In the photo, Hortense Sparks Ward appears contemplative. Her eyes cast downward, wearing a sunhat to shield her from the blazing heat, she is the picture of poise. Pen in hand, she’s about to make history. It is June 27, 1918, and Ward is the first woman to register to vote in Harris County.
The historic moment—captured by the Houston Post—was the culmination of tireless advocacy on Ward’s part, which cemented her in history as a trailblazing suffragist: Over the next 17 days, some 386,000 Texas women followed her lead. The fight to get there, though, was not nearly as smooth as Ward’s signature. An early hurdle she helped clear for the cause? Being taken seriously.
“One of the big fights was to get this news off the society pages,” Linda Cohn, president of the Houston chapter of the League of Women Voters, tells us a century later.
Ward, a practicing attorney—and, by the way, the first woman admitted to the Texas State Bar—was president of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association and a prominent voice of her time. Her missives, which appeared frequently in pamphlets and newspapers across the state, were stirring and assertive. She invoked themes of justice and, in the final days of World War I, patriotism, arguing that women deserved equality after years spent holding down the fort while men fought in battle.
“The loyalty, courage, and efficiency of the American woman cannot be doubted,” Ward wrote in a 1918 article, “Women Demand the Vote Now as a War Measure.” “America is fighting for democracy and yet at least half of her most loyal inhabitants have no voice in the government. … We have never failed you; you need our help, we need yours.”
That same year, Ward and company were successful in lobbying the Texas Legislature for women’s right to vote in the primaries, but it wasn’t until 1919 that they could cast ballots in all elections here. Meanwhile, it took their national counterparts even longer: Yet another year passed before enough states ratified the 19th Amendment to add it to the Constitution.
“The time for flowers, platitudes, and flattery is past; we are fighting for democracy.”
—Hortense Sparks Ward
“The overarching thought of who can vote and how you vote has been fluid over the broad sweep of American history,” Cohn says. “There was not one point in which everything was set: Bring out the concrete and chisel, this is it, folks, our work here is done. Things have changed. Things continue to change.”
Ward’s other spirited activism—fighting for women’s right to own property and worker’s compensation, and against the Ku Klux Klan—was near-radical a century ago. Cohn is bolstered by that, drawing strength from Texas’s historical “cadre of strong, politically engaged, influential women” and, simply, how much has changed.
Today women in Texas—and nearly every other state—are more likely to be registered to vote than men, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. That, of course, makes it even more bizarre that when Cohn’s own mother was born, women couldn’t vote in this country.
“Sometimes—and I dare say most of the time—things are resolved, and they are so obvious in their resolution that you wonder what all the folks were fussing about to begin with,” she says. “You can only hope that today’s struggles are resolved with justice and rectitude, and that women and men of 2118 will regard us with equal admiration as we think of the suffragists.”