Frances ‘Sissy’ Farenthold: Ardently liberal Texas politician who inspired a generation of women

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Farenthold (pictured right in 1972, with Colorado congresswoman Pat Schroeder) made two unsuccessful bids for the Democratic nomination for governor of Texas (Denver Post/Getty)
Farenthold (pictured right in 1972, with Colorado congresswoman Pat Schroeder) made two unsuccessful bids for the Democratic nomination for governor of Texas (Denver Post/Getty)

In 1972 and again in 1974, an ardently liberal Texas state legislator named Frances Tarlton Farenthold ran for governor on a platform that included imposing a tax on corporate profits, strictly regulating utilities and liberating state government from Big Oil and a “tyranny of private interests”.

Farenthold called for lowering first-offence possession of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanour and vowed that students in poor school districts would receive the same quality education available in wealthier districts.

She reviled the Texas Rangers as “a festering sore” because of that infamous state police force’s history of lawless brutality and summary executions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans along the state’s southern border. She was also an outspoken defender of abortion rights.

“I play high with politics,” she said on the hustings. “Why be a safe candidate?”

Journalist Molly Ivins, writing in the Texas Observer, described Farenthold as “a melancholy rebel” for her lack of forced cheer on the campaign trail and her general air of seriousness. Having directed a legal services programme in her native Corpus Christi, Farenthold said she came to understand cycles of poverty “and how the indifference of state government plays such a part in that”.

Farenthold, who went by Sissy, lost two Democratic gubernatorial primaries to the more conservative Dolph Briscoe Jr, a wealthy rancher who led the state for much of the 1970s. But for decades, she remained a lodestar for Texas liberals, particularly women, and she became one of the nation's most prominent feminists.

“She was a tremendous inspiration to women of my generation, who saw her branch out and do things that we were not sure were possible,” said Mary Beth Rogers, who had volunteered on Farenthold’s campaigns and two decades later served as chief of staff to Texas governor Ann Richards.

Richards’s daughter Cecile, who was national president of Planned Parenthood for more than a decade, said in an interview that “Sissy’s political courage inspired women for decades”.

A few months after her first loss to Briscoe, Farenthold received 407 delegate votes for vice president at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. She finished second to senator Thomas F Eagleton of Missouri in the vote to pick George S McGovern’s running mate. (Eagleton was later replaced on the ticket by Peace Corps founding director R Sargent Shriver.)

In her later years, though her life was beset by personal tragedy, she practiced law, lobbied for liberal causes around the world and served as the first female president of what was then the all-female Wells College in Upstate New York. When she arrived on campus, the presidential suite was adorned with portraits of the 12 men who had preceded her in the office.

“I had them taken down and sent over to the library,” she told The New York Times in 1977. “There wasn’t a role model among them.”

Mary Frances Tarlton was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, on 2 October 1926. Her father, Benjamin, was a prosecutor and a Democratic Party activist, and her paternal grandfather had been a state representative before becoming chief justice of the Texas Court of Civil Appeals.

Her mother, the former Catherine Dougherty Bluntzer, came from a Texas pioneer family and a long line of Texas educators, including the state’s first female superintendent of a county school. Catherine's 3-year-old son died after surgery to remove a quarter he had swallowed, and she never fully recovered from her grief, says Thomas Cohen, a history professor at Catholic University and a Farenthold family friend. As a result, he says, Catherine relied on her husband and Sissy to look after the household.

Farenthold was educated at the Hockaday School, a preparatory school for girls in Dallas, and at Vassar College, then an all-women’s college in Poughkeepsie, New York. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1946, when she was 19, and was admitted to the law school at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was one of a handful of women in a student body of 800.

The executive producer of the film ‘Quest for Honor’ at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival (Getty)
The executive producer of the film ‘Quest for Honor’ at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival (Getty)

After graduating from law school in 1949, she moved back to Corpus Christi to practice law at her father's firm. The next year she married a local oilman, George Farenthold, a Belgian immigrant and a decorated army air forces captain during the Second World War. She suspended her legal career while raising six children, including a son from her husband’s previous marriage.

In Corpus Christi, she became director of the Nueces County Legal Aid Programme in 1965, and three years later, she was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, defeating a Republican incumbent.

“Nobody expected me to win,” she told a Vassar publication in 2015. “The day after I won, I was at an event shaking hands and a man said to me, ‘I voted for your husband,’ and I said, ‘That was I,’ and he said, ‘Well, if I had known that, I wouldn't have voted for you!’”

In Austin, she was the only female house member, among 149 men.

She pushed for farmworkers’ rights, abortion rights, a comprehensive reassessment of criminal justice, greater transparency in government and stronger environmental protections. She was the only house member to oppose a resolution praising the administration of president Lyndon B Johnson, a Texas Democrat, and its conduct of the war in Vietnam.

Farenthold found common cause with the only woman in the state Senate, Barbara Jordan, also the first African American elected to the legislature’s upper chamber since Reconstruction. In 1972, the two successfully marshalled support for an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution and for ratification of the proposed federal amendment to protect the rights of all citizens regardless of sex.

The unsavoury smell of corruption hangs like a rancid blanket over Texas

In 1971, a stock-fraud scandal ensnared top state government officials who had accepted bribes from Frank Sharp – a Houston banker, developer and insurance tycoon. The “Sharpstown Scandal” (named for a 4,000-acre development in Houston) scorched many political careers. But it buoyed the reputation of Farenthold, who became the self-described “den mother” of the “Dirty Thirty” – a bipartisan group of house members who pressed for an investigation.

“The unsavoury smell of corruption hangs like a rancid blanket over Texas,” she said at the time.

Farenthold’s first run for governor, in 1972, was a long shot. She did better than many observers expected, but in the end, as Texas historian Stephen Harrigan wrote in his book Big Wonderful Thing, Democratic primary voters “were quicker to embrace a million-acre rancher than a woman who kept talking about rancid blankets and festering sores”.

She lost to Briscoe by 10 points in a runoff. She lost again in 1974 (this was near the end of a period when Texas governors served terms of two years, not four), with Briscoe getting 67 per cent of the vote. Yet Rogers, remarking on her enduring significance, declared that “Sissy and the Dirty 30 reformers kicked off a 20-year period of relatively progressive government in Texas”, which ended with Ann Richards’s re-election loss to George W Bush in 1994.

Farenthold headed the National Women’s Political Caucus from 1973 to 1975 and was president of Wells College from 1976 to 1980. After moving to Houston in 1980, she worked on causes including nuclear disarmament, human rights in Central America and abolition of the death penalty.

Amid her high-profile public life, Farenthold endured almost unfathomable personal grief. In 1960, her 3-year-old son, Vincent, who had an inherited blood disorder akin to haemophilia, fell and hit his head on a tile bathroom floor. He bled to death before he was discovered.

In 1972, three days after Farenthold’s loss to Briscoe, a fisherman discovered the body of her stepson, Randolph Farenthold, in the surf near Corpus Christi. Chains were wrapped around his chest, and a concrete block was tied to his neck. Authorities eventually determined that he had been murdered for threatening to testify against four individuals who had swindled him out of $100,000 in a scheme that involved the mafia.

In 1989, Vincent’s twin brother, James, then 33 and struggling with drug addiction, disappeared. Although he is presumed dead, his body has never been found.

Farenthold’s marriage ended in divorce in 1985. Survivors include three children, Dudley Farenthold and Emilie Farenthold, both of Houston, and George Farenthold II of Washington; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In 2005 Farenthold, together with filmmaker Mary Ann Smothers Bruni and Elizabeth “BJ” Warnock Fernea (professor emerita of Middle Eastern Studies at University of Texas at Austin), founded SB Productions as a vehicle to document the complexity of women’s issues generally in the Middle East and particularly in Iraq.

SB Productions’ 2009 documentary, Quest for Honor, investigated honour killings in Iraqi Kurdistan and was chosen as an Official Selection at the Sundance Film Festival. With Farenthold as executive producer, it was short-listed for a 2010 Academy Award nomination for Feature Length Documentary.

Cohen, the Catholic University professor and family friend, summarised Farenthold’s sometimes contradictory qualities: “She was a southern belle who was happy to be called a political radical. A quiet thinker in a state that loves flamboyance. A feminist who was uncomfortable with the label. A person of austere habits whom the counterculture embraced. A politician who didn’t like to talk. A legislator from oil country who stood up to Big Oil. A leader of a joyous insurgency who was sombre by nature.”

Frances Farenthold, politician and activist, born 2 October 1926, died 26 September 2021

© The Washington Post

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