Image from Wikipedia/State Bar of Texas

Born: 1896 (Baltimore)

Died: 1985 (Dallas)

Noted For: Sarah Tilghman Hughes was a politician and judge who is the only woman in U.S. history (to date as of 2019) to have sworn in a U.S. President, having famously administered the oath of office to President Lyndon B. Johnson on Air Force One following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Standing just a hair past five feet tall, Sarah Tilghman Hughes was tiny—but mighty.

Following an academic career marked by scholastic and athletic achievement, Sarah began her career as a science teacher, but later returned to school to study law and worked as a police officer—two bold choices in an era where women were still fighting for the right to vote.

Sarah initially struggled with her efforts to establish a successful law practice, thwarted primarily by biased attitudes towards women attorneys. But eventually her law career began to gain momentum, and she also became active in local women’s organizations, including the League of Women Voters. She later served as the chair of the American Association of University Women’s Committee on the Economic and Legal Status of Women, working on issues like equal pay for women who performed jury service and improved status for women in uniform.

In 1930, she won the first of what would be three terms in the Texas House of Representatives, thus joining the small but growing ranks of Texas women to hold office in the years following the passage of the 19th Amendment. One of the issues she focused on during her legislative career was jury eligibility for women, who were mostly barred from jury service in Texas until the mid-1950s.

In 1935, during her third term in the Texas House, Sarah was appointed to the Fourteenth District Court in Dallas, making her the state’s first female district judge. She was elected to the same post the following year, and re-elected six more times until 1961. That year, at the age of 65, she was appointed by JFK to the United States Northern District Court, making her the only woman judge appointed by President Kennedy and the first woman federal judge in Texas.

On November 22, 1963, Sarah Hughes was called upon to swear in Lyndon B. Johnson as President of the United States, a task usually performed by the Chief Justice of the United States—at the request of the Vice President himself, whom she had known and supported for many years. The photo of Sarah administering the oath to LBJ on Air Force One, while first Lady Jackie Kennedy looked on, went on to become one of the most famous photos in the world, and an iconic image of the turbulent 1960s.

Image from Wikipedia/Cecil B. Staughton

Sarah retired in 1975, following a federal career where she was involved with a number of important court decisions, and passed away in 1985. “It all depends on whether you’re willing to work hard enough to get what you want, not what stands in your way,” Hughes told an interviewer in 1977. The special collections reading room of the University of North Texas Libraries is named in her honor.

Additional Learning:

“Fateful Flight from Dallas”: from the Los Angeles Times