Frances ‘Sissy’ Farenthold, Tenacious Texas Politician

Farenthold in 1975

The original title for this 1975 video, containing an interview conducted by Studs Terkel, is “Texas Maverick”. Farenthold, a Texas lawyer and legislator, was the first woman to be seriously floated as a VP candidate in 1972. Though she didn’t win, she’s had an admirable career and has been an outspoken critic of government on the local and national level.

In this post:
* Video, from the mid-70s WNET series “Assignment America”: a biographical profile and interview of the first woman seriously considered for VP of a major party in the United States. Farenthold garnered 13% of the delegates’ vote for VP at the 1972 Democratic Convention, where she was bested by Terry Eagleton, who became George McGovern’s running mate. Includes an interview conducted by the late Studs Terkel. 30 minutes. (Originally aired: 1975)

* Interview with Farenthold, who is now 82, from Feb. 2009, below the video.

Interview with Frances ‘Sissy’ Farenthold, February 2009:

(our interview with Ms. Farenthold is long, but covers a lot of ground.)
She speaks to:
* her experiences running for office in 1960s Texas
* the need for campaign finance reform with regards to the media
* her anti-war stance and criticism of the military complex
* much more

You were born in 1926. And early on, you went to Vassar?
I went into a war work program in 1943, you could finish in 3 years if you wanted to. The idea was to get us through in 3 years so we would be available for the war. Well, the war stopped in 1945. And then I went to law school and then I married and had 5 children.

And then you went directly to law school?

I was a month short of 20 when I went. And I was one of 3 women in a class of 800.

You must’ve been one of few women in the law at that time.
Very, very few. You were almost a freak. And then, I started into politics after I had twins and I lost one when he was 3, in 1960. I’d always been involved in politics. I was familiar with it because my father worked in it. So in 1968 I was asked to run for the legislature. I was then legal aid director of Nueces County.

You were an ACLU field lawyer?
Yes, later, in the sixties, during the time of the farm worker’s strike. Then i worked for Legal Aid.

How did a Ramada sign get you jump-started in politics?

I got a call asking me to go down to city council to represent the local museum—which I think I was on the board of—objecting to a sign going up that was illegal under our local ordinances, blocking people’s views. And so then my husband said “well, don’t get too involved.” And that started a whole chain reaction.

How did your legal projects stand with your husband?
He encouraged me in the beginning. Which was unlike what you would have found in a traditional household at that time. Sometimes I’d take my kids, ages 3-8, to city council meetings with me. And sometimes at night meetings, someone would say, “you should be home with your children.”

How did you decide to run for the Texas House of Representatives?
I had a phone call one night, the last night of the filing for candidacy, from a friend of mine who I had known in law school. He called and asked me if I would run. And in a very traditional way, I asked my husband and I asked my cousin—who served in the legislature—what they thought. And they said go on and run. So I did.

What did you think you could accomplish by running?
Well, that was the whole thing. I had spent two years at Legal Aid, and it was a soul-searing experience. I saw a part of my town that I’d grown up in that I hadn’t been aware of. I’d seen poverty before, but not as a systemic problem like I saw it at Legal Aid. I always said the scapegoats of our society were unskilled women, and children. I saw so much, and so much of it was state policy. I hadn’t thought about running, because I thought it would be years before a woman would be elected to the Texas legislature. I mean I thought it would 10 years at a minimum.
But when I was asked, I felt I was, to put it mildly, up to the job.

I was outraged at what I saw. I realized that all of the oratory about taking care of people, was bunk. People weren’t being taken care of. And so much was done to penalize poor people. Poor people were short-changed in trying to buy houses. They had something called contract-to-sale, where you don’t even get an equity in your house. And during the war on poverty—as it was called under Johnson—we learned that the three poorest cities per capita in the country were Corpus Christi, Laredo, and El Paso, TX. Texas is just always ranked at the bottom as far as social safety nets are concerned. And it continues to this day.

Texas at that point still voted Democratic?
Yeah, it was a one-party state. The Republicans were just beginning and much stronger than the Republicans was George Wallace.

Even despite the fact that it was one-party state, there wasn’t a social safety net?
No, because what happened, there were factions within the Democratic party, and I was always to the left of that. It broke down to either you were a John Connally supporter, who later became a Republican, or you were a Ralph Garber supporter, and those were the more liberal Democrats out there.

When you got elected in 1968, you were the only woman out of 150 representatives. And then 30 of you rebelled against the speaker 3 years later?

That’s right. After seeing how things in the Texas legislature operated, I had to object.

Did you just hit the ground running on poverty issues?
I remember calling in the head of the the welfare office, asking him to come to my office so I could go over the issues. And I tried to put a bill on establishing a state Legal Aid, so we would have broader coverage for the whole state. But none of those things came to fruition. That was not the way Texas operated.

That’s what led you to want to reform the whole operation?
Yeah, it was much bigger than just reforming welfare. And again, it’s just an incremental thing – you go into a situation, and you see and you learn and you react. And then I only ended up spending 2 terms as a Representative, because I ran for Governor.

Why did you decide to leave the legislature for a try at the governorship?

I thought we had the makings of a reform movement, and we did, but it didn’t last. People won office on this whole ’30-rebels’ thing. It was a phenomenon down here. And I only ran for governor because no one else in our group would. They saw how insurmountable it was.

I ran for Governor twice. But I lost the element of surprise the second time. No one paid attention to me. And all reporters wanted to know was “was I raising any money?” I saw that the money-raising was absolutely essential if you wanted to win.

What do you think about campaign finance reform today?

I think we need it. Obama did a great job, not quite enough, by a long shot. Someone told me that unlike Obama’s funds being 100% from the usual political financial sources, it was more like 50%. I don’t think what he did was a true phenomenon, and it didn’t take the underpinnings of the usual campaign financial structures away by a long shot.

What do you think would be the perfect situation for campaign finance?
Here’s one place the reform could happen: the media airways are owned by the public. And what candidates find is that much of their funds end up going directly to TV and other media. If we had real public debate, we wouldn’t need to fund political commercials. But you aren’t going to hear about that kind of campaign finance reform from the TV and media networks. They’re making money off the commercials, big, big money. I knew a woman that ran for Judge–that’s a local race here –she said: “I struggled and struggled to raise the money, and then it all went to TV.”

When you were running, did you spend a lot of time raising money?

Nothing like they do now. Congresspeople have to campaign the whole time, even when they’re in office, because the races are only two years apart.

So before you finished with the running for Governor, you started the Women’s Political Caucus?

I was the first national chair, but I did not start it. I was in the legislature when that took place.
When I first ran for the legislature, I tried to find other women legislators. I called the Democratic National Committee and they couldn’t tell me anything. So when I saw in 1970 that this group had been organized in Washington, I said to myself—because no one had contacted me—”this is wonderful.” When I was elected chair of the National Caucus, I was criticized. You have to remember this is 1973 in Texas. People were not used to women in politics. For example, when we had campaign fundraisers, we found no private homes open to us to hold them in.

It was very pronounced in Texas, about women being in their place, so to speak. I mean, when the Caucus was here, the hotel where the activities were held even had a policy that women were not to be paged.

It seemed like you had a lot of male support to run for these positions, though?
No question about it, I was a big exception.

You definitely alluded to having to face a lot of sexism, what was the worst of it?
Honestly, I’ve tried to just push it out of my mind. I’m not interested in repeating, you know, what they call ‘war stories’.

So then you ran for Vice-President.

Back in 1972. Well it was very interesting, and it came about because Shirley Chisholm, who’d run for President, decided she didn’t want to run for Vice-President. So, it was a combination of some young men that had been in my campaign plus the National Women’s Political Caucus: they asked me if I’d put my name in. I came in second.

Did you think that Shirley Chisholm would’ve had a shot at VP?
I don’t know. I mean, no, because these things were all settled in the inner rooms where we never were. And that was a year that was supposed to be an open convention. And a lot of people ran for VP that year—7 or 8.

What did you think of Hillary Clinton’s run at President? Or Sarah Palin running for VP?
The less I say about Palin the better. She’s very telegenic. I will give her credit for that, if that’s credit. She’s very attractive and that goes a long way in the television era.

And how about Clinton?
She was a very strong candidate. I didn’t support her– I was for Obama from the beginning, but that didn’t take away from her ability. She ran a hard race. There are a lot of people who feel that as a female politician, that you should support Hillary. But I wasn’t going to support anyone in the beginning who supported the Iraq war. That took it off the table for me. I had Holbrook tell me that he didn’t believe in litmus tests, well, that’s one I believed in. And actually, Obama and Richardson—the two candidates who weren’t in the Senate at the time—were the two that spoke up against it. I was the same way with Kerry. I didn’t support him in the primaries because of his vote on the Iraq War.

Do you think women should be better represented? Are you satisfied with how they’re represented now?
They should be much better represented. After all, we’re over 50% of the population. And it’s certainly true no woman speaks for all women. The proponents of the second woman’s movement—which was the ’60s and ’70s (the first being in the early 20th century, suffragists and the right to vote) thought we would be able to bring a great variety of women together. But there was a backlash to that hoped convergence, some of it based on religion. For instance, the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated principally by the Mormon Church and the insurance companies. And the choice issue divides women as well.

So which politicians do you admire?
Officeholders? I wouldn’t make a list. I mean, there are some people I have confidence in. I do in Feingold, for example, but he couldn’t get anyplace with a mere censure of Bush, no impeachment, just a censure.

But his torture bill went through … with McCain?
The McCain torture bill passed with two amendments. I made a study of them when I was looking at the Military Commission Act, the history of those Supreme Court cases. The two amendments weakened that torture bill. It wasn’t publicized. I only know it because I had to go back and look the thing up.

You said in the 1975 Studs Terkel interview (video above), that “Texas has a private government.” Do you think that’s changed at all?
No, it’s even more so, today.

What do you mean by private government?
The government is operated by interests that, whether oil business, chemical industry—rather than operated for the public good. It’s not that much different from when I ran. As a state, Texas is right at the bottom on education, on all kinds of social and economic matters. For instance, the private prisons, they always get their way. All of the so-called social welfare organizations — they’re not for clients. They drain people.

We don’t look at what’s really happening. I mean, as far back as I can remember, I was a little kid and going with my father to 4th of July events. And everyone had a canned Constitution speech. Year after year, I’d hear the same thing. I have a very difficult time hearing the words of the Star Spangled Banner, because everyone sings the line about ‘the bombs bursting in air’? Where are those bombs coming from now? They’re coming from our war planes.

These are subjects that make people uncomfortable. And you don’t want to make people uncomfortable when you’re running for office. Even Obama saying that things were going to get worse before they get better wasn’t what we wanted to hear. I remember a wonderful thing that happened with a cousin of mine that had a radio station: I was on the air, talking about subjects that probably made people uncomfortable. And he said to me, “Sissy, just talk about the weather today.”

It seems like most of your life, you’ve fought for race and gender equality. Are those the most important issues to you? Or have things changed?
They continue to be, but I’m lately focused on some other issues: I just read this last week: In Eisenhower’s first draft of speech when he warned us of the growing military-industrial complex? In his first draft, it was “military-industrial-congressional complex.”

I spend what reading I can do on this whole military setup we have. I think much of it is for the benefit—or has been for the benefit—of our trade, or countries with natural resources we want. I remember reading some declassified Senate committee hearings at some point, about Mobuto Seseke, who recently just drained the Congo. He was our big buddy because we were getting uranium from him. And you never hear about that part of it, you only hear about his corruption. But we more than tolerated it for years. You’re put away to the fringe if you talk about empire. But we have one.

You’re very outspoken. Do you think that that’s changed as you’ve gotten older?
Well, only in that maybe I’ve learned, or my eyes have been opened to things I could never imagine. I was so conventional in my thinking long ago, that when the U2 was shot down in the Soviet Union, I thought it was a weather plane, exactly what Washington had told us.

And I’ve been in deep distress these past years with what has happened to our Constitution. The torture. And those memos that have come out, that there was no check on the so-called Commander-in-Chief.

You seem really busy. What have you been doing recently?
Last Monday, group of us went out to Gene Green‘s office. He’s on Waxman’s committee that will be writing the global warming bill. And his little problem is that he’s got all the oil refineries in his district. So he needs to have his mind changed.

I’m doing research on the Unified Security Budget. I’m on the board at the Institute for Policy Studies and they have someone working on this along with Lawrence Korb, who used to be in the Pentagon during the Reagan Administration, but who’s taken a turn to the left.

What is not on any one of my resumes: I was recently an executive producer of a film that was shown at Sundance. It’s called Quest for Honor, and it’s about honor killing, which is on the increase in Kurdistan, which is in northern Iraq. It’s usually brothers, fathers, or male cousins who do the killings, but one of the new techniques—since it’s theoretically been outlawed—is to just send a young girl up with a gun.

And you won the first Molly Ivins Lifetime Achievement award.
Yes, from the ACLU.

It seems like you’re not quite done yet. (Farenthold is 82)
I’ve always said on the way to my funeral, if we passed a demonstration, I’ll probably jump out.

That’s pretty scary.
It’d scare everybody. I still have the capacity for anger, which I guess sort of wears the adrenaline down.

It’s more passion than anger, though, right?
Yeah, that’s right. We’ll stick with that. Thank you for the word.

More about Frances ‘Sissy’ Farenthold:
Wiki Entry
Bio at Texas Legacy
2006 interview from the National Organization of Women

Assignment America was a freeform newsmagazine airing on WNET/Thirteen in 1975, a production of WNET. The program had four, rotating hosts/presenters: Maya Angelou, Studs Terkel, Doris Kearns, and George Will.