Barbara Charline Jordan—politician, teacher, and orator—was the third of three daughters born and raised by her parents in Houston. All the schools Jordan and her sisters attended were then segregated. At Phillis Wheatley High School, Jordan was a member of the debate team and learned some of the speaking skills for which she would one day be famous. After graduating magna cum laude from Texas Southern University, she attended Boston University Law School. Out of 600 students, only six were women, and only two were black women.
After law school, Jordan returned to Houston and, in 1960, worked on the John F. Kennedy/Lyndon B. Johnson presidential campaign. During the campaign, she was bitten by the political bug, and decided to run for a seat in the Texas Legislature to represent the Fifth Ward (a section of Houston). No black woman had ever been elected to the Texas Legislature. She ran twice—in 1962 and 1964—and lost both times.
When a new district was drawn to send a senator to the Texas Legislature from Houston, Jordan ran for the new seat in 1966 and won an overwhelming victory as the state's first black state senator since 1883. She was so successful that she was named the outstanding freshman senator. In 1972, Jordan was unanimously elected president pro tempore of the Senate, a very visible honorary position.
More than half the bills she introduced became law. In 1972, when a new district opened for a seat in the US. Congress representing her predominantly black neighborhood in Houston, Jordan ran for the seat and became the first black woman from a southern state and the first black Texan ever to take a seat in Congress.
Her old political friend, former President Johnson, helped her get appointed to the influential House Judiciary Committee. The appointment led to what many consider Barbara Jordan's finest hour as a defender of the Constitution. The House Judiciary Committee had the authority to investigate whether President Richard M. Nixon had acted illegally during the Watergate scandal. After hearing evidence, Jordan realized she would have to vote to impeach Nixon.
On July 25, 1974, Jordan spoke to the nation, telling not only the people but also the President that her faith in the Constitution was so great that for anyone—even the President—to weaken it was not acceptable. To avoid being impeached and tried, President Nixon resigned.
In Congress, Jordan co-sponsored bills to help older Americans, children, the environment, teachers, and the homeless. In 1979, she became a professor at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, teaching courses in ethics and political values. Though she had multiple sclerosis and used a wheelchair, Jordan continued her busy schedule of teaching, speaking, traveling, and public service.
In 1991, Governor Ann Richards appointed Jordan to head a newly created ethics commission; in 1994, she was named by President Bill Clinton to head a commission on immigration reform. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1990 and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. When Barbara Jordan passed away in 1996, President Bill Clinton declared a national time of mourning in her honor.
Written by Nancy Baker Jones
Read by Susan Castle
Perhaps most famous for the sound of her sonorous voice, Barbara Jordan articulated the emotions of many when, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, she defended the Constitution against its "subversion" during the Watergate scandal in 1974. Using herself as a symbol of the people who had once been excluded from it, she said, "I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the … destruction of the Constitution."
Refusing to describe herself through race or gender, Barbara Jordan did use her "differences" to benefit both women and people of color. Born in Houston’s 5th Ward, she became the first Black female Texas state senator in 1967, and the first Black Texan elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972.
Her political strategy was to join the system rather than challenge it. In Texas, nearly half of the 150 bills she introduced passed. She supported the state’s first minimum wage and civil rights laws and called in political chips to block legislation that would have made voter registration difficult. In the House, Jordan helped win equal credit for women and the extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to cover Mexican Americans.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Jordan ended her political career in 1979 and returned to Texas to teach. Barbara Jordan died in Austin in 1996 at 59. She was later named one of the 20th Century’s most influential women.
Jones, Nancy Baker and Ruthe Winegarten. Capitol Women: Texas Female Legislators, 1923-1999. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.
Hearon, Shelby and Barbara Jordan. Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait. New York: Doubleday, 1979.
Rogers, Mary Beth. Barbara Jordan: American Hero. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.
Biography Source Information
Biographies are reprinted from the Foundation for Women’s Resources (now Women’s Resources), Dallas, Texas. They originally appeared in "From Gutsy Mavericks to Quiet Heroes: True Tales of Texas Women," video study guide, Austin: The Foundation for Women's Resources, 1997. Death dates have been added where needed.
Audio Source Information
Our project, "Texas Women's History Moments," received the 2012 National Council on Public History Outstanding Public History Award and the American Association for State and Local History Leadership in History Award. The audio clips were broadcast on KUT radio from 2011-2016 during Women’s History Month.