Farenthold Conference Honors “Noble Citizen”
When Frances “Sissy” Tarlton Farenthold ’46 was elected to the Texas State Legislature in 1968, she became the only female member of the Texas House. She subsequently ran two spirited, highly competitive campaigns for Governor of Texas. In an historic first, her name was placed in nomination for Vice President at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, where she finished second in the balloting for that office. After she left state government, Farenthold served as president of Wells College and was very active in human rights work.
In late April, Farenthold and her career was the subject of the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at the University of Texas School of Law’s annual conference. Titled “Frances T. ‘Sissy’ Farenthold: A Noble Citizen,” the forum “considered from both an historical and contemporary perspective many of the issues to which Sissy has dedicated her life.” We talked to Farenthold about her lifetime of accomplishments.
In 1968, when you first ran for the Texas State Legislature, that was something that women did not do. What made you run?
Growing up, my family was always interested in politics. But when I ran, I actually thought it would be another 10 years before a woman could run and win down here in South Texas. This was during the War on Poverty, and I was working with the poorest of the poor in Nueces County—that’s where Corpus Christi is—and I saw what poverty was really like firsthand and how the indifference of state government plays such a part in that. So, I just ran, and nobody expected me to win. 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!”
I want to say that, although I was always interested in government, I had two Vassar professors who were very important in that. One was Gordon Post, who was already iconic when I got to campus, and the other was Miss [Frances] DeLancy, who taught state and local government. She came from West Virginia, and she knew about the privation there. I brought the 1876 State Constitution of Texas with me up to Poughkeepsie to study it!
You were the only woman in the Texas House. How did your colleagues react?
Well, they didn’t know what to do with me. On Valentine’s Day, they had the poet laureate read a poem to me! And there was all this talk about being a team player. It fell on deaf ears in my case.
How do you view the situation for women running for office now?
I think—above all—our system is in a deep, deep crisis because of all this dark money [unlimited contributions in the wake of the Citizens United decision]. I never dreamed the Supreme Court would take the position it did.
Texas politicians have developed a certain image in the rest of the country over the past 15 years, with leaders like George W. Bush, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz emerging from the state. What’s the reality?
I’m afraid it’s true. Bravado goes over big down here. They say they’re taking a stand; well, they should look at where they’re standing. We have the highest number of uninsured people in the country because they wouldn’t take Medicaid [expansion as part of the Affordable Care Act]. It’s a disgrace.
You were president of Wells College, a small liberal arts college for women. Given the recent closure of Sweet Briar College, what do you think the future holds for liberal arts colleges, especially women’s liberal arts colleges?
I was an alumna trustee of Vassar during the transition to coeducation. The transition to coeducation at Wells, subsequent to my time as president there, went much more smoothly because there had been such a change in society by then that even the Ivy League colleges also were admitting women. I don’t know the specifics of the Sweet Briar situation, but I think with women’s colleges especially, you need strong alumnae support, and even when you have that, it’s still very hard.
Your career has also focused on human rights internationally. What is your assessment of human rights worldwide?
What we first need to do is take a look at our own behavior. It breaks my heart that we have moved to the acceptance of torture. It’s appalling. We have a lot to do in this country before we can tell others what to do. Especially coming out of the Iraq War, we have been just consumed by what I’d call the national security state. I’ve just finished a book about the detainees at Guantánamo Bay. It’s imperative that we look at our role, but that’s not done. We need a committee to look at the war crimes we have committed, but we are not willing to do that.
I was deeply involved in [peace efforts] in El Salvador in the 1980s. In some instances, things I saw happening in other countries go back to the United States and its politics. With these young people coming to our borders from Central America, there’s a connection: We supported the coup in Honduras a couple of years back. It all leaves me very distressed.
Your step-grandson, Blake Farenthold, is now a conservative congressman serving Texas. How do things go at Thanksgiving dinner?
[Laughing] I haven’t seen him as much since my husband died, but he’s a fine young man—well, he’s young in my book. We’re politically opposite, but we don’t have problems there; we’re just on different vibes or whatever. There’s an old saying: Families last long after politics.
The Frances T. “Sissy” Farenthold Papers are housed at the University of Texas’ Briscoe Center for American History—which is named after Dolph Briscoe, the man who you ran against for governor. Isn’t that kind of ironic?
[Laughs] Well, he did give $15 million [as a naming gift for the Center].
--Photo by Scott Gardner