The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice

About Frances T. "Sissy" Farenthold

Her Work for Women and Peace

Farenthold and her father, attorney Dudley Tarlton,
select a jury at the Nueces County courthouse,
c. 1949. Photographer unknown.

Frances Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold was born in 1926 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her paternal grandfather was Judge Benjamin D. Tarlton, Sr., Chief Justice of the Texas Court of Civil Appeals, state legislator, and the namesake of the University of Texas Tarlton Law Library. She graduated from Vassar College in 1946 and from the University of Texas School of Law in 1949, where she was one of only three women in a student body of 800.

After graduating from Law School, Farenthold moved back to Corpus Christi to practice law. She served on the Corpus Christi City Council’s human relations commission in the early 1960s. From 1965 to 1967, she was the director of the Nueces County Legal Aid Program. She began an illustrious political career with her 1968 election to the Texas House of Representatives, in which she represented Nueces and Kleberg counties. She was the only woman in the House at that time and championed civil rights and women’s rights over her four years of service in the legislature. Farenthold co-sponsored the Equal Legal Rights Amendment to the Texas Constitution with then-Texas Senator Barbara Jordan.

Farenthold ran in the Democratic primary for governor in 1972 and 1974, losing both times to Dolph Briscoe. She gained national recognition during the 1972 Democratic Convention, when she came in second for the Vice Presidential nomination. She was the first woman to be seriously considered for the Vice Presidential candidacy. In 1973, she was elected as the first national chair of the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Farenthold selected as chair of the National
Women's Political Caucus, 1973.
Photo by Carolyn Litowich. Permission pending.

In 1976, Farenthold left electoral politics to serve as the first female president of Wells College in Aurora, New York. During her tenure at Wells from 1976-1980, Farenthold expanded her work with women’s groups, anti-nuclear and peace activists, and human rights groups. She was an active member of Helsinki Watch, the predecessor to the organization Human Rights Watch. She also made connections with organizations like Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Farenthold left Wells College in 1980 to return to Houston, where she opened a private law practice and taught law at the University of Houston. She continued to devote significant time to the international women’s movement. In the early 1980s, she began a collaboration with her cousin, Genevieve Vaughan, that would last the next decade.

Farenthold and Vaughan organized the Peace Tent at the 1985 NGO Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, held in conjunction with the third U.N. World Conference on Women. They were also founding members of Women for a Meaningful Summit, an ad hoc coalition of female leaders that called for nuclear disarmament at the Reagan-Gorbachev summits . Farenthold also worked with the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a progressive multi-issue think tank devoted to peace, justice, and the environment. With IPS, Farenthold made trips to investigate human rights violations in Central America and Iraq.

Farenthold has since retired from law practice, but continues to lend her voice and support to human rights efforts around the world. She served as Chair of the Board of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, which is an intimate sanctuary for people of every belief and supports human rights causes. She currently serves as an Honorary Director at the Rothko Chapel, on the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice’s Advisory Board, and is an emeritus trustee of IPS. She lives in Houston.