Amsler, Margaret Greer Harris Gordon (1908–2002)


By: John Carranza

Type: Biography

Published: June 29, 2022

Updated: June 29, 2022


Margaret Harris Amsler, lawyer and professor, was the first woman legislator elected to represent McLennan County and the first woman to serve as Marshall of the Texas Supreme Court. She was born on June 15, 1908, to Nathaniel Harris, then assistant county attorney under Pat Neff, and Margaret Foster (Greer) Harris in Waco, Texas. Margaret was third of five children and the eldest daughter in the Harris family. Both of her parents were well educated. In 1900 her mother graduated from Baylor with a bachelor of science degree and moved to Salt Lake City, where she taught for three years. After Amsler’s father graduated, he stayed at Baylor and completed a master’s degree in history, then earned a second master’s degree in sociology at Yale University and an LL.B. and an LL.M. degree from George Washington University. While in law school, her father worked as a secretary for the national labor leader Samuel Gompers. As a young girl, Amsler had a close relationship with her father. He often took her to the courthouse in Waco, where she made friends with other lawyers, and as a preteen she often attended meetings of the State Bar with him.

During childhood Margaret had an intense love of learning. Her mother taught her and her siblings how to read before they were of school age. She attended Central Grammar School, where she was on the debate team. She later remembered the team debated the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prior to its passage. She argued in favor of a woman suffrage amendment against a skillful male opponent and won the consensus of her friends who felt the position justified when the amendment was finally added to the Constitution. Margaret attended Waco High School, where she served as the editor of the daily newspaper, the Daisy Chain, and graduated salutatorian in 1925.

In the fall of 1925 Margaret attended Baylor University on scholarship during her first year. She only had to pay half the cost of tuition because her father taught at the law school. She majored in English literature and French, minored in history and botany, and took a number of courses in the music school. She also was the managing editor of the university yearbook, Roundup, and during her senior year was a teaching assistant in French and botany. Margaret graduated with an undergraduate degree in 1929, then continued her education at Wellesley College, where she received a master’s degree in English literature in 1931. Although she decided as a young adult to become a lawyer, her father thought the law profession was a difficult career for women and urged her to carefully consider her choice. As a result, Margaret taught for a year at a public school in Rockwall, Texas, before she entered Baylor Law School in fall 1932.

After a year of courses, Margaret Harris married John Kenneth Gordon, an advertising manager from Chicago that she met at the Chicago World's Fair, in a Methodist ceremony in Waco, Texas, on October 8, 1933. She put law school on hold because Baylor University dismissed married students at that time. In 1934 Margaret and John had one daughter, Frederika, who was named after her paternal grandmother. Margaret thought the name did not suit her daughter, so she called her Rikki. Rikki had a childhood condition known as Perthes disease, which affected the growth of one of her legs and required treatment. She and John soon divorced, and she returned to law school in 1935. Margaret supported her law education by teaching in Baylor’s French department for approximately twenty dollars a month. Among her many classmates were men who later became leaders in Texas politics, including future governor Price Daniel and Thomas Hawthorne Phillips, who later served on the Texas Supreme Court (see JUDICIARY). In 1937 Margaret graduated with honors, was admitted to the Texas Bar, and practiced law with her father.

In 1938 Margaret Gordon ran for the Texas legislature as a representative of McLennan County. While campaigning, she met with constituents in domino parlors, atop cotton gins, and before factory shifts. She often took her daughter to the firehouse with her because of her fascination with fire engines. A member of the Democratic party, Margaret faced seven opponents in the primary election. She won the nomination in a runoff election, then won the general election. When her term began with the Forty-sixth Texas Legislature in January 1939, she and Neveille Colson were the only two women legislators. In the Texas House of Representatives, she served on the Judiciary Committee, Education Committee, and the Penitentiary Committee, for which time she visited a penitentiary for three days (see PRISON SYSTEM). Margaret often found herself at odds with Governor W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, who referred to her as "that woman" after she refused to denounce the death penalty at his behest. Margaret unsuccessfully ran for reelection in 1940.

Margaret taught at Baylor University part-time in 1940, then as a full-time instructor in 1941. In addition to teaching, she served as the faculty advisor for the Baylor Law Review and was often invited to speak at various organizational meetings or events. She was also on the committee who drafted the business corporation code in the Texas Revised Civil Statutes, and in 1942 she served as a briefing attorney and Marshall for the Texas Supreme Court. On September 14, 1942, she married Samuel H. Amsler, Jr., who also taught at Baylor Law School, in Waco.

Margaret specialized in corporate law and published on the subject, including "The Texas Non-Profit Corporation: Past, Present and Prospective" in the Baylor Law Review. Amsler served as chairperson of the Committee on Revision of Corporation Law of the State Bar of Texas until 1968. On behalf of the State Bar, she helped draft several bills for consideration by the state legislature, notably the Married Women's Act of 1963. It gave married women the ability to enter contracts and establish credit and was a part of a larger set of reforms proposed by the State Bar and spearheaded by Louise Raggio as an alternative to passing the Equal Rights Amendment (see WOMEN AND THE LAW and MATRIMONIAL PROPERTY ACT OF 1967).

In 1967, when Governor John Connally created the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, Margaret Amsler was one of twenty women appointed to serve. The commission was meant to develop recommendations related to policies and practices in hiring women and the rights of women. She, however, felt frustrated by the commission’s work since she and other women did not have a hand in drafting meaningful legislation to benefit women. From 1967 to 1971 she served as an assistant appeals agent for the local draft board. In 1971 Chief Justice Robert W. Calvert of the Texas Supreme Court appointed her to the newly-formed Ethics Commission, which was meant to regulate the behavior of public officials. She was also appointed to the State Board of Law Examiners in 1977.

On August 2, 1972, Margaret Amsler retired from her post as a full-time professor at Baylor Law School. At the time she left her position, she had held the longest full-time tenure in the history of the school. Upon retirement, Amsler’s professional memberships included: the Waco-McLennan County Bar Association, the State Bar Association, the American Bar Association, and the American Judicature Society. Throughout Amsler's career she received a number of honors, including the McGregor’s Woman of Distinction award from her hometown in 1953. In 1969 she received the West Texas Chamber of Commerce leadership award for her work done on the Governor’s Commission on Status of Women, and the Student Bar Association's Professor of the Year award for the 1971–72 academic year. Amsler was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2016 faculty members and the Baylor Law Women’s Legal Society ceremoniously hung her portrait, the first portrait of a woman Baylor lawyer, in the halls of the law school.

Margaret Harris Amsler died on May 14, 2002, in McLennan County, Texas. She was buried in the McGregor Cemetery in McGregor, Texas.

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Margaret Amsler, Interview by Lista Kay Beazley, October 26, 1972, November 9, 1972, and December 7, 1972, Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Baylor University. Paul J. Gately, “Local Woman Born 110 Years Ago Led the Way for Women Lawyers in Texas,” KWTX News, June 14, 2018, (https://www.kwtx.com/content/news/Local-woman-born-110-years-ago-led-the-way-for-women-lawyers-in-Texas-485613061.html), accessed May 10, 2022. Nancy Baker Jones and Ruthe Winegarten, Capitol Women: Texas Female Legislators, 1923–1999 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000). Herma Hill Kay, “A Symposium on Women in Legal Education: The Future of Women Law Professors,” Iowa Law Review 77, 5 (October 1991). McGregor Mirror, August 3, 1972. Waco Citizen, November 30, 1951. WacoNews-Citizen, February 10, 1959.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

John Carranza, “Amsler, Margaret Greer Harris Gordon,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/amsler-margaret-greer-harris.

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June 29, 2022
June 29, 2022

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