By Janice Marsh
In the annals of history, 1960 was the beginning of a decade; in the context of history, 1960 was the beginning of an era. Universities, professions across the spectrum, civic organizations, unions, political organizations and even the Civil Rights Movement itself, were not only dominated by men, but also widely accepted as the exclusive domain of men. Women were either excluded or relegated to “auxiliary” roles in those institutions.
It was against that backdrop, during a time when Huntsville was growing by leaps and bounds, as young families from across the country were relocating to Madison County, Alabama to advance the U.S. Space Program, that 13 women came together and formed the Madison County Democratic Women’s Division (MCDWD) in 1961. To underscore their belief in higher education as the path to success and Public Service as an aspiration to pursue, MCDWD established the JFK Scholarship as a tribute to President John F. Kennedy. It has been awarded annually since May 1964, just six months after his assassination, to a college-bound Madison County high school senior who plans to pursue a career in the fields of public policy, political science, government, or law.
Building upon the historic right to suffrage their mothers’ generation had achieved just 40 years before, MCDWD was just one manifestation of what young women were doing across the country. As women claimed their individual identities, they gained access to institutions of higher learning as never seen during the 185 years after the American Colonies declared their independence from Britain. By the end of the decade, women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, representing a variety of professions not previously available to, let alone pursued by, women.
Among the fields women entered was Public Service. The civil rights movement of the 60’s unleashed the women’s rights movement of the 70’s. The first crack in the MC political ceiling appeared in 1969, when MCDWD member Daisy Culps was appointed to succeed her late husband as MC Tax Collector. She was subsequently elected to her first full term in 1972, and a second in 1978. In 1971, Myrtle Green was the first woman MC Probate Judge and second MCDWD member to occupy a public office. Like Daisy, she first entered the office by appointment and was subsequently elected and re-elected until her retirement in 1983. Jane Mabry, elected to the Huntsville City Council in 1974, is often incorrectly cited as the first woman elected to public office in MC, perhaps because she was elected outright, without the advantage of incumbency held by Daisy and Myrtle. The fact that women of Madison County were first elected to public office not only during our lifetime, but also within 10 years of forming a women’s organization dedicated to politics, reflects the historic significance of women entering the public arena!
By the end of the 70’s, for the first time in U.S. history, more than half of adult women across the country held jobs outside the home. One of those women was MCDWD member, Martha Miller. In 1980, she became the first woman elected to the Huntsville City School Board (HCSB), having successfully overcome her opponent’s ill-fated campaign strategy of characterizing her as “just a housewife”. Miller opened the school board door for women, three of whom are MCDWD members: Ann Fee in 1992, followed by Laurie McCaulley in 2008. McCaulley’s election was historic on two levels. She was not only the first black woman elected to the HCSB; she was the first elected to any Huntsville City municipal office. Michelle Watkins succeeded her in 2016.
By the 80’s & 90’s, women who entered the legal profession during the 60’s & 70’s had accrued years of experience and acquired considerable expertise practicing law. Members of MCDWD knew it was time to widen the crack, this time in the Alabama Judiciary. It began in 1981, when member, Jeri Blankenship, became the first woman appointed to serve on the Madison County District Court bench and subsequently, in 1987, the first woman appointed to the Circuit Court. By the end of the 90’s, five of our members had entered the judiciary! Two of them, current members Hon. Laura Jo Hamilton and Hon. Lynn Sherrod, distinguished themselves as “firsts” in their own right. In 1990, Judge Hamilton became the first woman to enter the Judiciary outright, by countywide election to the District Court. In 1999, she was appointed to serve on the Circuit Court. Also in 1999, Judge Sherrod, having previously served as Huntsville’s City Judge and Presiding Municipal Court Judge, became the first black woman to serve as a District Court Judge in Madison County. All of our Democratic women were elected in countywide elections following appointments to the bench.
Other members were elected to a variety of MC offices and to the state Board of Education. At one time we had two members serving together in the Alabama House of Representatives. Current member and retired educator, Laura Hall, was first elected to the State House in 1993, becoming the first woman to represent State House District 19. Her success is evidenced by her re-election to the position for 7 consecutive 4-year terms! She was also the first black woman to join the 13-member Madison County state legislative delegation. In 1998, Sue Schmitz who served until 2009 joined her.
Throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, our organization was the first stop for candidates seeking elective office. During that time, judges, lawyers, public officials and candidates for public office, attended our monthly luncheons. All knew that MCDWD was the driving force behind MC elections. We registered voters, organized fundraisers, made phone calls, placed yard signs and hosted candidate forums. There was some concern, certainly, during the 90’s that we were spending too much time supporting male candidates and needed to do more to get women elected. But as we chipped away at the political gender barrier, our organization continued to grow, both in membership and political influence.
In 1995, as women across the country celebrated the 75th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, MCDWD celebrated the election of member, Jennie Blair, as Chair of the Madison County Democratic Executive Committee, the first woman to occupy that position in its history. Having successfully challenged the 16-year male incumbent, her election was an historical breakthrough for women in the MC Democratic Party.
Throughout the 90’s, MCDWD hosted a highly regarded “Candidates’ Night” during election years. In 1994, 14 candidates attended the event. By then, however, winners of Democratic primaries were no longer the presumptive office holders in Alabama. By the end of the 90’s, Democratic candidates faced stiff opposition from Republican candidates. The 1998 election of Don Siegelman, the 51st Governor of Alabama, and the election of Nancy Worley, as the first MCDWD member to serve as Secretary of State, breathed new life into the Democratic Party, albeit short lived.
As we entered the 21st century, MCDWD faced new challenges. Having substantially overcome the gender barrier of pre-1960’s politics, MCDWD took on the challenge of maintaining relevance in a state whose citizens were abandoning the Democratic Party in droves. In the 2010-midterm elections, the Republican Party gained control of the Alabama Legislature for the first time in its 136-year history. Many Democrats sought public office in the 2014-midterm elections, when most state officials are elected; but by then, constituents asked why our candidates were running as Democrats, instead of what they sought to accomplish! Unfortunately, few achieved success, as the GOP won a super majority for the first time in state history!
By 2016, within 6 years of having gained control of all three branches of state government, a cloud of hypocrisy formed over the professed party of “personal responsibility”. Three top tier Republican officials, all male, became mired in legal disputes: The Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court was permanently suspended; the state Speaker of the House was sentenced to prison for corruption, and impeachment proceedings were initiated against the Governor.
When the most unorthodox U.S. Presidential candidate in our lifetimes signaled his intentions to reverse the rights women had worked so hard during the 70’s to achieve, women across the country were awakened from a deep slumber. The Democratic women of Madison and adjacent counties were no exception. MCDWD, the only Democratic women’s organization to have survived Alabama’s shift to the GOP over the past 50 years, grew steadily in 2016. By the November meeting, five days before the general election, 86 new members had joined. We lightheartedly referred to ourselves as “adorables”. We confidently anticipated the election of the first woman President in US history.
Following the shocking defeat of Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominated by either of the two major political parties and, arguably, the most highly qualified US Presidential candidate in history, MCDWD membership soared. A record-setting 101 new members joined MCDWD between Dec 2016 – Mar 2017!
Members of the MCDWD share the apprehension of US citizens who cast the 2.8 million majority popular votes for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. We have accepted the outcome, as appalling as it was, as an unforeseen opportunity to bring more progressive women out of the shadows and into public office, to represent our values, protect our rights and solve problems at all levels of government. If we have learned anything during the past 50+ years, and as witnessed across the globe on January 21, 2017, when 500,000 women converged on Washington, DC, don’t ever underestimate the resolve of women!
The young women elected during the 70’s – 90’s are no longer young; but their support of MCDWD values remains steadfast. We welcome the talented and ambitious women of 2017 into the fold. The 2016 election was a stark reminder that although women have made great progress in the past 50 years, there is much work that remains to be done.
We accept the challenge and pledge to build upon the reputation MCDWD gained in the 20th century, as a model women’s political organization, not only for the 2018 elections, but for the next 50+ years. We will strive to fulfill the vision of our forefathers, as set out in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”