Mississippi, she reminds, was one of the most relentless foes. As a matter of fact, Mississippi brought up the rear, only ratifying the amendment in 1984, some 65 years after three-fourths of the states had made it a part of the constitution.
Stansell, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, writes that one man in Mississippi had described opposition to women voting thusly: “We are not afraid to maul a black man over the head if he dares vote, but we can’t treat women, even black women that way. No, we’ll allow no woman suffrage.”
Perhaps that negative attitude toward political equality for women expressed back then accounts for Mississippi’s record of never having elected a woman governor or sent a woman to Congress, even as several Deep South neighbors have long ago elected women to those high offices.
Both Louisiana and Arkansas presently have women U.S. Senators. Three years ago, Louisianans were represented by both a woman governor and a woman U.S. Senator. Alabama elected a woman governor back in the 1970’s. South Carolina, which was very much like Mississippi in not electing women to high office, is now on the verge of electing a 40-ish woman as governor in November. She, incidentally, is the daughter of Indian immigrants. Texas long ago has elected women both to the U.S. House and Senate. Notably, in the 1970s, a black woman – Barbara Jordan – was elected for several terms to the U.S. House. She distinguished herself for intellect in the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Since then Texas has elected several black women to the House.
Until 1968, Mississippi barred women from serving on state court juries. But a dramatic moment in the state’s legislative history finally put women on juries. Actually, by changing only one word in a state law made it happen.
It was one of these moments in Mississippi history that I was right there and saw it happen. The state Senate was debating a bill that had to do with how trial jurors are selected. Unobtrusively, a woman senator from Jackson, Jean Muirhead, slipped up to the reading clerk’s desk and dropped a proposed amendment in the hopper. All the amendment did was to strike one word, “male” in the first line of the old state law that said who was qualified for jury service.
Before most members of the Senate realized what had happened, the Senate routinely adopted the amendment by voice vote. Later it dawned on some of the crusty old senators what they had done – removed the language that made men solely qualified to serve on juries and opened the longstanding male province to pesky women. Next day, there was some scurrying around by some oldies to undo the Muirhead amendment. But the die had been cast and there was no backing up. In the months that followed, the male-dominated legal profession begrudgingly admitted that the judicial system had gotten better.
Ironically, when she ran for reelection, Muirhead was defeated by a not-so-bright man.
Politically, the highest office to which Mississippi has elected a woman is lieutenant governor. Evelyn Gandy, who had won three down-ballot state offices, was elected lieutenant governor in 1975. When she tried to move up to the governorship in 1979, she was defeated. Gandy’s second try to win the top job in 1983 also met with defeat.
Amy Tuck, a former state senator, came along to win the No. 2 job as a Democrat in 1999. Four years later, after switching parties she again won the office. Since, Tuck has pretty much disappeared from the state political scene and no other female figure has emerged in either party who would have a ghost of a chance to win high state office.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at email@example.com.