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  • Writer's picturePatricia Salkin

Women Lawyers Occupy the Campus C-Suite Beginning in 1976 – Francis Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold

Although lawyers have been serving as college and university presidents since the 1700s, no campus had a woman lawyer president until 1976, and between 1976 and 2001, there were fewer than a dozen women lawyer campus presidents. The first non-lawyer woman college president, Frances Willard, was appointed in 1871 (albeit of an all‐women's school), it was not until 1925 that a woman, Emma Elizabeth Johnson, was appointed to lead a co‐educational institution, after the president, her husband, died.

Francis Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold was appointed as the 13th President of Wells College in 1976. At the age of 22, she was one of eight women to graduate from the University of Texas School of Law in 1949. After taking a hiatus from the law while she had five children, she returned to the profession in the early 1960s working on the City Human Relations Commission and as director of a county legal aid office. She was a trailblazer, becoming the only woman in the Texas House of Representatives in 1968. While Geraldine Ferraro may have been the first woman Vice Presidential candidate on the ballot in 1984 representing a major political party, Sissy Farenthold was nominated to for vice president at the Democratic National convention in 1972 (from the floor by Gloria Steinem and when voting was counted she came in second). The nomination followed an unsuccessful run for Governor in Texas. While in the Texas Legislature, Farenthold prioritized civil rights, raising the spending cap for welfare recipients, and she was a co-sponsor of the Texas Equal Rights Amendment. In the late 1960s she was part of a coalition of lawmakers known as the “dirty thirty” who advocated for accountability, transparency, ethics reform and open government. She entered the race for Governor again in 1974 trying to unseat the incumbent in a primary, but was unable to pull it off.

When Sissy was appointed as President of Wells College, she had no prior higher education work experience. At the time, Wells College was an all-women’s school known for leadership in women’s education. She had a successful four-year tenure during which time, among other things in 1978 she created a bipartisan Public Education Leadership Network (PLEN) designed to encourage college-aged women to enter public service. She was the first woman president of Wells College.

At the time of her death in September 2021, Texas Law School has produced four documentaries on her extraordinary life and a digital archive documenting her career. In 2022 the Government Accountability Project established a Fellowship in her name for the Protection of Democracy to honor her legacy to the struggle for transparency, truth and justice, and the University of Texas School of Law hosts an endowed lecture series in her name. The University of Texas School of Law considered Farenthold to be one of their most distinguished alumni, describing her as someone who “epitomized our highest and best traditions of leadership and courage.”


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