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

In 1972 and again in 1974, a fiercely liberal Texas state lawmaker named Frances Tarlton Farenthold ran for governor on a platform that included imposing a corporate income tax, strict regulation of utilities and the liberation of state government from Big Oil and a “tyranny of private interests.”

Farenthold called for reducing first-time marijuana possession from felony to misdemeanor and vowed that students in poor school districts would receive the same quality education as in wealthier districts.

She vilified the Texas Rangers as “a festering wound” because of this infamous state police’s story of lawless brutality and summary executions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans along the coast. southern state border. She was also a strong advocate for abortion rights.

“I play high with politics,” she said during election campaigns. “Why be a safe candidate? “

Journalist Molly Ivins, writing in the Texas Watcher, described Farenthold as “a melancholy rebel” for her lack of forced campaign cheering and general air of seriousness. After leading a legal services program in her hometown of Corpus Christi, Farenthold said she came to understand cycles of poverty “and how state government indifference plays such a role in them.”

Farenthold, who went through Sissy, lost two Democratic gubernatorial primaries to the more conservative Dolph Briscoe Jr, a wealthy rancher who ruled the state for much of the 1970s. But for decades she was has remained a benchmark for Texas liberals, especially women, and she has become one of the country’s foremost feminists.

“She was a tremendous inspiration to women of my generation, who saw her branch out and do things we weren’t sure were possible,” said Mary Beth Rogers, who had volunteered for the campaigns. de Farenthold and who, two decades later, served as Chief of Staff to Texas Governor Ann Richards.

Richards’ daughter Cecile, who served as National President of Planned Parenthood for over a decade, said in an interview that “Sissy’s political courage has inspired women for decades.”

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

In her later years, although her life was beset by personal tragedy, she practiced law, lobbied for liberal causes around the world, and was the first woman president of what was then Wells College fully. female 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 apart and sent to the library,” she said. The New York Times in 1977. “There was no model among them.”

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

His mother, former Catherine Dougherty Bluntzer, came from a pioneer family in Texas and a long line of Texas educators, including the first female superintendent of a county school in the state. 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, professor of history at the Catholic University and friend of the Farenthold family. As a result, he said, Catherine relied on her husband and Sissy to take care of the housework.

Farenthold was educated at Hockaday School, a preparatory school for girls in Dallas, and Vassar College, then a women’s college in Poughkeepsie, New York. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1946, at the age of 19, and was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin Law School, where she was one of a handful of women among an enrollment of 800 students. .

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

(Getty)

After graduating from law school in 1949, she returned to Corpus Christi to practice law in her father’s office. The following year, she married a local oil tanker, George Farenthold, a Belgian immigrant and a decorated army air force captain during World War II. She put her legal career on hold 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 program in 1965, and three years later she was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, defeating an incumbent Republican candidate.

“No one 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 told me : “I voted for your husband” and I said, “It was me,” and he said, “Well, if I had known that I wouldn’t have voted for you!

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

She advocated for the rights of agricultural workers, abortion rights, a complete re-evaluation of criminal justice, greater transparency in government and stricter environmental protections. She was the only member of the House to oppose a resolution praising the administration of President Lyndon B Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, and his 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 upper house of the Legislative Assembly since Reconstruction. In 1972, the two were successful in gaining support for an equal rights amendment to the state constitution and ratification of the proposed federal amendment to protect the rights of all citizens, regardless or their sex.



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

In 1971, a stock fraud scandal trapped senior state government officials who had accepted bribes from Frank Sharp – a Houston banker, developer and insurance mogul. The “Sharpstown Scandal” (named after a 4,000-acre development in Houston) burned many political careers. But it bolstered the reputation of Farenthold, who became the self-proclaimed “den mother” of the “Dirty Thirty” – a two-party group of members of the House who demanded an investigation.

“The nasty 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 Great wonderful thing, Democratic primary voters “were quicker to kiss a million acre rancher than a woman who kept talking about rancid blankets and festering wounds.”

She lost to Briscoe by 10 points in a second round. She lost again in 1974 (this was towards the end of a period when Texas governors served two-year terms, not four), with Briscoe getting 67% of the vote. Yet Rogers, noting its enduring importance, said that “Sissy and the reformers of Dirty 30 launched a 20-year period of relatively progressive government in Texas,” which ended in Ann Richards’ 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 such as nuclear disarmament, human rights in Central America and the abolition of the death penalty.

Amid his high-profile public life, Farenthold endured almost unfathomable personal grief. In 1960, her 3-year-old son Vincent, who suffered from an inherited blood disorder similar to hemophilia, fell and banged his head against the tiles in a bathroom. He bled to death before he was discovered.

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

In 1989, Vincent’s twin brother, James, then 33 years old 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, along with filmmaker Mary Ann Smothers Bruni and Elizabeth “BJ” Warnock Fernea (Emeritus Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin), founded SB Productions to document the complexity of problems of women in general in the Middle East. in the East and particularly in Iraq.

Documentary 2009 by SB Productions, Quest for honor, investigated honor killings in Iraqi Kurdistan and was chosen as the official selection at the Sundance Film Festival. With Farenthold as executive producer, he was shortlisted for a 2010 Oscar nomination for feature documentary.

Cohen, a Catholic University professor and family friend, summed up Farenthold’s sometimes contradictory qualities: “She was a southern beauty 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 with austere habits that the counter-culture has embraced. A politician who didn’t like to talk. A legislator from an oil country who stood up to Big Oil. A leader of a merry uprising who was dark in nature.

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

© The Washington Post


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