The Political Lives of Mississippi Women, in Black and White

by Ellen Ann Fentress


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The South is still full of women with their dead foremothers’ silver forks and knives. Mine are Old Master, the unintentionally ironic name of the pattern passed down by my female predecessors.

The South also is populated with women bequeathed something sharper and more meaningful—an assumption that an able woman gets out and does her part to make what’s unjust in the South better.

The first type of woman is typically white, the latter typically black. Here’s the truth about black and white women in the South and the type of accumulated wealth that is moral and political: Southern black women have inherited the most crucial, persistent political legacy in the U.S.

Southern white women, of course, have not.   

To be one more white woman taking it upon myself to explain black women is an obnoxious, clichéd, and beloved pastime of my tribe. Yet here’s my trouble as a middle-aged Mississippi white woman: I can’t explain myself without, to some extent, doing so in terms of the lives of other women around me. Privilege lets you opt out of caring. Given a few centuries, that willing removal has hardened into something else for white women: irrelevancy. The politics of white women are fraught. Sometimes the erraticism means a stunted, neglected political life. Then there’s the functioning successful pragmatist, who settles for a one-off voice that’s pleasing and non-threatening to conservative white male ears.

Political lives are passed-down modes of thought, explaining the polarized separate legacies in which Mississippi women, black and white, live out distinct, unequal political lives.

To talk about the two traditions, let’s talk about two women:

Story One: Cindy Hyde-Smith. It’s fitting it took a sequence of greenlights from white male Republican gatekeepers—from President Donald J. Trump to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant—to make the polite, pant-suited former agriculture commissioner the state’s first-ever female in Washington. In March, Mississippi became the 49th state to send a female to the U.S. Senate when Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to finish the unexpired term of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.

 Cindy Hyde-Smith with President Donald J. Trump

Cindy Hyde-Smith with President Donald J. Trump

Hyde-Smith’s November campaign platform is a pledge to stay Trump’s acolyte. She is the only member in the U.S. Senate with a perfect score of voting Trump’s agenda, according to FiveThirtyEight. Her talking points are crowd-pleasers for conservative men: gun and veterans’ rights and, during his confirmation battle, instant loud support for U. S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She’s backed by the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life, and, naturally, Trump. Her first words on the Senate floor were a pro-Kavanaugh speech, tweeting that her podium moment was her duty as Mississippi’s first female in Congress. And a rally for her in Mississippi was where Trump first drew fire for mocking the sexual assault accusation of Christine Blasey Ford. The crowd laughed.

Hyde-Smith would likely agree with her old Jackson colleague who called her “a good old boy in a skirt” when she arrived for her first term in the Mississippi Senate in 2000. She sought a toehold in the male-oriented sphere of agriculture policy, chairing the state Senate committee on the issue, and then winning the state ag commissioner's office. Her distance from female-slanted issues has propelled her, one Democratic female observer said.

“Cindy is talking about cows and cattle,” the watcher said. “She’s not looking at women. That’s how she got to be where she is.” Hyde-Smith attempts to up her score with conservative white males in another way: A frequent campaign photo features a Mississippi state flag draped precisely to show off the Confederate emblem in the top corner.

The only bobble in Hyde-Smith’s hard-right GOP bona fides is that she lacked any until eight years ago. Hyde-Smith, now 59, entered elected life as a Democratic state senator and didn’t turn Republican until 2010, the time when she was weighing her chances of getting elected to the statewide ag office.

Story Two: For attorney Constance Slaughter-Harvey, 72, of Forest, Mississippi, this is also a capstone year. She received the Mississippi Bar Association’s lifetime achievement award at its summer convention. There’s irony in that. At her first state bar meeting in 1970, a white male lawyer scolded her for not wearing a maid’s uniform, assuming that was Slaughter-Harvey’s role. (She boycotted the bar convention for the next 15 years.)

She was the first black female graduate of the University of Mississippi Law School, then went to work with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, litigating milestones like the desegregation of the Mississippi Highway Patrol. Later, she worked in legal services and state posts and achieved another first: appointment as the state’s first African-American female judge. Back in her hometown in 2018, she puts equal energy into teen mentoring and her law practice, both operating at the site of her family’s former grocery store. She’s often dressed in an orange Legacy Education and Community Empowerment Foundation T-shirt along with her students.

This fall, as Hyde-Smith polishes her Senate and Trump-ally credentials, Slaughter-Harvey keeps doing what she thinks needs doing in Mississippi. That includes voter registration. As the midterms approach, she has emphasized to locals, including to the parents and rising 18-year-olds she mentors, that personal empowerment requires registering and turning out to vote.

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Scholars say there are two genders of American females: white and black, differentiated by their lived experiences. The fact is that race wins out over gender in the composition of women’s identity. That reality is on view in Mississippi, with its well-documented extremes, which renders basic U.S. history into crisp big-print form. Unlike their white counterparts, black women live within a cultural tradition of political engagement.

“What you were trying to do was survive and bring our people along with you,” said Slaughter-Harvey. She thrived as she struggled, as did many other black women. Two generations since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mississippi black women run and serve in elected office at a stunningly higher rate than white women.

The longest-serving woman in the Mississippi Legislature is nine-term state Rep. Alyce Clarke, the first African-American female elected to the body when she arrived in 1985.

 The longest-serving woman in the Mississippi Legislature is nine-term state Rep. Alyce Clarke, the first African-American female elected to the body when she arrived in 1985.

The longest-serving woman in the Mississippi Legislature is nine-term state Rep. Alyce Clarke, the first African-American female elected to the body when she arrived in 1985.

“We as black women, I guess, have gone through so much that we think it’s so much more important that we get involved and start some things,” said Clarke.

Clarke’s reflex to get involved dates back decades before she won office (which she did at age 45, three years after learning she had multiple sclerosis). Clarke risked her first job in education by teaching the fundamentals of sex along with baking how-tos to her early 1960s home economics students in the Mississippi Delta. By the 1970s, she was a nutritionist at a rural Hinds County community health center with a caseload of struggling mothers and anemic babies. (Her clinic desk sat up outdoors near a feed house, while a dentist worked inside). She buttonholed politicians and bureaucrats until the previously unwilling governor’s office brought in the federal Women, Infants and Children food program, supplying needy Mississippi mothers cheese and milk straight from county warehouses. She was a leading architect of drug courts to steer offenders to treatment instead of jail. She fought for school breakfasts, too. At age 75, she filmed a national ad for the Human Rights Campaign. The mother of a gay son, she voiced the case for the necessity for LGBT equality based on her personal Christian principles.

Clarke also founded a Women’s Caucus in the Mississippi House in the 1990s, a biracial, bipartisan coalition. But it fizzled after a year or so.

“There were some women, it appeared, who were afraid to be a member,” Clarke recalled. The white women, to be precise. The white dropouts feared the optics of banding together as women would alienate the men around them. “They thought they wouldn’t vote for them if they were part of the caucus,” said Clarke. “I’d say, ‘You are a woman, aren’t you?’”

Another fact: Clarke had been at the Capitol for three years before she realized she’d been shut out of her white colleagues’ restroom. Due to an overheard remark, she discovered the white female House members had a private bathroom near the House floor that they did not share with her. Then-House Speaker C.B. Newman had discreetly supplied keys only to the white women.

“I’d been there all that time. Nobody said anything to me that they had a bathroom on the second floor that they were going to,” she said. “It just really hurt me to the core to find out.”

***

As the potency of black women sinks into the nation’s consciousness, confirmation of it is already visible on Mississippi’s roster of elected officials. By most measures, numbers of black women in Mississippi holding elected office outstrips white women. Twice as many black women serve in the state House of Representatives: 11 black women to six white. Among female county supervisors, 10 are black and six white. Of the 39 women state court judges, 19 are black, nearly 50 percent. Of the state’s 56 female mayors, 23 — or 41 percent — are black, a disproportionately high number given the state’s 37 percent black population.

“Black women in the South have definitely had the opportunity to step off the sidelines and run and represent constituencies that were ready for their leadership and saw them as strong voices for their concerns and looked like them, talked like them, understood them and that definitely put those numbers out there,” said Kimberly Peeler Allen of Higher Heights, a national organization supporting black women’s candidacies.

Yet there is a ceiling and an unfair paradox. Despite black women’s greater numbers in city, county and multi-county offices, no black woman has yet been elected at the statewide level, with its white-majority voter margins. It’s here where white conservative women perpetually continue to hold the winning card. Though relatively fewer white women serve in lower office, being white has been the only proven route so far for a woman to gain statewide office. In the current term, Hyde-Smith and fellow white Republican state Treasurer Lynn Fitch won statewide posts. Fitch, running for attorney general next year, strategically extended her hard-line brand by heading the state’s Women for Trump organization in 2016.

White women aim high, Slaughter-Harvey said wryly. “They don’t shoot for small-time positions. They shoot for the stars.” Black women are likely to build their political capital over time through community contributions. That was Alyce Clarke’s route.

In contrast, white Republican women have the possibility of benefiting from a buy-in by the male Republican political establishment. Hyde-Smith became the ultimate beneficiary of that type of springboard. The state Capitol’s Republican legislative caucus is home base to all but one of the 12 white women holding office there.

Hyde-Smith’s path isn’t a possibility for a black woman in Mississippi, Slaughter-Harvey said.

“She played the part and managed to get to be a so-called darling, and now she’s in the Senate,” Slaughter-Harvey said. “You don’t have black women having that kind of assets. We have to stay a while here and do this and do that, and let them know we’re capable, or we’re a force to be reckoned with, and then perhaps you might get okay.”

History and life experience go into the black-white gender divide at the Mississippi Capitol.

“Most of the black women who are in the Legislature are women who have had a hard row to hoe, but it’s not that way with the white ladies that are there. They’ve always had it pretty easy, whereas we have had to work hard for everything along the way that we’ve been able to obtain,” said Clarke. She doesn’t sugarcoat in terms of her political experience with white women. “There are very few white women who work openly for me.” With a tart smile, she added, “I have a couple of white friends. A couple. I’m saying two. There are probably more than two, but there are very few.”   

Many white Mississippi women don’t politic for anyone. White women lack the legacy of public engagement that Mississippi black women can draw from. It’s no exaggeration to say that over generations, a model of U.S. history can be built through the causes of Deep South black women. For slavery and the pathological economic system it made possible, there was Harriet Jacobs. For lynching, Ida Wells. Fannie Lou Hamer became the moral prophet of thwarted black suffrage. Mamie Till Mobley, Rosa Parks, Myrlie Evers, and Unita Blackwell resisted the deadly toll of white supremacy in all its iterations, along with thousands more. During the Civil Rights Movement, it was frequently said females could speak and act in powerful public ways that would have gotten a counterpart male activist killed.

Scholar Paula Giddings argues the legacy of black women and political reform needs to be understood as a unified historic force. Seeing Wells, Parks, and Hamer solely on individual terms, though inspiring, takes away the cumulative power of the lineage of black women’s activism.

This is 2018, and racial casting isn’t ironclad in Mississippi, of course, any more than anywhere else. In Jackson, there are apolitical black stay-at-home moms whose children attend private school. There are white women, straight and gay, who eat and breathe liberal politics, racial reconciliation, and cheer on the latest rumors of Robert Mueller’s progress. Yet black and white countertypes are exceptions who prove the rule.

Vicki Slater is a progressive white Jackson attorney who made a well-financed, well-staffed run for governor in 2015. The magnitude of her face plant astounded even veteran state political junkies. Slater was the assumed Goliath in her Democratic primary. Pundits expected her real challenge to come in the general election against the heavily favored Republican incumbent, Bryant. But she never made it there. Slater was primaried by Robert Gray, an unknown African American long-haul truck driver who had neither campaigned, spent a penny nor even told his mother, with whom he lived, that he’d put his name on the ballot. Despite his invisibility, Gray took 50.8 percent of the vote, eclipsing Slater in 79 of 82 counties. Various theories explained her loss, including misogyny, mischief by state Republicans, black voters’ loyalty to a black candidate even absent a campaign, or possibly the benefits of a last name starting with G not S.

What was clear to Slater, however, were the remarkably undeveloped political lives of some white women vis-a-vis the black women she worked with.  

“Black women are the savviest voters. They are extremely experienced in civic life, and white women are not,” she said. White women would approach Slater to quietly say she had their vote—a fact they intended to keep secret from their Republican husbands.

“I never had a black woman do that,” she said. “Black women taught me everything. They know how to talk to voters. They know how to turn voters out.”

Pam Johnson, a legislative campaign consultant, can’t forget what she witnessed as a poll watcher in 2011 in north Mississippi. A white couple in worn clothes shuffled into the rural precinct.

“I came to vote her,” announced the husband, proceeding to direct his wife to the voting machine. At every voting station in the precinct, Johnson saw a white husband standing alongside a white wife as she voted. Johnson objected to the violation of the women’s privacy. The precinct workers shrugged. That’s simply how it was done.

Urban affluence, not just rural isolation, can wall off white women from developing their political lives, said Slater.

“The more privileged, the more powerful the man in her life, in a way, the more diminished she is,” Slater said.

Financial security can numb black women’s political urgency, too, Slaughter-Harvey said. “My concern now is that there are so many young black women who are coming along who are content and who see no need to struggle because they have received their degrees and they have a nice car and a nice home and are satisfied.”

But still. Not long ago, I heard a report that rang true from a friend who’d mingled with young Mississippi college women at a recent political conference. The students were smart and energetic, yet my friend took pause. Ask the young black women why they were attending, and they would light up, specifying their passion for an issue—often public education or fair policing. The young white women, though engaging, didn’t talk in terms of a particular issue. If asked, almost all explained they were attending because the event was a plus for their resumes. A few said the program was a bulk-up for their upcoming law school applications. In other words, it was about propelling themselves, not about any deeply felt public concern.

A white friend of mine recently invited me to take bridge lessons with her. “After all, we’re going to need something to do in the nursing home.” She meant it at least half seriously. Coincidentally, St. Catherine’s Village, the senior facility in Madison which is the final home of many white Mississippi women who can manage its stout entry fee—bridge is played there—is a stop on Hyde-Smith’s October road tour. She named her campaign bus (formerly Shania Twain’s tour bus) the MAGA Wagon, one more signal that our state’s first female U.S. senator stands for the agenda of a more powerful man.

Meanwhile, Constance Slaughter-Harvey continues to work, mentoring and wisecracking out of the same Scott County property where she grew up. She took yoga in Forest with a room of local white women for a time. She got the hang of it, quit, and now teaches yoga to the children in her summer camp and her middle school girls’ program. For Slaughter-Harvey, staying a perpetual yoga class dilettante wasn’t a fit, nor is the concept of a life without meaty commitment.

“I was raised that if you didn’t help others, you were wasting space,” she said. “I guess if I were not black, I’m not sure what I would do with myself. Who knows? But the fact is I felt that we’ve been behind the eight-ball for so long, that it’s time for us now to advance, and I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made.”

She leaned back in her seat in her law office. She wore pearl earrings and her orange Legacy T-shirt. Its logo was a line drawing of a pair of lifted palms releasing a footprint to float skyward.

“If all I did was lay back and be cool and eat grapes and cheese and drink wine, I’d be damn crazy,” Slaughter-Harvey said.

Black women’s public engagement is nothing new—it’s just that for white Southern women like me, it’s unsettling to look sideways. In parallel, we see what our own lives are not.