Virginia Elizabeth Duff, Texas state representative from Ellis County between 1951 and 1963, was born in Ferris, Texas, on August 26, 1920, to Samuel Davis Duff and Fannie Virginia (Farrar) Duff. Virginia Duff’s family had a tradition of political involvement including her great uncle, Simon Bowden "Bowd" Farrar, Jr., who served as the Texas House of Representatives member for Ellis County from 1925 to 1933, and her great-grandfather, Hans Smith, who also held public office.
At the dawn of the Great Depression, Virginia’s father, a farmer, died suddenly on November 15, 1929. In the 1930 census, nine-year-old Virginia and her only sibling, fifteen-year-old James Farrar Duff, lived with their mother in a rented home and went to school in Ferris. An excellent student, Virginia was the valedictorian of her high school graduating class at Ferris High School in 1938. She received her bachelor’s degree in history from Trinity University in Waxahachie, Texas, and reportedly enjoyed her time living on campus in Prendergast Hall. After graduating in mid-1942, she taught fifth grade in Dallas County, Texas.
In 1944, at the peak of U.S. war production during World War II, Duff left the teaching profession to work as a laboratory assistant at Magnolia Petroleum Company (later part of the Mobil Oil Company). She worked during the day and attended classes at Southern Methodist University’s law school at night. In 1947 she took the state bar exam in the chamber of the Texas House of Representatives. Duff was the only woman in the room. Later she recalled that there she felt called to run for a seat in the state legislature.
In 1950 Duff, a member of the Democratic party, launched a self-funded and self-run campaign for the Texas House of Representatives against two male candidates. After a run-off, she was elected to the House on her thirtieth birthday. She succeeded Rae Files Still as the representative of District 100 (and later District 52), which made her the first woman to succeed a woman in the state legislature. In the Fifty-second legislature, she and Dorothy Gillis Gurley, another freshman representative, were the only women in the Texas House, and Neveille Colson was the only woman in the Texas Senate.
Between 1951 through 1963 Duff represented her district in the state legislature and worked on numerous legislative committees for six consecutive terms. She served as chair of the State Hospitals and Special Schools Committee from 1953 to 1955. Under her guidance, the committee conducted an investigative review of the conditions and financial efficiency of state hospitals, state reform schools, state schools for individuals with disabilities, the Alabama-Coushatta reservation, Texas Confederate home for veterans and widows, the Austin Farm Colony (see TRAVIS STATE SCHOOL), and the state hog farm. She personally inspected twenty of the twenty-one institutions visited by the committee. In 1959 Duff chaired the Local Water Board Committee, which investigated local water statutes and was tasked with drafting legislation to codify the rules surrounding water in the state. She also wrote legislation to require nearby vehicles to stop as children entered and exited school busses.
In 1955 Duff was appointed to the Special Investigative Committee on the Veterans’ Land Program (see VETERANS’ LAND BOARD SCANDAL). This committee was created in response to a November 1954 article in the Cuero Record that uncovered corruption within the Veterans’ Land Board. The final report of the committee, issued on June 7, 1955, recommended the creation of an administrative body to oversee the Veterans’ Land Program. This administrative body was to replace the three-person board (comprised of the governor, attorney general, and commissioner of the General Land Office) that administered the program from 1949 until 1956. By 1959 Duff’s appointment to the Appropriations Committee was indicative of her growing political power in the House. She served on the Criminal Justice Committee from her first election to her last day as a representative. Although she did not author any major legislation from that committee position, she and the committee did a systematic review of conditions and finances of Texas’s prison system.
Duff was an outspoken defender of racial segregation and took an active role in the state’s effort to block school integration (see CIVIL RIGHTS). In the legislative session following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision, which declared racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional, Duff was appointed as vice-chair of Governor Allan Shivers’s Advisory Committee on Segregation in Public Schools. The committee released its recommendations in September 1956, a few weeks after the Mansfield school desegregation incident. While not as extreme as in some states, they recommended the state legislature join other southern states and adopt the states’ rights doctrine of interposition, which theoretically allowed the state legislature to interpose itself between the federal government and local authorities, and prevent enforcement of federal laws or mandates that the state found unconstitutional. The committee also recommended a group of bills, some written by Duff, that included a state mandate to re-segregate all schools that had integrated after the 1954 Brown decision and a requirement that any local integration plan first be approved by a majority of voters. They also set up a plan to control student transfers that the legislative committee members and advisors thought would conform and simultaneously. A comprehensive series of bills that came out of the committee withheld state education funds for integrating schools, required all integration advocates to register with the Texas Secretary of State’s office, barred NAACP members from state employment, allowed local school officials to end compulsory education requirements, and allocated state funds to be used for private school tuition for any white students who did not want to attend integrated schools. While many of the bills written and recommended by the committee were subsequently passed by the Texas legislature and signed by Texas Governor Price Daniel, they were never implemented.
Duff successfully won reelection until 1963 when she was defeated. She was considered a petite woman, and in 1961, the Austin Statesman noted her toughness at the start of her sixth and final representative term and stated, “don’t let size [and] gentle look fool you. Virginia Duff fights mansize politically.” After leaving office, she returned to the oil and gas industry where she worked until retirement in 1976. Her only sibling, James Farrar Duff, died in 1969. Duff lived with and cared for her mother on a farm outside of Waxahachie until her mother passed away in 1986. She served as a member of the Board of Trinity University National Alumni Association, an organizing and charter member and regent of the Rebecca Boyce Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, chair of the Ellis County Historical Commission, and honorary state member of Delta Kappa Gamma, as well as several local and county task committees and boards. She was also a Presbyterian, serving as trustee and clerk of her local Presbyterian Church later in life.
Virginia Elizabeth Duff died on January 13, 2012, at the age of ninety-one. Her funeral was held at the First Presbyterian Church in Ferris, and she was buried in Ferris Memorial Park North. She is remembered posthumously through her charitable contributions. Those include the Fannie Farrar Duff Scholarship Endowment Fund for students of Trinity University which Virginia set up in memory of her mother in 2005 and a Ferris Public Library mural project which she funded in 2012. The library murals feature both her name and a tribute to her authorship of the child safety legislation regarding school buses. She also donated memorabilia and ephemera to the Special Collections Library at Trinity University.