Latest & Greatest – Rough Road to Justice: The Journey of Women Lawyers in Texas

By Betty Trapp Chapman  Published by Texas Bar Books (2008)  KF 299 .W6 .C457 2008

By Betty Trapp Chapman

Published by Texas Bar Books (2008)

KF 299 .W6 .C457 2008

Rough Road to Justice: The Journey of Women Lawyers in Texas chronicles the struggles that female lawyers had to face in a profession that was dominated by men for so long. Recounting experiences from the women who lived this journey, author and historian Betty Trapp Chapman details the history of women lawyers from the first woman believed to have acted as an attorney in the United States to the first woman to be appointed to the country’s highest court. In between those two milestones are dozens of stories to be told. Chapman relates those stories, highlighting the various and varied achievements that women lawyers have earned along the way.

Chapman begins her book by discussing the initial obstacles that women lawyers encountered in their endeavor to find a place in the legal profession and the women pioneers that sought to break through the barriers that relegated them to occupations within the home and limited them to roles related to the family. She includes such groundbreakers as Edith Locke, who in 1902 presumably became the first female lawyer in Texas, and Hortense Ward, who was the first woman in Texas to be admitted to the United States Supreme Court Bar in 1915. Although Locke never appeared to have practiced in Texas, Ward became associated with her attorney husband and partnered with him for almost thirty years. Chapman also discusses the educational opportunities that were available to these women who were pursuing the law. She points out that the most common means of becoming versed in the law was through studying the law under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Other avenues were correspondence courses, proprietary schools, and eventually law schools.

Even though more women were receiving the needed education, Chapman is quick to remind her readers that employment opportunities were still relatively lacking. Jobs in courts and as legal professors in law schools were foreclosed to women. In addition, law firms were not eager to hire female lawyers for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to, pregnancy, disabilities of coverture, and general gender bias. Thus, many women who sought to work in law firms were essentially forced to become solo practitioners. Still, there were some places where women could work, including title companies, legal departments of oil companies, legal aid offices, and of course, law libraries. One of the most noted librarians was Marian Boner, who was appointed as the first Director of the Texas State Law Library in 1972 and was the author of A Reference Guide to Texas Law and Legal History, which Chapman describes as “a definitive reference source."

Perhaps the greatest hurdles that needed to be jumped were those encountered by African-American women who aspired to enter the legal profession. Not only did they face difficulties in the pursuit of their goals but also once they gained the right and privilege to practice law, they faced discrimination from their male peers, jury members, and the public at large. In this regard, Chapman relates the story of Charlye O. Farris, the first African-American woman licensed to practice law in Texas, having been admitted to the bar in 1953. Other notable African-American women who broke the gender and color barrier include Barbara Jordan, who became Texas’ first African-American senator since 1883 and was one of six women from Texas to have served in the United States House of Representatives, Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, who became the first African-American to be a judge in the Southern District of Texas, and Sheila Jackson Lee, who was elected to the United States House of Representatives from the Eighteenth Congressional District in 1994 and who is still serving today.

Other notable women lawyers that Chapman focuses upon include:

  • Kay Bailey Hutchison – the first Republican woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives and the first woman to represent the Lone Star State in the United States Senate;
  • Michol O’Connor – a lawyer who led a varied career as a briefing attorney for the First Court of Appeals, assistant district attorney in Harris County, assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District, and founder of Jones McClure Publishing, now O’Connor’s, the publisher of a well-known and popular series of legal practice aids commonly requested here at the Harris County Law Library;
  • Marsha Floyd – an Assistant County Attorney at the Harris County Attorney’s Office who was the lead attorney on a case preventing the Harris County Commissioners from acting as the Board of the newly created Harris County Toll Road Authority and usurping the power of the county attorney’s office;
  • Judge Sarah T. Hughes – the first woman in the country to become a federal judge and the judge who swore in Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson as president after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination; and
  • Adelfa B. Callejo – one of the first Hispanic female attorneys and an advocate for the disadvantaged.

Absent from Chapman's accounts of pioneering female lawyers is Camille Elizabeth Stanford Openshaw, the second woman to graduate from South Texas School of Law and the first woman to be elected to the Lawyers Library Association Board of Directors. She gained notoriety when she accepted the case of Raymond Hamilton, a former lieutenant of Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame. For more information, please see the Harris County Law Library’s digital exhibit dedicated to this woman of distinction.

If you are interested in learning more about these inspirational women attorneys, take the journey and read Rough Road to Justice: The Journey of Women Lawyers in Texas. Today’s female legal professionals are fortunate to have these brave and pioneering women as mentors and role models, something that the women before them never had.