Gender Politics

Seventy-six years after Knox County elected its first female legislator, women are still scarce in local public offices. In an age of changing roles, why are there so few women in the running?

If Anne Davis's beginnings weren't humble, they were still less than auspicious. She was born Dec. 27, 1875 in Louisville, Ky., christened Anne Lovella Patrick May, daughter of William and Annie May. Her father was a local manufacturer; she attended Louisville public schools, then Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

Upon graduation, she met, then married, Willis Perkins Davis of Louisville, a stern-countenanced, prematurely graying gentleman 16 years her senior. Her husband was also an industrialist, and when he accepted a position with the Knoxville Iron Company in 1915, the couple moved from Louisville to a home off Kingston Pike.

One thing they shared was a love of the outdoors; they took frequent excursions to the nearby Appalachian Mountains, muleback camping trips to the wilderness area that would eventually become Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In 1920, the couple and their two daughters, Jane and Barbara, traveled West and visited Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Upon their return, Mrs. Davis reportedly remarked that East Tennessee's own little slice of Appalachia would make for an equally captivating national park, if not moreso. Willis Davis agreed, and made the establishment of one his life's mission until his death in 1931.

Mr. Davis plunged himself into the birthing, meeting with local political and civic leaders, in concert with whom he founded the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association. But despite the efforts of Davis and his like-minded associates, the park effort mired in the political and commercial resistance of the Little River Co., a lumber company that owned thousands of acres in the vicinity of the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

In 1924, a bill to establish a park died on the floor of the state Legislature. In response, Mrs. Davis took decisive action. Later in '24, she declared her intentions to run for the Tennessee General Assembly, a Knox County seat on the Republican ticket. She won, becoming only the third woman elected to the Tennessee House, and the first woman to hold elected office from Knox County.

Davis might well have been dismayed had she seen the future of women in politics, both in Knox County and throughout Tennessee as a whole. According to a 2000 report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C., Tennessee ranks only 43rd among the 50 states in its percentage of women who hold state and national elected office.

But other IWPR statistics also tell a larger story, one not simply of overt discrimination or blatantly chauvinistic voting patterns, but one of disenfranchisement, of social inertia, of institutional and political malaise. The state ranks only 42nd in terms of women's voter registration, 46th in female voter turnout, 21st in the IWPR's measure of "institutional resources available for women."

"I don't think being a woman is a distinct disadvantage, once you're on the ballot," says Dr. William Lyons, professor of political science at the University of Tennessee. "The problems start at the grassroots level. In terms of gaining recognition, women are at a distinct disadvantage, because of long-standing societal roles. And it's therefore difficult for them to be considered as serious candidates, and difficult to raise the money necessary to mount serious campaigns."

Canvass a sample of Knox County women who've held state or local office, and those ground-level impediments are eminently visible: family issues, sexism, credibility gaps that result from a history of underrepresentation. What can be done to address those issues, and to make our local and state governments truly representative of the people they serve, is a question less readily answered.

The biggest obstacle to seeding East Tennessee's first and only national park was the Little River Company, and its daunting request for some $400,000 for its 78,131-acre tract. Mrs. Davis spear-headed and introduced a bill to purchase the land, contingent on its use as the first parcel of a national park. The bill failed, so Davis organized a field trip for the entire Legislature, to afford them the opportunity to survey the picturesque woodlands that critics were calling "stump land."

The politicos were apparently swayed. A telegram from Willis Davis to his wife in Nashville dated April 9, 1925 tells the story: "Congratulations on the passage of your Park Bill. Love, Willis."

When Tennessee Governor Austin Peay signed the bill into law, he used a gold-pointed ostrich-feather pen, which he subsequently bequeathed to Davis. She served the remainder of her term with distinction, introducing further bills concerning education and the welfare of women.

Other Knox County women have served, both locally and statewide, in the ensuing years, but few have had the impact Davis had within that single two-year term.

"In Nashville, especially, women have never held lots of powerful positions," says Sandra Clark, a local publisher who held the state house's 16th district seat from 1972 to 1976. "There are greater numbers [in state Legislature] now, but still very few who hold committee chairs. We're going to have to reach some critical mass, numerically speaking, before that's liable to change."

When Clark took office in '72, she was only one of three female legislators statewide; even today, fewer than 20 of 132 seats are held by women. The numerical inequities are evidenced throughout our local elected offices. Only four of County Commission's 19 members are women, and only two of City Council's nine. And in upcoming Knoxville elections, only two of the 20 candidates who had submitted petitions by mid-April were female.

One of several issues Clark and other women face in establishing a political identity is the hoary albatross of the double standard, the clash inherent in the duality of traditional feminine roles and the qualities of leadership. In that regard, Clark was well-acquainted with perhaps the most successful female figure in local politics since Davis's sole term ended in 1927. A close friend of Clark's family, former teacher Mildred Doyle, a "red-headed softball player," was appointed as Knox County Schools superintendent in 1946 to fill out a predecessor's term. She was elected in the 1948 race, and won every election thereafter until she was defeated by Earl Hoffmeister in 1976, in a contest colored by the fact that Doyle had announced her retirement, then suddenly declared her intention to seek an eighth term.

What separated Doyle from so many other female office-seekers before and since, says Clark, was her understanding of the machinations of politics, of the nuts and bolts of political patronage. "She built one of the most powerful machines in the history of the county," Clark says, with no small admiration. "She was skillful in building alliances, in recruiting and grooming candidates for school board. She chose everybody she hired carefully. She was one of the few women in the state that wielded that kind of power ever."

Clark says Doyle's power allowed her to more-or-less hand-pick most of the school-board members who served during her reign, and even a handful of County Commission spots. Her influence reached all the way to the state Board of Education, such was the strength of her personality.

"She was a rough-and-tumble, rawboned country person," Clark continues. "She was so dominant. You did not go into her office and challenge her."

Such fortitude is a virtue that's been shared by many of the area's most successful female politicians. Knox County Third District commissioner Wanda Moody was one of the most vocal activists in the 1971 mayoral campaign of her friend, the late Bernice O'Connor. O'Connor lost that race to Kyle Testerman ("There was a feeling among potential supporters that 'Knoxville's not ready for a woman mayor'"), but went on to serve three terms on Knoxville City Council. An early watchdog of the infamous Butcher family financial empire, O'Connor stood fast against Randy Tyree's 1981 gubernatorial candidacy in opposition to Lamar Alexander. Tyree was backed by the Butchers, who had also worked to unseat O'Connor.

"She wrote a letter to several officials saying 'If he (Tyree) wins, I'm going to have to leave the state,'" Moody says, chuckling. "She was a dedicated, determined, forthright, no-nonsense individual."

"A woman who runs has to be tougher than a man, more determined. It's that simple," says Anne Woodle, a former school board member. But robust personalities can hinder women as well as help them. And many admit that balancing the roles of a woman with those of a civic leader can seem a bit of a catch-22.

"If a woman steps up and is strong, she's 'bossy.' Or something else," says Patra Rule, whose resume includes an unsuccessful bid for County Commission in addition to her involvement in various civic and homeowners groups. "If a man does the same, he's 'showing leadership.'"

Former Knox County Circuit and General Sessions Court Clerk Lillian Bean, a long-time local officeholder, was tarred as leader of the 'Bean Machine,' in reference to the alleged iron-fisted control she commanded within her circle of employees, courthouse familiars and political associates. And outspoken City-Councilwoman Carlene Malone recalls that many of her not-infrequent stands against the Council's patriarchal hegemony were reported in newspapers the following day in loaded verbiage that her male colleagues were spared.

"The men always 'stated' or 'opined,'" she says. "When it was Mrs. so-and-so, you were more likely to 'complain,' or 'argue.'"

Though overt chauvinism is no longer the malignant societal ailment it may have once been, gender-based double-standards still occasionally devolve to the level of outright sexism. The women quoted in these pages admit that overt gender bias is relatively infrequent. But it happens.

"I've always been generally well-received in my campaigns, but there are still men who say they won't vote for a woman, under any circumstances," says Martha Phillips, county criminal court clerk. "I was only the second [female criminal court clerk], and I had one male associate tell me I was a homemaker working in a clerk's office."

When Jacksonville, Fla. transplant Madeline Rogero announced her candidacy for County Commission in 1990, a notoriously hard-nosed Democratic ward boss walked up to her at a political function, ordered her to leave and cease her candidacy. "He told me to go on home, take the money I'd been raising and go buy myself something. Then he said 'And next time, ask permission.'"

Rogero's response was predictably stern, and she exacted her revenge by defeating her incumbent rival in the election. "He [her opponent] was a nice man," she remembers with a smirk, "but I don't think he took me seriously, either. He introduced me at public events, 'This is my opponent. Isn't she purty?' I just smiled, and went on trying to look as 'purty' as possible."

Malone remembers, with some irritation, an opponent who said of her "She never held down a job." "That made me kind of nuts," says Malone, a veteran of state health departments in both New York and North Carolina. "If I'd been a man, would that statement have been made? I don't know."

And Patra Rule still bristles while recounting the instance when a local newspaper publisher (who shall remain nameless, although he's listed on the masthead of this issue of Metro Pulse) referred to her in print as "a doctor's wife" ("I'm a doctor myself,"—a Ph.D.), and further described her as a "perky blonde."

"None of these characterizations would have been used in reference to a man," Rule posits.

Sexism and the double-standard are attitudinal issues. But some of the greatest hindrances to women's political empowerment relate to the inertia of entrenched societal patterns, of institutions that inevitably evolve in frustrating fits and starts despite more rapid advancement in public attitudes.

"Women start out at a distinct disadvantage, due to their lack of opportunities in times past," says Lyons. "The 'good ol' boys' network certainly plays a role in the entrenchment of white male political dominance. It'll take time for women to rise in the hierarchy. The evolution isn't complete. I see one day having a female governor or U.S. Senator in Tennessee, but I don't see it any time soon."

"Men are more comfortable with men, and men already have established networks," says Malone. "God only knows how many decisions are made in the men's room. And unless I'm very disoriented, I never go in there."

Adds Rule, "Women don't normally belong to the Rotary, to the Lion's Club." Like Malone's and Woodle's, Rule's political voice was hard-earned, commanded by service records with homeowners' and other community activist groups.

All of those who spoke to a reporter for this article seem to agree on the end result of these "networking inequities": For female political candidates, fund-raising is a much more difficult undertaking than for their male counterparts.

"It's harder for women to raise money; I had to work really, really hard," says Woodle. "Women don't have the relationships over time, where they can call people and say 'Help me raise $10,000.'"

Bean and other female candidates report raising money via pot-luck suppers and other grassroots, roll-up-your-sleeves fundraisers, unglamorous efforts that most of the higher-ranking local male politicians rarely sully their hands with.

"Most female office-holders say it's harder to get money to run," says Bean. "We usually had a bit of debt. We would run very, very conservative campaigns."

Perhaps the most tangled issue female candidates must confront is that of familial considerations, a conundrum rendered all the more perplexing by the interplay of all the aforementioned factors: sexism, immutable gender roles, double standards.

The women discussed herein entered the political arena under a variety of circumstances—some spouseless, some childless, some married and parenting, some divorced and parenting...But there are patterns that emerge, and in general, those female candidates with few familial obligations are more likely to succeed politically than their more-rooted sisters. "It's very difficult for the working wife and mother to run, moreso than for the working husband and father," Malone says. "Unless you have a very enlightened husband..."

For younger prospective candidates who have already undertaken motherhood, this often means delaying political involvement until their children are older and relatively self-sufficient. Malone notes, however, that self-sufficiency is often a very broad and abstract concept.

"When I first ran, my husband took over some household responsibilities; he got involved in the kids' back-to-school shopping for the first time, which was quite a sight," Malone sighs. "I was absolutely horrified at some of the power shopping that went on.

"My kids grew up a lot," she continues. "My youngest son was 15 and he had to learn how to do laundry. I came home and he had a loaded basket. I asked 'Do you know how to do that?' He said 'Yeah, first you make it wet, then you make it dry.'"

Divorced women face an even more problematic scenario, struggling as they do with innuendo, public perceptions and expectations of divorced women as well as the litany of household and parenting considerations.

One female politico, who chose to remain nameless, remembers attending a swearing-in ceremony where two of the key male figures had carried on very public extra-marital affairs. "That would certainly have been an issue if those had been women," she says. "There are an awful lot of guys in politics who make no bones about their promiscuity."

Conversely, single or divorced women are often targets of groundless attacks, innuendo and rumor-mongering, assaults on their character rooted in often-spurious claims about their personal lives. The same female politician, a divorcee, recalls that in one campaign, she and a fellow single woman were subjected to a barrage of false accusations. "Alleged affairs, stuff with no basis in fact," she says. "There were countless innuendoes."

There are no easy answers as to how to address those issues that inhibit the full political participation of women in Tennessee. Some rue that many of the problems will only be resolved with time, as societal attitudes continue to evolve and women increasingly are able to bridge the gaps that past social inequities have put between them and their male counterparts.

But there are more tangible means of redress: Woodle is former president of the East Tennessee Women's Political Caucus, an organization that offers programs to women interested in politics, encouraging them both to run for office and work for campaigns. And such is crucial in effecting change more rapidly. Lyons notes that a larger presence of younger female office-holders will further narrow networking gaps, affording future female participants an infrastructure of political, social and moral support.

Malone offers perhaps the most cogent means of promoting a more representative body politic, at least in terms of gender: As family and funding issues are the biggest obstacles to prospective female candidates, higher salaries for elected officials would inevitably encourage more women to seek office.

"Look at City Council, for instance," Malone says. "Council salary is $1,583 per month. What we're paid barely covers daycare. In some cases, the only women who can afford to run for office are either childless or have wealthy husbands."

Willis P. Davis never saw the dedication of the park he fought to establish, as he passed on in 1931 at the age of 72. His wife did, however, attending the christening only a few years after his death. The ceremony was officiated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In the meantime, Anne Davis moved to Gatlinburg, closer to the Park she founded. In that tiny mountain hamlet, she continued to participate in civic affairs, helping found the local garden club, a public library, and remaining active with the League of Women Voters. She died of cancer in 1957, at the age of 82, and was buried in Gatlinburg, says one scribe, "in the shadow of the mountains she so loved."

There's a telling footnote to this story, one perhaps indicative of the progress of women's political emergence, an evolution that surely begins with Anne Davis.

The Davises were honored posthumously for their contributions to the Park's founding, as two significant topological entities were named after them, one for Anne and one for Willis. Husband Willis was commemorated with the christening of Mt. Davis, a nearly mile-high titan between Silers Bald and Thunderhead. Anne, however, saw her name given to a far less imposing conformation, the smaller Davis Ridge, which connects her husband's mighty mountain to the Tennessee/North Carolina border.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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