CAPITOL Q&A: STATE REP. SENFRONIA THOMPSON
Texas Rep. Senfronia Thompson – affectionately known around the Capitol as “Mrs. T” – is serving her 24th term in the Texas House of Representatives and is considered
“Dean of Women” at the Legislature. An attorney, she represents District 141, which includes northeast Houston and Humble. Thompson is a trailblazer on many fronts, but her work on behalf of women, and as an early woman in public office, make her an obvious choice to feature in this Capitol Q&A during Women’s History Month.
A member of the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, Thompson has championed scores of reforms to benefit women and families, including laws on alimony, protective orders, sexual discrimination in the workforce, contraceptive parity, the Sexual Assault Program Fund, minimum wage, the National Domestic Violence Hot Line, insurance coverage of 3D mammograms, and much more.
Thompson’s accomplishments and honors are considerable and too numerous to list here – you can learn more in her official biography.
You have served in the Texas House since 1973 – Texas obviously was a very different place then for women. What sparked you to run for office, and what concerns did you have about becoming one of the very few women serving in the Legislature at that time?
At that particular time, I think Barbara Jordan was in office and a few others across the country. The big thing was the Equal Rights Amendment movement that was afoot. I’d been licking stamps and envelopes and helping men get elected. I thought, I can do as well if not better at representing our community on the issues. I ran on that premise, as well as many other women did in that era. We felt our time had come.
There were just a few of us in number across the state and country. I think the women’s movement and Gloria Steinem talking about ERA amendment emboldened us to see if we could really do this, if we’d be permitted by society to do this. To our surprise, women supported us, and they felt inspired to go out and help us not only by voting for us but to help get us get elected.
Money was difficult to raise. I was fortunate to be running for a seat that was drawn to include an area where I was raised, so a lot of people knew me. I had to work extra hard with little money or resources. I had one guy who believed in me. He volunteered to work my campaign; he still works for me today.
One constituent of mine, who is still a constituent, was an excellent seamstress. She told me, I can make some aprons, and we can sell those aprons for a dollar to raise money. She made me aprons in rainbow colors, and we sold them. We also did bake sales and fish frys to raise money. But to fund my campaign in that time, it was difficult to raise money from the rank and file people, especially for a woman of color.
I was fortunate and well-blessed to be able to run. I remember my youngest child, who was about 8 or 9, wanted to work in my campaign office on Election Day. I couldn’t supervise him, so I told him to stay home with his daddy. But a card pusher didn’t show up, and an overwhelming number of people were coming by the office. I saw a youngster walking down the street with push cards in his hand – it was my son! He met the child of my opponent and asked him, “Would you vote for my momma, please?” Some people told me I won that seat because of my son.
I ended up in a runoff and won the runoff.
How is being a woman legislator now different from being a woman legislator in the early 1970s?
There was no dean (of women) in the early ‘70s. There were no women there before we got there. In addition to me, I think there was Betty Andujar, Sarah Weddington, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Chris Miller and Kay Bailey Hutchison. We were from different parties – Kay Bailey Hutchison was a Republican – we got along. We socialized – not a lot, but we got along because of the issues that impacted us and the ordinary, everyday woman. Kay took the side against the ERA because her party wasn’t supporting it at the time. They used to have women come over the Capitol wearing long dresses and carrying cookies, saying, “We don’t want the ERA,” we want to be a housewife. On the other side, thousands came to the Capitol saying, “I want independence, I want the ERA passed, I want to be in corporate America.” Even the hearings were something, there were so many women on both sides.
Over time, having been there for some time, I earned the title “Dean of Women.” There was none of that then, it was male dominated.
Throughout your career you’ve carried – and passed – numerous pieces of legislation to protect and advance women. If you could choose one – which are you most proud of and why?
That’s difficult for me to say. I think it’s passing the issue of spousal maintenance (alimony) that I’m most proud, but that didn’t start as my bill. It had been carried by others who had left the Legislature for some reason, whether they retired or were defeated. I eventually picked up the bill, which took 16 or 20 years to pass. One day we were debating another bill on public assistance for needy families. One of my colleagues, Rep. Ron Wilson came over to me and said, “Senfronia, your bill will fit as an amendment on this bill.” I just had a few minutes to get the amendment down from my office and get it on the bill. Pete Laney was the House Speaker and had just given a speech that day to a group of businessmen and told them they didn’t have to worry about the issue of alimony in Texas, it would never pass. Two hours later, I’m on the floor putting that amendment (to create alimony) on!
Another representative had just boarded a plane to fly back to his district to give a speech. Speaker Laney tried to get the plane to turn around for that member to come back to vote against it, but the plane was too far in the air to turn around. Meanwhile, we were just standing at ease waiting. I didn’t know what was going on. The Speaker smiled at me, I smiled right back at him. I gave the House my arguments – it was gender neutral (men could also apply, although I knew it helped women more), it would help people come off welfare and be independent. It would give society a break. When a woman has been a housewife and has no employable skills, and her husband leaves her, she should get something for being supportive all those years. My colleagues began to agree with me. More and more things kept coming to my mind.
The amendment was adopted. I felt like a champion and took my seat. But I thought the amendment would come off when the bill went to conference committee. Speaker Laney came and sat beside me and asked, “If I put you on the conference committee, you aren’t going to go crazy, will you?” I told him, “No.”
As we discussed the amendment in the conference committee, we thought of more things. Originally, the couple had to be married 10 years to receive alimony and the person seeking maintenance did not have any employable skills. But what if the woman was a victim of domestic violence? We decided the 10 years did not apply. What if she’s physically or mentally disabled? We decided the husband should have to pay alimony until the woman dies. The revised amendment went all the way through both the House and the Senate – and stayed on the bill.
Women many times sacrifice themselves, they take care of the kids and the house while their husband goes through college. She helps get him on his feet. Then all of the sudden she’s cast aside. She’s sacrificed, all her time has gone by. She thinks, “How will I make it? Where will I go? Will I qualify for food stamps? How will I pay the mortgage?”
We sorted through that – you decided this is what you want to do, here’s some consequences to think about.
What is still the biggest legislative need of women in Texas?
Equal pay. If they get paid for their work, I think they’d be able to sustain themselves, climb the corporate ladder. They would have a good opportunity to be able to achieve in their fields, whatever those professions may be.
Although women are still in the minority in the Texas Legislature, more women are running for office, especially this election cycle. What advice do you have for them?
I hope they win. I think they bring to the table another point of view because of their uniqueness and having to deal with many facets of life. They add to the equation something that is missing. Men have had many chances, and it’s wonderful to work with good intelligent men who are driven to improve society. But I think women bring another piece of the puzzle that makes life more meaningful and really worth enjoying. I hope people will support them financially more.