“It all depends on whether you’re willing to work hard enough to get what you want, not what stands in your way,” Judge Sarah T. Hughes said in 1977. Hughes faced obstacles in her life but became the first woman appointed as a federal judge in Texas in addition to a nationally known figure amidst a national tragedy.
She was born Sarah Tilghman in Baltimore in 1896. As a youth, she was extremely intelligent and also very determined. She excelled at athletics and academics alike. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Baltimore’s Goucher College, then an all-women’s college. After graduating in 1917, she took a series of interesting jobs on her way to her law career. She taught science for two years at a small school in North Carolina before coming to Washington, DC, to attend law school at George Washington University. In a time before women could vote nationwide or even attend some universities, she was determined to become an attorney and worked her way through law school as a police officer, taking classes at night. For a time, she even had to live in a tent on the edge of the city.
Tilghman met her future husband, George Hughes, a Texas native, in law school. The two married in 1922 and left for Dallas. While her husband quickly found success with a private firm, Sarah Hughes had a difficult time as a woman even with her impressive law school degree. One law firm in Dallas hired her as a receptionist and only handed her a few cases at first. Within a short time, she earned the respect of the other attorneys. Nevertheless, she enjoyed the law and “the thrill of a fight” as an attorney, as she told an audience in 1928.
In 1930, she was elected to the state legislature. She worked for rights for women and served on the Judiciary and Labor committees. One issue she had become passionate about was a law- abiding women not allowed to serve on juries. She attempted to have the law changed in her time in the legislature but failed. She continued to work for it afterward, and as a result of her work, the right for Texas women to serve on juries was secured by 1954.
In January 1935, as Hughes started her third term in the legislature, Gov. James V. Allred appointed Hughes to an open judicial, the 14th District Court in Dallas. In the process, she became the first Texas woman to serve as a district judge. She was elected to a full term in 1936 and re-elected every four years up to 1960. When influential Dallas Congressman Hatton Sumners retired in 1946, Hughes jumped at the chance to run for the seat that comprised all of Dallas County. However, she came just short in the primary against J. Franklin Wilson, himself a former Dallas judge.
She had become a respected figure in legal circles and had generously donated to her old college in Maryland. In honor of what she had achieved, Goucher College established the Sarah T. Hughes Field Center in Politics to study Maryland politics and to encourage students to get more heavily involved in politics. She helped secure Dallas County’s first juvenile detention center in 1950. In 1952, she was surprised by being nominated for vice-president at the Democratic National Convention. She realized she did not have a chance and won only one vote while the vice-presidential nomination went to Sen. John Sparkman of Alabama with Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson heading the ticket.
Hughes ran for the State Supreme Court in 1958. In a hard-fought contest, she won 49.3% of the vote, coming up just 14,000 votes short in her race against incumbent Justice Joe Greenhill.
Despite her disappointing loss, Hughes was still looking forward as the 1960s approached. She would soon embark on the most memorable phase of her career.