In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to ever serve as a justice in the United States Supreme Court. Since O’Connor’s ascent, only four women have ever held the honor of serving the highest court in the nation, and three of them still preside: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.
But did you know that an all-female supreme court existed years ago in Texas? As early as 1925, only five years after women gained the right to vote nationwide, a special high court was assembled in Texas made up entirely of women. Let’s take a look at this forgotten episode in feminist history.
In the case of Johnson v. Darr, Texas Governor Pat M. Neff was in a bind. He could not seem to find a judge without a conflict of interest. At the time, the Supreme Court of Texas was comprised of three justices, all of whom were men, and all of whom had a bias in the case.
The reason for the vast conflicts of interest? Johnson v. Darr concerned a fraternal order known as Woodmen of the World, or WOW. An influential political organization in Texas, WOW claimed virtually every lawyer in the state, as well as most elected officials, as members. This was no accident. WOW was able to side-step the law thanks to its tight grip on Texas’ government.
Still, there was one hitch: WOW was an old-fashioned boy’s club. Women were forbidden from joining.
Texas law states that if a judge is unable to objectively preside over a case, the governor must appoint a special judge to fill the vacancy. After exhausting his search for a male judge who was not a member of WOW, Governor Neff realized that he would have to appoint women to serve as special justices in the case.
On January 1, 1925, only a week before the trial would take place, Governor Neff assembled a team of female lawyers who would serve as justices. Among them, Nellie Gray Robertson of Granbury, the county attorney of Hood County; Edith E. Wilmans of Dallas, who had been a member of the 38th Legislature; and Hortense Sparks Ward of Houston, an attorney in practice with her husband. Robertson was designated Chief Justice, and the other two would serve as her Associate Justices.
The Dallas Morning News celebrated the historic moment on January 2, 1925:
“All records were shattered and at least three precedents established on Thursday, when Gov. Neff appointed a special Supreme Court composed entirely of women. It was a healthy New Year gift of recognition to the woman barrister of today. This is the first instance a woman has been appointed to sit on the supreme bench; it is the first time a higher court is to be composed entirely of women and it is the initial case where a majority of the judges will be women.”
But complications quickly emerged.
Texas law stated that to serve on the Supreme Court, a judge must have practiced law for seven years prior. On January 5, just days before the trial, Edith Wilmans resigned from the special court, as she had missed the seven-year requirement by two months. Days later, Nellie Gray Robertson resigned for the same reason, having only six years and nine months under her belt.
Only one day before proceedings in Johnson v. Darr were to begin, Governor Neff was able to fill the two vacancies. Hortense Sparks Ward was elevated to the role of Chief Justice, and serving as her Associate Justices were Hattie Leah Henenberg, and Ruth Virginia Brazzil. Henenberg had previously run the Free Legal Aid Bureau, and Brazzil had served as a treasurer and general manager of a life insurance company.
Court in Session
The nation’s first ever all-woman supreme court convened for the first time on January 8, 1925. The justices spent the next five months considering the case, in which WOW claimed ownership over two disputed tracts of land in El Paso. The special court announced its unanimous decision on May 23, 1925. Ward wrote the opinion, which affirmed WOW’s right to the land.
But by the time the all-woman court had made its decision, Pat M. Neff was no longer governor. By then, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson had ascended to the capitol, becoming America’s first democratically-elected woman governor.
Yet this era of female empowerment in Texas was unique. It was another thirty years before women were allowed to serve on juries in Texas. And not until 1982 did a woman become a full-time justice for the Texas Supreme Court.
Still, all of this only serves to prove the significance of the 1925 special court. In an era when women were rarely given the chance to serve in positions of power, these heroines rose to the challenge to serve the Great State of Texas.