Sissy Farenthold was a melancholy rebel – Texas Monthly
We’ve all done things we regret, and one of the things I deeply regret is my treatment of Frances Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold at a buffet dinner I hosted in honor of a friend. writer. Everyone was gathered at my house except the guest of honor, who was still signing books across town. As time went on, she was late – it was around 9 p.m. – and guests were circling around the Mexican buffet in our dining room like hungry hyenas. It was Sissy who finally approached me and asked me, not too patiently, if it was not time to start serving. In a burst of confusion, childish rebellion, and quite simply a lack of common sense, my answer was no.
Every time I think about this moment, I fall into a micro-depression. What took me to tell Sissy Farenthold that she couldn’t dig in the enchiladas? To insult a woman I had admired all my life, an icon of Texan feminists?
In decades of private shame, I have pondered the answers to these questions, and especially since her death on Sunday from complications from Parkinson’s disease. I thought about the kind of woman Farenthold was – a legend from Texas, of course, but not the kind most often honored here. A few examples of the latter would be other Texas women in the first name club only: Ann (Richards) and Molly (Ivins). Ann and Molly created a sense of intimacy with their humor – they made you part of the joke. No one particularly cared that the jokes covered up seething anger – both women intuitively understood that their humor could be used to entice listeners and (perhaps) change their minds. Sissy believed that persistence, anger, and truth were enough to bring reform to Texas, and, before Ivins and Richards, she almost did.
Given the current state of our politics, it’s hard to remember those times in the early 1970s when a dark-haired mother of five with an undergraduate degree from Vassar and d ‘a law degree from the University of Texas began to convince voters that it was time for a change. Desperately shy, she still managed to win the Texas House election in 1968, the first woman to represent her district, based around Corpus Christi, in Lege. She immediately began to stir up trouble, refusing to support a resolution praising former President Lyndon Johnson. Quite quickly, it got better or worse, depending on your persuasion, when Farenthold and 29 Republicans and other Democrats – re-read this: Republicans and Democrats – became known as ‘Dirty Thirty’ for tackling corruption, particularly from House Speaker Gus Mutscher, who was ultimately convicted of bribery in what was then known as the name Sharpstown scandal.
In 1972 Farenthold, considering his next move, received letters from a certain Ann Richards urging her to run for attorney general. “There is no doubt in my mind that the time for electing a woman to a statewide office is ripe in Texas.”
Farenthold did not take Richard’s advice. Instead, she ran for the governor. “Our current state leaders have run Texas like a cash register,” she said in a campaign ad that’s almost unimaginable today. “The governor is taking advantage of the Sharpstown stock market scam. The Lieutenant Governor makes his fortune through private transactions with special interests. Another candidate is a banker who is a backup man for the interests of big business. It’s time to take Texas out of special interest.
Farenthold defeated incumbent Governor Preston Smith and golden boy Ben Barnes in the Democratic primary, but lost to wealthy intermediate rancher Dolph Briscoe in a second round. Yet Farenthold’s race had bolstered her national profile: at the Democratic Convention in Miami in the summer of 1972, she was named vice president and received the second highest number of votes. She had met with Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem in the Ladies Room of the Miami Convention Center to determine who would nominate Farenthold’s name. Her statement in the lobby of the Doral Hotel was inspiring, albeit in retrospect naive: “As a woman, only I could please women of all parties. In November 1972, the voters of this country will outnumber men by a margin of eight million votes. Women will likely remain the electoral majority for the remainder of the century. I think it is time for this majority to be represented at all levels of government, including the Democratic running mate. The Texan delegation, headed by future Governor Briscoe, did not support her.
George McGovern’s final choice, and possibly the only one he ever really took seriously, was Senator Thomas Eagleton, who eventually left the race after finding out he had undergone shock treatment for depression. Farenthold’s profile, on the other hand, continued to soar. “The Ticket That Might Have Been” was the cover of M / s. The January 1973 issue of the magazine, which featured Farenthold and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress. That same year, Farenthold was elected the first president of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Still hopeful, Farenthold returned home to run against Briscoe again in 1974. She lost again. At 48, she left public service, as president of Wells College, New York, from 1976 to 1980, then practicing law in Houston. But Farenthold has never stopped working for change: women’s rights and nuclear disarmament, as well as justice for victims of human rights violations in Iraq and Central America.
Over time her dark hair turned white and she cut it short so that she looked like a penitent pixie. Sacrifices had been made: a divorce in 1985, the death of a three-year-old son, and the loss of a stepson, disappeared in 1989 and never found. Write about Farenthold in the Texas Watcher, Molly Ivins called her “a melancholy rebel,” which seemed about right.
Except that, until the end, it too was starchy. Her progressive beliefs, formed when she headed the Nueces County Legal Aid program in the mid to late 1960s and saw how benign neglect left so many mired in poverty, never wavered. Farenthold remained with “People’s Advocate” Jim Mattox when Ann Richards ran against him for governor in 1990, and she declined to support Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy due to Clinton’s support for the war in Iraq. Farenthold was fascinated by Bernie Sanders and his attempt to harness the power of Wall Street. For Farenthold, there was never a sweet but timely return to the middle.
She wasn’t Molly, and she wasn’t Ann – she wasn’t an artist – and maybe that’s why Sissy will never be loved or admired so much. Still, she stuck to her guns like the best women in Texas. She knew who she was, what she believed and what was important – and for that reason, she deserves to keep her place by their side.
If I ever had the opportunity to serve her enchiladas again while they were still hot, I would have done so without hesitation, as a token of gratitude for all she has done for women like me.