Richards attended Girls State and won the state debate championship her senior year at Waco High School. She graduated from Baylor University and taught social studies at Fulmore Junior High in Austin while her husband attended law school. Before being elected Travis County commissioner, Richards served as an administrative assistant to U. S. Representative Sarah Weddington. Richards was the first woman elected state treasurer in Texas and the first woman to win a statewide election since Miriam Ferguson.
As governor, Richards led the reform of the Texas prison system, established a substance abuse program for prisoners, reduced the number of violent offenders released, and increased prison space. The Texas Lottery was also instituted during her term. She was defeated by George W. Bush in 1994.