed agreed on the case in the end, affirming a court of appeals judgment in favor of the Woodmen.  

It would be 57 years before another woman served on the state’s Supreme Court. In 1982, Governor William P. Clements appointed Ruby Kless Sondock to fill the unexpired term of Justice James G. Denton, who had died.

Ward did not live to see another woman serve on the state’s highest civil court. She died in 1944.