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Hortense Sparks Ward (1875-1944)

Special Chief Justice, Texas Supreme Court, 1925

Hortense Sparks Ward was born in Matagorda County July 21, 1872. Her family moved to Edna in 1883, where her father was a deputy sheriff. Hortense attended Nazareth Academy, a Catholic convent school in Victoria. Following her graduation she returned to Edna in 1890 and taught school. The following year she was married, and she had three daughters. She and her family moved to Houston in 1903. Following the breakup of her marriage and subsequent divorce in 1906, she learned stenography and worked as a court reporter. Her work sparked an interest in law, and she began studying law. While working at the courthouse in Houston, she met her second husband, William Henry Ward, a Houston attorney and county judge. They were married in 1908.

Hortense Sparks Ward was a trailblazing Texas woman. In 1910 she became the first woman to pass the Texas state bar exam. She went into legal practice with her husband, but refrained from arguing cases in court on behalf of her clients, as she believed she would be at a disadvantage with all-male juries. She became the first Texas woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1915.

Ward was at the forefront of the movement for women's rights. In 1911 she wrote a pamphlet, Property Rights of Married Women in Texas, and she spearheaded the Married Woman's Property Rights Law, passed by the Thirty-third Texas Legislature in 1913. It became known as the Hortense Ward Act. She lobbied the U.S. Congress in support of women's suffrage and is credited with drafting the primary-suffrage bill, which the Texas Legislature passed in 1918. Her efforts were realized when she became the first woman to register to vote in Harris County. A fervent prohibitionist, she coauthored the state prohibition constitutional amendment in 1919. She ran for county judge in 1920, but was defeated. During the 1920s she spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan and campaigned on behalf of Miriam A. "Ma" Ferguson, the first woman governor of Texas, who would take office in January 1925. Ward supported Ferguson because of her staunch opposition to the Ku Klux Klan and her support of prohibition. She represented Gov. Ferguson to campaign against a Klan member who ran for governor in Maine.

In 1924 Johnson v. Darr, a case involving the fraternal organization Woodmen of the World (WOW), was appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. The case involved a lien on two parcels of land in El Paso County belonging to the WOW. At the time, WOW was a powerful group in Texas to which nearly all of the state's elected officials and lawyers belonged. Members of the organization received insurance benefits with premiums based on claims paid. As a result, judges and attorneys who belonged to WOW were required to recuse themselves from cases involving it. In March 1924, chief justice C.M. Cureton and associate justices Thomas B. Greenwood and William Pierson recused themselves from hearing the case on the basis of their membership in WOW. Gov. Pat Neff spent the next ten months in an unsuccessful search for male judges or attorneys not associated with WOW to sit on a special court to hear the case. Finally, on January 1, 1925, one week before the case was to be heard, Gov. Neff solved the problem by appointing three women to the special court.

Hortense Sparks Ward was appointed special chief justice. Ward, Hattie Leah Henenberg, and Ruth Virginia Brazzil comprised the special court; it was the first all-woman high court in the United States. This special court served for five months, met twice, and heard only the case of Johnson v. Darr. The male justices continued hearing other cases during this time. The court ultimately decided in favor of the WOW.

Following her service on the court, Ward practiced law with her husband until his death in 1939. She died in Houston December 5, 1944 at the age of seventy-two.

Notable opinions

Johnson v. Darr, 114 Texas reports 516 (1925).


Cottrell, Debbie Mauldin. All-Woman Supreme Court, Handbook of Texas Online (last updated June 6, 2001).

Enstam, Elizabeth York. Women and the Law, Handbook of Texas Online (last updated June 6, 2001).

Ramos, Mary G. Texas' All-Woman Supreme Court, Texas Almanac 2006-2007 (visited August 28, 2006).

Scott, Janelle D. Ward, Hortense Sparks, Handbook of Texas Online (last updated June 6, 2001).

Extended bibliography

James, Edward T. 3 Notable American Women 1607-1950, A Biographical Dictionary 540 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belnap Press, 1971).

Moreland, Sinclair. The Texas Women's Hall of Fame 117 (Austin, Texas: Biographical Press, 1917).

Speer, Ocie. Texas Jurists 729 (Austin, Texas: the author, 1936).

Additional information available in Southwestern Historical Quarterly as follow:
Volume 60, page 11

Additional information available in Texas Bar Journal as follow:
Volume 8, page 585

Cottle, Marion Weston. Women in the Legal Profession, 8 Women Lawyers' Journal 60 (May, 1915).

God's Country, 5 Women Lawyers' Journal 61 (May, 1916).

Henenberg, Hattie L. Women of the Supreme Court of Texas, 19 Women Lawyers' Journal 16 (Aug., 1932).

Lily, Mary M. Our Vice-President of Texas, 5 Women Lawyers' Journal 10 (Nov. 1915).

Moorhead, Dean. Texas' All-Woman Supreme Court, Texas Star, Feb. 11, 1973.

Mrs. Hortense Ward Receives Loving Cup from Women of Houston, 5 Women Lawyers' Journal 72 (June, 1918).

A New Member from the South, 4 Women Lawyers' Journal 86 (Nov. 1914).

Ward, Hortense. Brief Analysis of Distribution of Personal Property, 5 Women Lawyers' Journal 68 (June 1916).

Ward, Hortense. The Legal Status of the Widow in Texas, 5 Women Lawyers' Journal 19 (Dec. 1915).

Ward, Hortense. New Laws in Texas, 7 Women Lawyers' Journal 66 (June 1918).

Ward, Hortense. Taxation-Texas, 5 Women Lawyers' Journal 38 ( Feb. 1916).

Ward, Hortense. Texas, 4 Women Lawyers' Journal 32 (Jan. 1915).

Ward, Hortense. Wills-Texas, 5 Women Lawyers' Journal 51 (Apr. 1916).

Neff Appoints Three Women to Court, San Antonio Light, Jan. 2, 1925.

All Women Court Convenes Thursday, San Antonio Light, Jan. 7, 1925.

Supreme Court of Women, First Such Body in the Country Meets in Texas Today, New York Times, Jan. 8, 1925.

New Bench Will Hear Argument, San Antonio Light, Jan. 8, 1925.

Women Sit as Texas Supreme Court: Sentiments of Women Judges Are Outlined, Houston Chronicle, Jan. 9, 1925.

World's First Women Supreme Court Judges Named in Texas, San Antonio Light, Jan. 11, 1925.

The Katy Bill to the Floor's Effort To Pass It Over Colquitt's Veto, Miss Hortense Ward Won Distinct Victory in Engrossment of Marital Rights Bill, Houston Post, Feb. 27, 1913.

Personal Papers of Mrs. John H. Crooker, Sr. (Houston, Texas).

Hall, Sue M. The 1925 All-Woman Supreme Court of Texas. School of Law, St. Mary's University (San Antonio, Texas).