NCSL’s Megan McClure and Amanda Zoch sat down with Texas Representative Senfronia Thompson (D) while recording part of the podcast miniseries “Building Democracy: The Story of Legislatures.” They asked Thompson why it’s important for women to be in elective office and what made her decide to run.
Could you tell us about yourself and why you ran for office?
I’m a lifelong Texan and was a wife and schoolteacher before I took office as a state legislator. I got tired of licking stamps for men, helping them be successful politically. So, when the opportunity came, and my husband said I could do it, I went out and ran. Fortunately, I ran in the area I was reared in, and a lot of people knew me. That was in 1973. It was the year of the woman as I like to describe it. During that time, Roe v. Wade was in the Supreme Court and the second big thing was the Equal Rights Amendment, giving women the same rights as other citizens. For example, in Texas, a woman could not get a credit card in her own name; the only thing that disqualified her was her gender. She couldn’t even buy property in her name. It wasn’t easy because we ran in a “stereotyped society” that believed women deserved to be at home, in the kitchen. When it came to sharing the power, men felt it would be too taxing for a woman to be a member of the legislative body and that women definitely didn’t have the intellectual stamina to be able to deal with issues that impact the lives of ordinary citizens. Our role model was (civil rights leader and Texas Senator) Barbara Jordan, and Lord knows she didn’t have an easy time running because of her gender as well as her ethnicity. What she was able to achieve helped open the doors for more women to become legislators, but it wasn’t easy.
Did your first session measure up to your expectations?
That first term I thought that I was going be able to resolve every issue all in one session. I was going to get it all done, never realizing that I had to work through the process with other persons who represented different constituents than I did and who had different ideas about some of the issues that I was raising. It was very taxing, even when I was fighting for the voiceless, the people who could not afford to pay a lobbyist, to make sure that their issues were heard—even the people that you’re fighting for cannot appreciate the struggle you go through to get things done.
Having served for almost half a century, would you say bipartisanship and decorum have changed?
Well, I’m about to go into my 25th session and you’ve heard the statement, “Things go full circle.” I’ve seen it go full circle. When I first went into the legislature, I thought we were going to be a more democratic society, that we would be more inclusive and that we were moving toward a society where respect and opportunities would flourish, particularly for women. The bipartisanship that I have seen has been evolving, but I think it depends on the issue. I’ve been able to work across the aisle for a long time with individuals in the legislature; however, there are some issues that are very partisan. But normally, it’s pretty easy to work with my colleagues.
Do you have an example of a policy issue that has taken a long time to see through?
Public education. Last session was the first time that we funded public education without looking at the ZIP code where a child lived. When I first went into the legislature in 1973, there was a case called Rodrigues v. Texas about underfunding minority school districts. And last year was the first time we equalized funding in the 47 years that I’ve been a member of the legislature.
Have you ever introduced legislation that you ended up withdrawing because of input from constituents?
Yes, I have introduced legislation where persons visited me and convinced me that the bill was not a good piece of legislation. And I told them, “OK, I’m convinced,” and I put it down. I didn’t move further with it because I had the privilege of hearing their point of view and that input is invaluable. I can use the example of human trafficking. I thought we ought to clean up the records of victims of trafficking. But there were other points of views that were pertinent that I hadn’t heard—not that I agree with them, but at least I want to know what they are, to give alternate ideas consideration.
Has the legislature kept up with demographic changes in Texas?
Yes, there has been a change in demographics, but I don’t think the legislature is an accurate reflection of what our state looks like. We have made progress electing more women and persons of color into office, but there still aren’t enough of us in the House or in the Senate. And I think accurate representation speaks volumes. Women and persons of color bring valuable perspectives and life experiences to the table, and those experiences are essential when it comes to discussing and debating both noncontroversial and hot-button issues. I also believe that individuals elected to office who aren’t marginalized need to do a better job of recognizing they have privilege and that each person has valuable input.
During your tenure you’ve seen party control of the legislature flip. Has the process changed with a switch in party control?
Oh yes, indeed, it has changed tremendously. But you know what, when I stop and think about the process during Democratic control, compared with Republican control, if you happen to be in a minority or marginalized demographic, you encounter the same experiences. So, if it was a Democratic House, I would have some of the same struggles that I’m going to have with it being a Republican House. No matter the party control, I plan to be busy next session.
This interview was shortened and edited for clarity. If you’d like to hear more about Thompson’s experience in the Texas House and how legislatures evolved into modern institutions during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, listen to Episode 5 of “Building Democracy.”
Megan McClure and Mandy Zoch are co-hosts of the “Building Democracy” podcast series. McClure is a research analyst in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program, and Zoch is a policy specialist with the Center for Legislative Strengthening.