100th anniversary of women’s vote celebrated

By HASKEL BURNS,

It was just one hundred years ago – an entire 130 years after America’s first presidential election was held, where only white men who owned property were allowed to vote – that an amendment to the U.S. Constitution was introduced to give women the right to vote.

In celebration of that occasion – May 21, 1919, when Representative James R. Mann of Illinois proposed the 19th Amendment – city and other local officials came together Tuesday at the 19th Amendment Celebration Luncheon, held at the Hattiesburg Train Depot in downtown. The event, which was part of this year’s FestivalSouth lineup, was sponsored by the City of Hattiesburg 19th Amendment Committee and Forrest General Hospital Spirit of Women.

“We wanted to be sensitive and aware that there were other segments of people and women who were not able to vote, even 100 years ago,” said Stacy Ahua, who serves as luncheon chair for the 19th Amendment Committee. “We won’t be here for the next hundred years to celebrate, so I think this is a milestone in our country, and it’s something that we thought was really important.

“Looking at the way women are represented in every aspect of our community – that starts with having basic rights, and things like voting really pushed women into that realm. So we wanted it to be something that was reflective of all of that, to show a lot of progress that’s been made, and to give everyone a chance to be here and learn a little bit more together.”

The event began with a welcome by WHPM-TV Regional News Director Randy Swan and his wife, Millie, who serves as chief marketing and medical staff services officer at Forrest General Hospital. That was followed by an invocation from the Reverend Susan Hrostowski, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi and vicar at St. Elizabeth Episcopal Church.

Ward 4 Councilwoman Mary Dryden and retired colonel Sheila Varnado, who has held roles at R3SM and the United Way of Southeast Mississippi, took the opportunity to give a brief historical overview of the women’s suffrage movement.

“As John Quincy Adams left home to draw up the U.S. Constitution in 1776, Abigail Adams told him, ‘Don’t forget the women,’” Dryden said. “He laughed – the man who later became president thought women, Native Americans and African Americans were not equal to men.

“Ironically, his wife was his most trusted advisor throughout his career, and some called her Mrs. President.”

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam introduced keynote speaker Jennifer Ingram Johnson, a Hattiesburg attorney who is president-elect of the Mississippi Bar Association for 2020-2021. Johnson told a few stories of her time with former Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Gandy, who served as a mentor to Johnson for several years.

Gandy, who was born in Hattiesburg and graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi, earned the distinction of being the first woman to be elected to a Mississippi statewide office in 1960, when she started her first term as state treasurer. She was later elected insurance commissioner before serving as the state’s 26th lieutenant governor from 1976-1980.

She studied law at the University of Mississippi School of Law in Oxford, where she was the only woman in her 1943 law class and won the state oratorical contest. She also was the first woman editor of the Mississippi Law Journal and the first woman to be elected president of the law school student body.

“The first time I met Evelyn Gandy was when I went to visit my father on the Mississippi Sentate floor back in 1976, when she was lieutenant governor, and she took me under her wing from that day forward,” said Johnson, who is the daughter of former state senator Carroll H. Ingram. “She encouraged me to become a strong woman, because she wanted me to be a leader.

“At the time she was lieutenant governor, there were no women in the Senate – she led all men from the front of the room, and she did it with grace and poise. When I was in high school in ninth grade in Mississippi History class, Evelyn Gandy had all of five sentences in our history book – what a shame, because Evelyn Gandy is a giant in the history of Mississippi politics and Mississippi women.”

Seven women were mentioned as honorees at the event for the roles they played in their organizations and the Greater Hattiesburg area: Beam, Helen Heidelberg Cullefer, Marian Dulaney Fortner, Hrostowski, Jan Moore, Oseola McCarty and Iola Williams.

And because the 19th Amendment wasn’t actually ratified until a year after it was presented – on August 26, 1920 – the City of Hattiesburg 19th Amendment Committee has put together a year’s worth of events dealing with women’s suffrage. The lineup begins in August with a “Gracie for President” reading at Hattiesburg-area schools and concludes in August 202 with the 19th Amendment Close Out Celebration.

The full lineup of events will be announced in the near future.

“Back 100 years ago, it took a full year from when the Senate passed the 19th Amendment to when enough states ratified it to become the law of the land,” said Hattiesburg attorney Anna Rush, chair of the 19th Amendment Committee. “So we’re going to keep this party rolling until August of 2020.

“It’s not just about the right to vote – it’s really a celebration of women. It’s a lot of education and awareness, and we also don’t need to forget that the passage of the 19th Amendment didn’t give all persons and women the right to vote – there were still acts of Congress that had to be passed to really open up the right to vote (to everyone).”

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