Sarah T. Hughes: A Woman Who Asked What She Could Do For Her Country
Sarah Tilghman Hughes answered the phone. “We’ve had news of an accident,” the voice on the end of the line said. She immediately jumped into her car and drove to the airport, where she boarded a plane and walked into a scene that has become one of the most iconic and memorable images in American history. The day was November 22, 1963. The accident was President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. And the plane was Air Force One, where Hughes swore in the new president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson. There, Hughes became the first — and still the only — woman to administer the U.S. presidential oath of office.
An AAUW regional vice president and chair of the AAUW Committee on the Economic and Legal Status of Women from 1943–47, Hughes was elected to the Texas state legislature in 1930. She became the first woman appointed state district judge in Texas in 1935. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed her to be Texas’ first woman federal judge.
How did Hughes become the person to swear in Johnson on that frightful day? What were the thoughts racing through her head? What did she say to Jackie Kennedy on that plane just hours after her husband was assassinated?
These questions led us back to oral history interview transcripts in the LBJ Presidential Library. These transcripts give us insight into that day, those frantic hours, and how one of our own members was not only a witness to but a key figure in history. They contain memories of how Hughes was chosen as the person to administer the presidential oath and her personal recollections of that day.
Lawrence F. O’Brien, special assistant to the president for Congressional relations, remembered that “Johnson was adamant that the oath be administered by Judge Hughes.” Several people remember Johnson himself calling Hughes. Marie Fehmer Chiarodo, Johnson’s secretary, recounted, “We started looking for Sarah Hughes, and it wasn’t easy.”
Hughes arrived at the airport 10 minutes after receiving the phone call. As she drove, she thought, “I must not think about Kennedy; I must think about the country going on.”
As everyone waited for Hughes to arrive, Lawrence F. O’Brien remembered, “There was a feeling that ‘let’s get out of here as rapidly as we can’ and that feeling was based on the unknown.” Hughes arrived at Air Force One, and soon after Jackie Kennedy arrived with her husband’s blood still on her clothes. Hughes leaned over and said, “I loved your husband very much,” before administering the presidential oath of office to Johnson.
As Hughes swore in Johnson, the iconic photograph was taken. People were standing in that small, crowded plane. They were straining their necks trying to catch a glimpse of the new president and Jackie Kennedy. Emotions of shock and disbelief are seen in their eyes.
As we look at that photograph 50 years later, we now know a little bit more about the woman facing Lyndon B. Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, and the sea of onlookers. The next time you look at an iconic photograph, like this one, I hope you wonder, “Is that an AAUW member?”
This post was written by AAUW Archives Intern Justine Rothbart.